Friday, September 7, 2012

Heading away from tomatoes and Italy for a while

I’m sure everyone reading this blog will be pleased to hear that we’re taking a break from our focus of the past two months – with another focus: France and French cooking. This is also a bit of BSP (Blatant Self-Promotion for those not in the book writin’ game) since this month sees the release of my eighth crime fiction novel, The Fallen One.

You see, a large part of the novel is set in and around Paris. Being the type of person I am, Vicki and I had to go there and scope out the locations that I use in the book on a 9-day trip in autumn 2008. As Vicki expected (having been there a few times before) I fell in love with The City of Light.

In order to save money, but also just as much to really experience the city, we rented an apartment in the 13th Arrondissement near Butte aux Cailles. Our one-room apartment turned out to be just perfect for us, so perfect in fact that I eventually used it for the climactic scene of the novel.

In an amazing example of convergence, it just so happened that the large road down the hill from us, Boulevard Auguste-Blanqui near Place d’Italie, hosts a big street market on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. It appears magically on the sidewalk before dawn and disappears by 3:00 in the afternoon. The result of finding this lovely resource on our doorstep was that we had the perfect place to buy nearly everything we would eat during our stay.

There were stalls of fruits and vegetables picked the day before. One of my favorite places was a cheese monger, or should I say a group of artisanal cheese-makers, who pooled their resources to present their wares with a different person in attendance each market day. We bought the best roquefort I have ever eaten, not too salty and sold at the absolute peak of perfection. Just down the row was a fish monger selling catches that were made the night before, fish so fresh, all you could smell was the sea. I expected them to start moving.

And I shouldn’t neglect to tell you about the prepared foods. A Spaniard was cooking and selling paellas right out of the largest paelleras I have ever seen. The smell was intoxicating. Another stall had rabbit in mustard sauce. My favorite sold rotisserie poultry of all kinds: ducks, small turkeys, capons, coquelets, game hens, all cooked on large electric rotisseries. The best part was that, at the bottom, collecting all those fantastic drippings, were chunks of potatoes, carrots, sliced onions and peppers. Everything was cooked to perfection, ready be brought home hot and enjoyed immediately.

To say the least, even though we didn’t have a real kitchen, just a coffee maker and a combination toaster oven/microwave, we managed to make some fantastic meals with the booty from our forays to the market down the hill. The piéce de résistance was a Dover sole we bought from our new “favorite fish monger”. His brother had caught the sole he was displaying the night before. You can’t get fish this fresh anywhere but within a few miles of the sea. We had him clean it, bought some fingerling potatoes, baby spinach, a knob of sweet creamery butter, rosemary, parsley, almonds, and a head of garlic.

Back at the apartment, I cooked everything in shifts, first the potatoes, roasted gently with rosemary leaves and stems (for extra flavor), then the spinach, wilted with a bit of butter and minced garlic (try doing that with a pocket knife!), finally the almonds were toasted with some more butter. Everything was kept warm on a plate that we put on the top of our little oven. Finally I was ready to broil the fish — gently and just enough. You don’t want to ruin something this precious by even a minute too much cooking! The real trick was actually undercooking it to the point where I could put everything back in for a final heating-through without the fish going past the point of no return.

The cooking gods (probably Julia Child and Escoffier) were smiling down on us that night because we sat down to a meal of “sort of sauteed” Dover sole, perfectly cooked (by dumb luck more than anything) with buttered toasted almonds, roasted new potatoes and wilted spinach, all washed down with an exquisite bottle of Pouilly Fuisse we’d bought for under 4 euros. It was probably the best meal I’ve ever turned out, perfect in every detail. Cooking it was a horror show to be sure, but the memory of of doing it makes us chuckle now.

Only in Paris…

Stay tuned for more memories of Paris, and some of our favorite French recipes (and we have some good ones!) in the coming weeks.

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