Friday, May 26. 2006
that's frenglish for "tasting." i learned from our chuckling french teacher that you can't turn it directly into the adjective "tasty", because then it means "disgusting," which it seems like it ought to in the first place. we had our last lesson today (snif), and she sent us away with a crammed lesson on the subjunctive verb form (does english even have that?) and lots of good wishes. we'll miss her, but as she left it felt like school was over for the summer. a little reminder of one of the best feelings anyone can know.
this evening avignon celebrated "the summer of vines and wine" in the main square. two euros gets you a little tasting glass and you can have at the 20 or 30 (lost count!) local winemaker's stands. an additional euro and you get a little wine-glass-holding contraption that strings around your neck like elderly/diner waitress eyeglass thing. missy opted for it, of course. they had a guy making wine barrels, sample vines of different varieties on display, and some stands of other local procuce like olive oil that were widely ignored.
we got to sample tons of different producers. all from around here, so to my novice palette a lot of it tasted very similar. it got fun to chat them up and ask about the different things they had and how they compared. it seemed like most of the people attending had american accents, so i think they were happy to have someone speak french to them. we bought a couple bottles of good stuff to enjoy before we head home.
we ordered a little food item to share from one of the vendors. we thought was going to be quail, but it turned out to be a spinach and paté loaf of some kind (in the shape of a quail?). that was doubly ok, because it was delicious and with the intense winds it ended up flying after all, into some american lady's lap. har har. we apologized in french.
astute readers will remember that one of the first things we attended here was a wine celebration in the main square for the new wine. so it was nice to wrap things up that way too. normal readers will recoil at how pretentious the whole thing sounds. yeah, we do too. one of the neat things about travelling is that you get carte blanche to ignore your own stupid prejudices and enjoy what you want without noticing as much what it looks like.
then i cooked boeuf bourguignon and at midnight it was ready and tasted not so bad. seth's easy french omni-recipe: brown/sautée any kind of meat and veggies in bacon fat (with the bacon). add a whole bottle of red wine. simmer for four hours. that's the 80% solution, and it's just fine to get you started. i'd be tempted to say there's nothing to this cooking thing, but the choco chip cookies i made the night before are terrible. actually, that's exactly what i said as i was making them. sigh.
Friday, April 28. 2006
some people don't like to eat animals that are cute. that's backwards. i don't want to eat anything ugly. lobsters and mussels may taste good, but they're not appetizing. fish is kind of on the edge. thanks to france, the line between friend and food is eroding. boar, bunny, and lamb are common on the table. since the words are the same for the food and the thing walking around (not like beef vs. cow), when i see something furry i start thinking about eating it. i start checking out the legs for meat.
the "cute" thing points to having established a bond with the dish. "i can't eat it, i just pet it." somehow there's a difference in utility. but i want a relationship with my food too. what's more intimate than eating something? and mammals are easier to relate to than e.g. fish. "thanks. i appreciate you." chomp chomp.
i don't like abstracting food away from the source. aside from losing some pleasure in understanding and appreciating what you're eating, it opens up lots of opportunity for food abuse. if you won't look under the covers, people will take advantage of that and put any number of horrible things in. transparency is good for food and government and just about everything else.
related: i had a sausage last week that had big bits of tripe and other things in it. weird enough to make me look up what was really in it. can't say it didn't make me a little nauseous afterwards, but it's my responsibility when eating to know what i'm eating. but this is a good counterexample: all the bits and pieces of the animal are just fine with me. use the whole critter. waste is a sin. better you and me eating it than it gets ground up and fed to chickens, who get ground up and fed back to pigs, which is how farmers get around the restriction that you can't feed ground up animals to themselves or they get BSE. (anything can get solved with one more level of indirection, after all.)
of course it's hypocritical of me. i'm not a big enough person to work for a year in a slaughterhouse. living in a rural virginia turkey town turned me off of chicken for a long time. the death wasn't the problem for me (carrots scream when you pull them out of the ground, you know), just the horrible conditions. so like anything there's no solid ethical high rock to stand on, but shades of your legs being wet. life creates destruction as a byproduct. that is an inescapable consequence of the second law of thermodynamics. to be alive is to kill something else. so for me it's about being as aware as i can be of what i'm doing.
why not be vegetarian? related discussion topic: the difference between kiling me and a killing a carrot. contexts include: self, family, friends, community, humanity, earth, universe.
Monday, March 20. 2006
dipping candles and cheese fondue got me thinking about cooking. what kind of food could you make by gradual layered accumulation? related: sedementary food (flaky pastry, lasagne, spanikopita, butterfingers...). what about other processes of nature? sous vide is the hip thing these days, where it's not getting outlawed. that's enough like the formation of petroleum to make me want more parallels.
artistically, it's appealing to me, since simulating and highlighting neat nature things is what i'm about. it's an added conceptual level to great cooking. "we're having a cretaceous meal tonight, honey." "mm, bronto-burgers à la tar pit!" "the plating is excellent. the sesame seeds represent the rebirth of plant life post-comet-impact-winter, and the chicken nuggets remind us how low reptilian derivatives fall in the food chain."
metamorphic, porphorytic, igneous food. candy is the obvious branch for weird food science experimentation. too easy. we were watching an iron chef america episode last week (awful show, don't bother) where mario batali was battling some guy who must have been a plant from the processed foods lobby. his specialty was using all the weird chemical additives you can't pronounce that are in foods you shouldn't be eating because the ingredients lists are bigger than your palm. along with border cases like carrageen, he used some odd amino acid to weld together the molecules of mashed fish paste to eventually produce noodles made completely out of fish. that's disgusting, but curious. i'm sure there's more traditional ways to approach the subject. anyway, it got me thinking...
Monday, March 20. 2006
miss and i were wandering around early friday evening, hungry as usual. places were just opening up for dinner at seven. we decide to scout out the other fondue place to see which might be better for future guests. (great excuse)
we decide to get the meat/oil kind since the full-on cheese was too much last time. after it arrives we start skewering the meat nuggets and dunking them in the pot of hot oil to fry. then to the choice of sauce and finally mouth for the win. the waiter comes over shortly and asks us if we understand the system. sure. what's not to get? dunk, dip, nosh. he shrugs and leaves. until i accidentally sear my lip for the third time on the hot metal i didn't quite get why he bothered to ask. i get miss to snoop on the other customers (she always gets the seat against the wall) and sure enough we're missing the crucial step of taking the meat off the red hot skewer before eating it with cool knife and fork. good on ya, college boy.
so really it works out to be a lot of labor and a whole lot of fat from the oil and the five different mayonnaises and the fries, even cut with wine. i feel ill for the next five hours and dream about fruit and fresh vegetables that night. i don't have the stomach for fondue (ok, dessert fondue is ok!) it's a great concept and fun to do as long as it's not about a meal. maybe i'd be better as an apprentice candlemaker.
Saturday, March 4. 2006
we've been eating pretty well here, whether from our own slowly developing culinary skills or from eating out, despite a few bumps in the road to our stomach. thanks to all, by the way, who have contributed recipes. i've made quite a few of them and they've made us happy and full.
now that the weather is getting warmer, all the cream and butter, bread and chocolate, wine and undercooked meat that are so beloved by the french (and now us) are starting to feel heavy. all the mental and physical sluggishness of winter needs to be sloughed off. the crocus bulbs that i planted in a window box when we arrived are beginning to bloom. they say, "the spirit is in need of renewal!" in their flower language. they urge me to clarify and purify. and they push a radical diet transformation. they tell me that we'll call it the 10 day cleanse. no dairy, no wheat, no sugar, no meat, no caffeine, no alcohol. add some daily yoga and meditation, candle-lit essential oil baths, and a massage from the significant other and we have a diy home spa retreat, "nestled in the south of france." hurry! for a limited time only!
i was vegetarian for a couple years in high school, having gotten bitten by the animal rights bug. then dropped the stringency and started eating chicken and fish occasionally, and this pseudo-vegetarian diet was with me for almost a decade, that is, until i met seth. i won't blame him wholly; it was about the same time that many of my previously vegetarian and pseudo-vegetarian friends started reverting back to omnivores (ironically, about the same time we moved to portland, one of the most vegetarian friendly places in the western world). i will say that having never been a vegetarian, seth didn't attach any special importance to eating a steak or italian sausage. it was natural to him, guilt-free. it might sound strange, but having only dated the vegetal variety, being so comfortable around someone who is so comfortable about eating meat, naturally transformed me in into a meat eater once again.
i'm now on my fourth day of my cleanse and my diet has thus far included: cooked buckwheat, pumpernickel bread, spelt almond and sesame cookies, kasha pasta with mediterranean galettes vegetal (flat vegetable and whole grain cakes) and olive tomato sauce, apple and prune compote, pears, strawberries, pineapple juice, rice milk, hazlenut & almond rice dessert, tofu and pepper stir fry with brown rice, chickpea and tomato curry with red rice, herbed spinach with carrots, green vegetable soup, rye crackers and rice cakes with curried vegetable pate, herbal teas, and lots of filtered water.
some of these things were bought at the local health food stores and organic co-op. i was happy to find out that they exist here too, in almost the same configuration as they do in the states, and with almost the same patrons. now, one doesn't need a natural foods store to do a cleanse. you can be even more basic about it - just fruit and vegetables and whole rice. you can make it about eating humbly. or you can eat all raw food, or go a step further and do a juice fast. the idea for me was to invert my ordinary dietary patterns, thus altering my daily choices and considering ones that i take for granted.
so far i'm keeping the cravings under control; my self-discipline is intact. but i'm curious as to when exactly i'm going to begin dreaming of cheese wheels and baguettes.
Wednesday, March 1. 2006
i had three yoghurts today. everything dairy is so great here. except, for me, the milk. it's way more MILK than i'm used to, and i got out of the habit of drinking milk a while ago. i'm sure it's the same quality that makes butter, cheese, cream, and yoghurt so good.
yoghurt ("yaourt!") is more obviously a cream derivative here. you can get them that are still pretty much clotted cream. not as hard and jello-like as in the US. and new strange yummy flavors! nectarine and apricot are my favorites. also fig, nuts and grain, and the usuals.
there's cream and custard desserts, and yoghurt leans in this direction too, probably trying to be the healthy alternative or something. one of the ones i had today was chocolate truffle yoghurt. a little too weird for miss.
but she goes right for the chocolate milk. "cacolac" doesn't exactly ring my salivation bell, but it's serious chocolate and serious milk, so miss was plenty happy. i guess it translates to lake of chocolate. so it was each to their own for dessert tonight.
Thursday, December 15. 2005
there are some things that i really miss about america right now, and they all belong in the stomach. yesterday, feeling a lack of good food in my life, i went to the super sized hypermarché to buy some harder to find groceries. i know that i shouldn't expect much from prepackaged sauces and food kits from the ethnic isle, but tonight for dinner i made the "cantonese style stir-fried rice mix" and it was so salty and flavorless i almost cried. not exaggerating there. i'm trying to salvage my tastebuds now with some baguette, cheese, and sauccisson sec, but i fear they may be too far gone for tonight so i will drink some vanilla coke that i've been stowing and finish off the meal with something predictably, trashily, good.
of course i should not be looking at grocery store isles for amazing food, but at produce stands and boucheries and my own imagination. but as of late i've been culinarily uninspired and the meals that i've attempted have been disappointing. and our kitchen is difficult to work in. we went down from a sad three square feet of counter space in portland to oh-so-very-very sad one square foot, so when cooking i often have to put things on the floor and the aforementioned echoey apartment acoustics when i do this, or any cooking activity for that matter, produce a jarring clatter that insures an unrelaxing cooking experience. we only have two burners that are very close together, and the bigger of them doesn't heat up as much as it should and we have a toaster oven instead of a regular oven. so while it seems that we got a bad deal somewhere, in actuality all of the places we looked at had measly kitchens, most even more so. for a supposed land of food, apartment dwellers aren't given much to work with.
this food homesickness, while usually low-grade, is exacerbated right now by seth's absence. he is in san francisco right now getting his visa and eating. he has been relaying tales to me of all the wonderful food there, with pavlovian effect.
when we've eaten out here we've had some good food sometimes, but not with the success ratio as say, portland dining. and portland is not necessarily a culinary capitol. but i'm realizing what makes american food so great is that the best of it isn't american. burritos and udon, green curry and chicken tandori, ethiopian stews and pho. i miss all of this so much and you just can't get it here. what you can get is moroccan food, which has been our favorite meal so far. but the asian restaurants have been, well, weird asian hybrids: thai curry with chinese vegetables and vietnamese shrimp chips. these cuisines are so good on their own, but it doesn't follow that they'd be good all melangé.
and then there's breakfast. i know, i've mentioned it, but i love big breakfasts and the french just don't understand. seth and i went to aix-en-provence the day before he left, and my lonely planet revealed that there was brunch at one of the restaurants. i was so happy because the only brunch in avignon is 55 euros. but then we got there and it was 28 euros which is just really hard to justify spending, especially since only one of us is a brunch hound, but then again we used to go to breakfast nearly every sunday, so if you add all that up.... okay, so instead we had some italian for lunch, provencal for dinner, and during both seth ended up with the better meal. and the next day i awoke, hours after seth left to catch his flight, and went to have a breakfast. saw a sign advertising brunch for 9.50 euros. finally. but it was an otherwise traditional french breakfast - bread, butter, jam, coffee or cocoa, and juice - with the addition of a savory part that filled a hot-out-of-the oven ceramic dish: two runny dippy eggs, one broken, and two big fatty bacon slabs all mangled together. don't they understand? bacon is only good because it's fried and crispy!
i will soon be praising french cuisine, i know it, but for the meantime i think i will long for the food that i cannot have. ye salad roll, ye yakisoba. eggs benedict, you soft pillow of bliss.
p.s. okay, as stated, i'm needing a little cooking inspiration. so if anyone has suggestions for cooking sites they swear by, or favorite cookbooks or even personal recipes they'd like to share, do let me know. what i'm looking for are good simple recipes that, given our limitations, involve a minimum of preparation steps and not too exotic ingredients. pastas need not apply.
Wednesday, December 7. 2005
on the third thursday of november each year (mandated by french law) the new wine is released into the world. and everyone parties. apparently half of all the beaujolais for the year is shipped or drunk that first night.
this is the same fruit that was celebrated as grapes only a couple weeks ago during the harvest festival (we just missed that one). i didn't know you could make wine in that short a time, but i guess there's a little urgency.
most of the hubub is about the beaujolais nouveau. but avignon is a little farther down the valley than those guys. our area makes some similar wines, and so the focus is on the region's own produce, calling it primeur, which apparently means generically "first fruits". i sensed a little rivalry.
that night, the whole town floods into the main square in front of the pope's (old) palace. winemakers set up tents and hand out thousands of small glasses of wine for free. we got there a little late and had to settle for tiny plastic cups. no matter. and they sell cases and cases of wine in the process.
it's a madhouse. it's like arena rock for middle aged french people. we squeezed up and got our first samples and quickly found out why everyone was so extra-loopy at 7pm. it's really strong! our french teacher had warned us about it earlier that day. she wasn't going because she didn't like new wine. too much alcohol and it tastes too young.
well, really what do i know about wine? what does "young" taste like? but we (ok, *i*) have been doing a fair amount of firsthand research on wine since we got here. estimates close to the mark are about 45 bottles so far. recycling piles up quickly. there's a little 8-slot wine rack in the kitchen that i try to keep well-maintained. the main goal going in was to get used to it, get accustomed to it quickly so that understanding could come sooner. miss and i love to dissect good food now, and i was looking for the same thing with the national icon. well it worked, and i have a fair idea of wine qualities now, even if i can't remember particular regions or vinyards exactly.
but i told you all that to tell you this: new wine really tastes new! like a brash young meerkitten it's all scraggly and feisty and bites your tail. it's bouncy and prickly and troublesome. not something i'd buy every day, but pretty fun when you roll with it.
there was also a samba band playing! they came from marseille and were dressed in construction workers outfits, with hard hats and flourescent vests. very reminiscent of the ice cream socialists, but with rhythm. they were a small outfit, but really fun. they had a capoeira group with them that dance-fought on the steps of the palace (that's the first photo). very exciting. and speaking of small outfits (yuk yuk) we felt worried for them since it was winter coat weather outside and they were in pretty skimpy duds. not south american climate, but they were moving enough to keep warm.
things started thinning out as the wine dried up. the square slowly emptied, with people carrying home white boxes, six bottles each, of the new stuff. lots of broken stepped-on wine glasses all over the cobblestones.
we walk to the main central square, the place de l'horloge ("clock square" that doesn't actually have a clock). lots of restaurants. we decide to eat at a nice looking moroccan restaurant that's not too pricey. each table has a bottle of primeur on it. oy! it was a fantastic meal. mine was braised lamb, prunes, and sliced almonds. missy got a huge couscous dish. it came in three bowls, each enough to feed two people, that you assemble on your plate. also excellent. lamb and veggie stew and couscous. it turned me on to turnips, which i've been making a lot since then. we were too hungry and amazed to get a photo of it. maybe we'll go back! we had a chat with some nice french women at the next table over who had ordered exactly the same two things.
that was about it for the night. eating took us two hours, which was pretty neat. no one pressures you to vacate, and we were in no rush. it's a nice pace; nice to give a meal that amount of time. our dinners are getting longer at home now too.
on the way i snapped the photo of hobbit-clothes, then it was quick to bed. a new early night record for me, for sure.
Wednesday, November 30. 2005
it seemed a bit lonely to split a turkey breast between seth and i. there are some fellow english teachers that i hang out with here, so i decided to have them over for thanksgiving. one girl brought mashed potatoes. she was going to bring sweet potatoes too, but couldn't find any sweet potato or yam-like produce. another girl brought a mixed vegetable dish. one guy brought flan, his french roommate lasagna. and then we sat down on our rug, the one that doesn't cause an allergic reaction, and ate and ate and ate. and when we were all finished we watched a charlie brown thanksgiving.
so the turkey. they don't sell whole turkeys here, at least not that we've seen, and even if they did we wouldn't be able to fit one into our toaster oven. so our only turkey option was to buy it in parts. the last time we went grocery shopping i noticed little paupettes de dinde, which looked like little turkey breasts tied into a small serving-size ball with string. but then when we went shopping for thanksgiving dinner i actually read the ingredients: the first thing listed was 68% assorted pork meat. i did not want a turkey with an ingredients list, especially if the first thing listed is not turkey. so we settled on a rôti de dinde which is an all turkey roast, well, except for the big band of pork fat holding the whole thing together.
we finished off our meal with some chocolate, cheese, beaujolais, and some eau de vie de poire. yes, it's called water of life. it is this pear liquor and it's amazing. when i think of fruit liquor i think of schnappes, but this is not that. there is no thick syrupy sweetness; it's just pure alcoholy goodness with the a radiant hint of pear.*
hmm... what else? we splurged and spent 11 euros on christmas decoration for the event and for our own sheepish christmas streak: tinsel, little silver balls, a garland of red shiny beads and a string of christmas lights.
*i just did a google search and the first hit was for a distillery in oregon. ah, the exotic discoveries we are making.
Friday, November 18. 2005
found an excellent solution to our need for plastic food storage containers. it's like a decree to eat more ice cream. it's for the good of the state!
poor missy only got to see it briefly. i must be man-struating because it hardly had time to make a home in the freezer before untimely end.
the chocolate flavor uses 70% chocolate. it actually sacrifices some creaminess to fit more chocolate into the ice cream. that's the kind of compromise i can live with. it makes good choco-economic sense — i can get my fix with 1/3 less ice cream. no need to down a pint at one sitting. i think that's representative of a lot of food here, and may be part of the french paradox of rich food == skinny people.
oh, we just found another great idea: crème brûlée ice cream! i've got a case of it on dry ice shipping to jon right now. honestly, this version isn't as good as it could be, but i've got my eyes out for other brands. there's a great love of caramel, nougat, praline and the like here, which i fully support. people must have done some crazy sugar-related experiments back in the day to get some of these great inventions. relatedly: i'm doing extensive research on chocolate bars here and will have something at a later date.
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short accounts by missy and seth, at least tangentially relating to life in avignon, france.