Sunday, November 17, 2013

France: Saturday in Paris; Sunday at Home - Crab Quiche

     I used to think that it was awesome to say, "Hey, I was in Paris this past weekend."  But after yesterday, it is much cooler to say, "Hey, I was in Paris YESTERDAY!"  Yesterday morning, we boarded the train at 7:30 a.m. and arrived at Gare du Nord just after 9:00 a.m.  How cool is that!  After a quick breakfast of coffee and croissants, we finally tried the Paris metro station for the first time.  It was not that difficult to navigate but all day, we were so surprised at how heavily it is used.  I really cannot imagine boarding the train during rush hour…it was jammed throughout the day on Saturday.
     Our first stop was the Musee Marmottan in the 16th Arrondissement.  I had only just recently heard of this museum and we have never ventured far from the neighborhoods along the Seine River.  However, hearing that the museum housed some 130 works of Monet that were donated not only from the artist's son but several other benefactors, I was intrigued.  What a wonderful small museum!  The ground floor contained a current exhibition on Napoleon and his sisters.  It was an intriguing collection of art work and history and who would have thought that Napoleon would have been so devoted to his family.  The second floor, contained works by the female Impressionist painter, Berthe Morisot, who was a great friend of Claude Monet and was married to Eduard Manet's brother.  While I had seen some of her work in the past, I learned a great deal more about this fabulous painter.  But where were the Monets?  We wandered again through the first two floors trying to figure out what we had missed.
     Finally, we took a staircase to the basement and there they all were…a room full of his work!  It was truly awe-inspiring.  We actually saw the piece that the movement "Impressionism" was named for - "Impressionist - Sunrise."  "Now that is something that you do not see everyday," I told Dear Daughter, who was actually holding her own.  We viewed wonderful, personal paintings that he made of his two sons and you caught a different glimpse of Monet.  It was a wonderful two hours in this small intimate gallery.
     Upon exiting, we realized that we were a short 15 minute walk from the Trocadero and since we had never visited it before, we decided to take the stroll instead of the crowded metro.  I have no idea what the Trocadero is but standing at the edge of the square is the most magnificent view of the Eiffel Tower.  It is absolutely breathtaking and while the skies were grey, I could not help but take a few photos.  We walked down to the river and across the bridge to the Tower itself and noticed the as yet, undecorated Christmas trees lining the Champs du Mars.  We strolled through a flea market on our favorite street, Rue Cler, and jealously starred at the buyers at the wonderful cheese shops, fish shops, the Italian butcher, etc.  Hungry, we made our way to our lunch reservations…a wonderful little restaurant that I found on my last visit.  The owner stopped by and greeted me with the bisou - a kiss on each cheek and welcomed me back to the restaurant.  My family was duly impressed.  We had a lovely meal and enjoyed the atmosphere and entered the world much later that afternoon.

     We debated what to do with the remainder of our time but then came across the Paris Christmas Market which had started that day along the Champs Elysses.  Wow…the streets were lined with booths selling all sorts of crafts and food.  A giant Ferris Wheel was set up in the Place de Concorde and we stood in line to catch a glimpse of Paris from the top.  Walking back up the Champs Elysses, we boarded a very crowded metro and arrived at Gare du Nord in time for our train home.  It was a fantastic day and another one for the memory bank.  
     So today, we slept in and I made a three course brunch for us to enjoy.  A shop along Rue Cler had a sign saying that it really wasn't breakfast if there was not champagne, so I made sure to start chilling a bottle last night when we arrived home.  First course consisted of foie gras on toast and a pain au chocolate for Dear Daughter.  Crab quiche, salad and a small serving of potato dauphanoise made up the main course and a wonderful chocolate covered chocolate mousse had us over the top for  dessert.  It was a wonderful way to end the weekend!

Crab Quiche

Sunday, November 10, 2013

France: Paris - Le Cordon Bleu - My Afternoon as a Chef

     "Remember this," the chef's interpreter translated.  "During this afternoon's practical, you will want to do this."  Practical?  What does she mean by "practical'?  I am just here to learn a bit more about cooking.  Am I going to have some sort of test?  From that point on, I took notes on everything the chef said.  If there was to be a test, I wanted an A.

     As an early Christmas present, my mother had enrolled us in a day long course at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.  Earlier that morning, we traversed Paris by taxi and would have never stopped at the unassuming building if it wasn't for the fact that various young people  dressed up like chefs were standing outside the front door having a smoke break at 8:15 in the morning.  We had enrolled in a class entitled, "En l'Honneur de Julia Child" (In Honor of Julia Child) and the course promised to concentrate on traditional French cooking.

     Having never been to a cooking class before and certainly having never been to Le Cordon Bleu, I did not know what to expect.  After signing in, we were given a plastic bag which contained the materials that we would need over the course of the day.  We were instructed to don our aprons and then we were led upstairs to a large classroom.  This was no ordinary classroom; however.  At the front was a kitchen.  A large mirror hung from the ceiling so we could see exactly what the chef was preparing.  If you didn't snag a front row seat - no worries.  There were also televisions placed in various locations.   The dozen of us took our seats and patiently waited.  In front of us was a flurry of activity.  The chef inspected the work area and his two assistants flew around the kitchen making sure that all of the preparations were complete.

     Our Chef Instructor looked exactly what you would imagine - an older gentleman with a kind smile and a dry wit.  After his introductions, he gave us a few Julia Child anecdotes and dove right into today's course.  The menu consisted of:  mussels in a curried cream sauce, a traditional lamb blanquette with seasonal vegetables and an apple tart.  We were to watch him make these dishes and then in the afternoon, we would be expected to make the main course.  Yes, the practical…the test…oh my…what is blanquette?  I took out a pen and my reading glasses and prepared to write down everything.

     By the end of the demonstration, I had a book of notes and was exhausted!  I had been concentrating so hard over the past several hours, trying to catch all the nuances, all the little tidbits.  During the short lunch break and with a glass of wine and a plate of food, I reviewed my notes.  I would be ready… Upon returning to class, we were escorted to another room - this time, it was an actual kitchen.  A long island separated the room in half.  At the front of the room were two large sinks.  On the sides of the room were a series of four burner stoves - our workspaces.  A 2-lb lamb shoulder was plopped down on our cutting boards.  Nearby was a pan holding most of the vegetables.  Our knives were close by.  We had everything we needed to create our main course.
"My" Burners

Each student had her own pan of ingredients

Our Chef

How the Rest of the Line Looked

     The chef bounced around the room regularly checking our progress.  His translator bellowed out several times…"Get the meat cooking.   Get the meat cooking.  It needs two hours to cook!"  My meat was cooking and I had moved on to peeling the baby carrots and turnips for the vegetable garnish.  I made a bouquet garni from leeks and other spices.  I shelled peas, prepped mushrooms and peeled pearl onions.  I cut parchment paper to make little tops for the pans so the vegetables could "steam". Then I heard the chef yell excitedly, "Accident, Accident."  (When reading this, you must say these words in a French accent in order to get the full effect.)  I quickly turned around, panic-stricken…was he talking to me.  Had I done something wrong?  Luckily, no.  The young girl next to me had forgotten about her onions.  All the water had cooked away and the onions had burn marks all of them.  Aha….I was safe.

     By 3:30, my dish was finished.  I have to admit, that I was too afraid to have the chef taste it although I am sure that he told everyone that theirs was wonderful.  I packaged up my meal and looked forward to serving it to my family the following evening.  You know what…they loved it!  It was an wonderful experience and perhaps, I should have tried to have more "fun" but I think that my version of fun was to learn as much as I could learn.

     This weekend, Dear Daughter and I are in Brittany.  Our vacation home does not feel like a vacation home.  It feels like home.  I find it impossible to go to bed early here as I love being in this apartment.  So, while Dear Daughter slept, I enjoyed looking outside at the river, watching people depart the fancy restaurant across the street and wondered why our neighborhood bar was already closed.  We slept in late on Saturday morning and then casually walked up the street to our favorite bakery and then a stroll through the small weekly market.

     It is always a sort of homecoming.  The baker's wife recognizes us and while she does not say much to me, she gives me a smile that suggests, "Welcome Back".  The market, while small, has a few new vendors.  I see beautiful, tiny mussels that were harvested just a few kilometers away and decide that tonight, we will have mussels for dinner. I will try to create the other dish from my cooking lesson.  We buy a few more essential ingredients before getting into the car and driving to Dinard for their expansive Saturday market.  It was amazing to see how crowded it was - no tourists here.

     It is scallop season right now and a town close to us is the Scallop Capital of Brittany (and perhaps all of France).  We patiently wait in line and when our turn comes, we order 2 kilos of scallops.  They are still in shell and you pay an extra 50 cents per kilo to have them prepped.  We watch the fishmonger quickly do his thing and those 2 kilos quickly become 12 scallops ready to be cooked.  The price of the mussels were only EUR1.50 and the scallops were only 11 Euros - so we will be dining like kings tonight!

     After a brasserie style lunch, we are back in the apartment working on school stuff.  Dear Daughter has decided to run for Student Council office and we spend the rest of the afternoon preparing 20 campaign posters.  As I take a break, she works on her speech.  This is when it really feels like home.  We celebrate our hard work with an appetizer of Scallops with Garlic Confit followed by Mussels in Curry Cream Sauce.  Our favorite dessert from the baker finishes a wonderful meal.  We stay up late and sleep in once again on Sunday morning.  It does seem that all we do here is think about food and then consume food.  We head up the street to purchase some house made foie gras to take home to Dear Husband and make a stop at the bakery. I forego breakfast as I know that lunch will be delicious.  We drive a short distance to our favorite Sunday lunch location.  Then it is back home to do more work and have more relaxation before making the drive back to Belgium on Monday morning.

     So, the mussels.  This was the appetizer dish that the chef created at Le Cordon Bleu.  I didn't have the recipe with me but after searching the Internet, I found a reasonable copy and with a few tweeks…created a really tasty dish (if I do say so myself)!

Mussels in Curry Cream Sauce

Mussels with Curry Cream Sauce
(adapted from Le Cordon Bleu)

Friday, November 1, 2013

Halloween - Belgian Style

     I am not a big fan of Halloween.  I am not sure why but it just isn't my favorite holiday.  Dear Husband loves it and almost every year since we have been married, we have to have our own pumpkin carving contest.  One year, he even had the trick-or-treaters vote.  I have to admit that part is fun.  I am just not into all of the costumes and scariness.
Pumpkins from last year

     When we lived in the States, Dear Daughter was able to go around the neighborhood with the kids that lived nearby.  That was certainly better than just me taking her around the houses.  But soon, all of the children moved away and Dear Husband was adamant that she still have Halloween with friends.  As a result, as Halloween approached each year, I had to find a friend and invite ourselves over to walk in their neighborhood.  It was a lot of fun but required some amount of driving.

     Then, we move to Germany.  We continued with our pumpkin carving last year but most of the children in our neighborhood, being Americans, headed over to the Air Base to wander the neighborhoods there.  We had a few children but it was a bit of a letdown for Dear Daughter.

     Now we are in Belgium and…I really totally forgot about the holiday.  Dear Daughter did manage to meet some friends and go to a Haunted House, which resulted in her sleeping in her parents bed.  But there was no pumpkin carving and no talk of trick or treating.  It was as if the holiday did not exist.

     The one thing that I love about being in another country is seeing how the host country celebrates a holiday.  Evidently, Halloween is celebrated in Belgium but it is very different - or at least, it is very different in our town.  First, I received a flyer in the mail that indicated there was going to be a Halloween Fest in the parking lot of our local small grocery store.  The Fest would begin at 6pm.  The children would arrive in costume.  From the grocery story, they would walk (promenade) to our neighborhood and would visit houses in hopes of receiving treats.  If you did not want to pass out treats, you could either leave them at your door or place a sign (which was included) that indicated that the group needed to move on.

     So, last night we waited with anticipation.  In the States, I always bought too much candy and we never had many children stop by.   This year, I purchased four bags and figured that I would have a lot left over for us to enjoy.  Around 6:45, we saw flashlights bouncing down our dark street.  Soon, we heard the voices of children.  We opened the front door and were swarmed by costumed kids of all ages.  There was even a photographer!  There were even adults looking for candy.  For the next 10 minutes, we frantically passed out candy.  The lucky ones were the first ones, when I gave them four to five pieces.  Then we panicked as we saw more and more children coming down the street.  I had to rationed the goodies - only giving one piece to each reveler (although a little toddler refused to take her hand out of the candy bowl until she had the exact pieces that she wanted).  They were all very polite…"Bonne Halloween, Merci," they called out as they left.  As quickly as it started, it ended.  No stragglers, no children coming at 10pm and constantly ringing the doorbell.  It was all very civilized once you got through the mob at your front door.

   Here is how it worked.  The children, with parental escorts, strolled through our neighborhood stopping at the houses that wanted to participate.  When they finished, they went back to the grocery store parking lot where two small tents were set up.  Each child received a cup of pumpkin soup and a cup of hot chocolate and the adults could have a vin chaud (hot mulled wine) to go with their soup.  Music played and young dancing groups performed to songs such as "Thriller" or "Ghostbusters".  At precisely 9:00 pm, there was a short fireworks display.   Very different and very cool!

     The days are shorter now as we set our clocks back last week.  The wind has picked up and there is that certain chill that tells us that winter is on the way.  We are on a one week fall break from school and today seemed like a good day to make a bit batch of soup, spend the day in PJs and watch television or read.

     Tonight, we will put a log in the fireplace, savor delicious foie gras that I picked up last weekend in Paris and hopefully indulge in a wonderful lasagne.  In addition to the soup, I have been making the sauce for the lasagne all day.  Then the world crowds back in as Dear Husband goes to the States tomorrow and Dear Daughter and I head to England for a swim meet.