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The Best Food in Paris?

This admission is going to land me in foodie hell, but during a two-month stay in Paris (May-June, 2018), some of the best food I ate was from Picard.

What is Picard? A elegant Belle Epoque brasserie? A Michelin-star restaurant in a luxury hotel? Non.

It's a sterile, space-age-looking chain of frozen food stores.

I first encountered Picard on the same block as the apartment where I was staying in the Montmartre neighborhood. I heard it was a place to get ice. Previous trips to Europe had always been a battle to get more than a small cube or two of ice in my drink, and I wanted a plentiful supply for the summer. So off to Picard I went. What I found was a pleasant surprise: an array of French foods in every category from soup to dessert all buried in rows of freezers. It looked strange but the food, even frozen, looked appetizing:  starter-sized crepes stuffed with ham and cheese, "ultra fine" haricot vert (green beans), and potatoes -- duchess, dauphine, puree, cubed and of course, frites of various sizes and cuts. Celery root and sweet potato purees. Sauces like you've never seen before: bearnaise, morrel,  buerre blanc in bags of little nuggets that you simply melt with a few spoonfuls of water. Sauces are probably the feature of French cooking that distinguish it from other cuisines and they can be difficult to make, especially if you are looking for emulsification, so this was an incredible find. And I hadn't even yet encountered the various gateaux (cakes), tortes, ice creams and sorbets that fill several freezer cases. I should add that I know only a little French, but it was easy to figure the products out.  

I was happy to discover that everything I bought at Picard was worth eating and oh-so-easy. The "TV dinner" never tasted so good. On subsequent visits, I bought divine puff pastry, baguettes of many kinds ready to pop into a hot oven, crepes to defrost in your refrigerator and use when the mood strikes, pain au chocolat to bake "fresh" in the morning and eat while the chocolate literally melts in your mouth. And all at very reasonable prices, generally lower than what I spend on groceries in San Francisco.

So I'm not saying skip the Belle Epoque brasseries, or the Michelin-star restaurants of Paris. They are a delight. And when I say "the best food in Paris" I am balancing cost, quality, ease and innovation. If you have access to a kitchen in Paris, Picard is a great way to occasionally (or more often) savor a French diet without much investment or bother. No reservations to wait for, no menus to decipher, no big bills, no dress codes, no snooty service to put up with (though I did not encounter this during my extended stay).  These days, many of the picturesque cafes in Paris are serving frozen food from factories, anyway, and charging you many times the price. Vive la Picard!



What are galettes?

In France, galettes are savory crepes hailing from Britanny in Northwestern France. They are made from buckwheat flour, and are a little sturdier and heartier than the crepes made with white flour that you'll encounter on the streets of Paris, whether sweet or savory. Crepes are an economical street food and can be had for as little as 2 Euros ($2.38).

But Galette Cafe in the 7th arrondissement (district) of Paris is no street stall. Neither is it a stuffy, formal restaurant. The environment is friendly and unassuming but the quality of the galettes disarms you.  I have been here twice, once on a recommendation from a friend, the second time on my own recommendation. I even ate the same thing because it was so delicious: Scallopes de la Plancha with leek fondue.  Four fat, moist scallops seared and sitting in a pool of "melted" leeks in a light cream sauce, all on a large but delicate buckwheat crepe. ($21). 

I also tasted Cancale oysters, from the northwestern Breton coast -- some of the best I've ever had -- and a local hard apple cider. Indeed, Galette Cafe is a slice of Brittany in Paris. The raw oysters are briny but sweet, oh-so fresh, and a great way to start a meal. Six oysters with mignonette sauce, a sauteed vegetable and cheese galette and a dessert crepe with salted caramel sauce came as a prix fixe menu for 25 Euros ($29.75).     

Galette Cafe, 2 Rue de l'Universitie, Paris, 75007.     

Posted May 28, 2018.  


Comté All the Way


Just spent four days in France devoted to cheese --- one cheese, in fact, Comté.

What a trip: In the Jura mountains of eastern France in alpine ski country, I met Norbert, a shepherd who takes care of heifers before they are ready to give birth; in the tiny village of Villette-les-Dole, I saw how dairy farmer Jean-Francois cares for the local Montbéliarde cows, providing them a natural, quality diet that produces the raw milk that, in turn, gives Comté so much of its flavor -- which runs from milky and relatively fresh to almost crunchy in texture and nutty in taste. Also visited fruitieres(cheesemakers) and affineurs (cheese-agers) to see firsthand how it's made from beginning to end.
The cheese is a natural partner to the idiosyncratic wines of the Jura region, but complement most any wines. Comté  (pronounced "con-tay") is a cheese made in the artisanal, authentic manner that so many consumers are seeking these days. Ask your cheesemonger for a taste!

Posted: 06.27.14

Book Review: Shroom by Becky Selengut

In general, I don't care for the common practice of shortening words in the English language. I respect language too much and many shortened words just sound infantile. "Veggies" instead of vegetables? No, thank you. "Fridge" instead of refrigerator? Sorry, don't like it, won't say it. "Apps" rather than appetizers? What people won't stoop to, to save a syllable or two!

So when a publisher sent me the new mushroom cookbook "Shroom" the other day, you can imagine my initial reaction. In addition, I was a child of the '70s so I associate the word "shroom" with psychedelic drugs, specifically, hallucinogenic Psilocybin mushrooms. Doesn't everybody? As if to prove that association, the front cover of the book announces it as containing "Mind-bendingly" good recipes. Wink-Wink. Can't wait until my Cannabis cookbook arrives.

Despite all these distractions, Shroom is a beautiful cookbook, conventional in most ways. Though I like mushrooms cooked or raw, I personally would not have been moved to buy a cookbook solely based on this one edible, even though the recipes indicate a wide-ranging use for them -- all savory, thank goodness (I was half-expecting a mushroom ice cream). Incorporating mushrooms into everything from bread pudding to grits to burgers can't be a bad idea, especially given their nutrient value, and I look forward to trying some of the dishes in this book. Who knows, maybe I'll become a "Shroomhead," or a fungi-fanatic.

With wit and skill, author Selengut shares her deep enthusiasm for the toadstool and gives us 75 recipes, including Beech Mushrooms in Phyllo with Georgian Walnut Sauce and Pomegranate, Pasta with Morels, Leeks and Oven-Roasted Tomatoes, and Roasted Chanterelles and Bacon with Sweet Corn Sauce. Beautiful photography by Clare Barboza  and wine pairings for each dish by Sommelier April Pogue complete the package. Here's her recipe for porcini salad:

Porcini Salad with Pine Nuts and Lemon Salt

SERVES: 4 as an appetizer; PAIRING: Austrian Grüner Veltliner

This is a deceptively simple composed salad that really highlights the versatility of porcini. When thinly sliced and roasted—but not overly so—porcini can be subtle, delicate, and sublime. The heat is applied lightly here, so that you can appreciate the subtlety of the dish, while the pine nuts echo the nuttiness and depth of the porcini and the lemon zings it up an octave.

Extra-virgin olive oil, as needed
1 pound fresh porcini mushrooms, sliced
¼ inch thick (cap-through-stem slices)
1¼ teaspoons fine sea salt
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon (save lemon halves for squeezing on salad)
¼ cup pine nuts, toasted (below)
1 stalk celery (see Note), shaved paper-thin into half-moons on a mandoline (leaves cut into chiffonade and reserved for garnish)
About ¼ cup shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano (use a vegetable peeler)
Fresh chervil leaves, for garnish (substitute small flat-leaf parsley leaves)

Preheat the oven to 450°F. Line 2 baking pans with parchment paper and brush with olive oil.

Lay the porcini slices on the parchment. Brush with more olive oil. Sprinkle 1 teaspoon of the salt over the top. Roast until lightly browned in spots, 15 to 25 minutes, flipping once after 10 minutes.

In a spice grinder, pulse the red pepper flakes, lemon zest, pine nuts, and the remaining ¼ teaspoon salt to a chunky consistency.

Arrange the cooked porcini slices on plates. Sprinkle the celery over the mushrooms. Drizzle olive oil over the salads (1 to 2 teaspoons, but you don’t need to measure), followed by a squeeze of lemon juice. Sprinkle the pine nut mixture over the top. Garnish with cheese shavings and celery and chervil leaves.

NOTE: Try to take off as many celery strings as you can prior to shaving the stalk on the mandoline (otherwise, they get caught in the blade). Use a paring knife—starting at the top, grab the strings between your thumb and the side of the knife and pull downward, stripping them off. If you don’t have a mandoline, use a very sharp knife and cut the celery as thinly as you can manage.

TOASTING NUTS: There are a few ways to toast nuts. If you watch carefully, you can do it in a skillet on the stovetop, but I find the easiest and safest way to go is to preheat your oven to 350°F. Spread the nuts on a baking sheet and pop them into the oven. Pine nuts really enjoy burning (they’re evil), so keep a close eye on those and check after 4 to 5 minutes. Ditto for sliced almonds. For the bigger nuts (whole almonds, walnuts, and others), take a peek at them after 8 to 10 minutes.

From Shroom: Mind-bendingly Good Recipes for Cultivated and Wild Mushrooms by Becky Selengut, Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC 2014. $35.  

Book Review: We The Eaters

 Anybody who eats, which is everybody, and anybody who cares about what they eat, which should be everybody, needs to read this book.

An intelligent analysis of our current food system, written by a food activist, We The Eaters takes the position that we can all be better-fed, healthier and happier if a few fundamental things change on our dinner plates.

 Founder of Food Tank, a food think tank, author Ellen Gustafson claims that Americans' consumer habits "have spread fast, cheap, fat and sweet around the world." And she asserts, "we can spread Community Supported Agriculture, more rational meat eating and heirloom grains around the world too."

 Food Tank's vision is "building a global community for safe, healthy, nourished eaters." Among recommendations Gustafson makes in the book for a better dinner plate and a better food system worldwide: buy local and regional, think fair trade and low impact when you buy global, remove hidden corn from our diets, avoid "diet" foods, cut added sugar, avoid commercially produced soda and processed foods, quit fast food, reduce waste, and grow something edible.
We The Eaters: If We Change Dinner, We Can Change the World by Ellen Gustafson; Rodale Books, $24.99

Book Review: French Bistro

"If there's one thing I love more than anything, it's food that is tied to a beautiful feeling." That's the opening line in the new cookbook, French Bistro, by Maria Zihammou, and it's an apt starting point because the photographs, hand-written notes, recipes and entertaining tips do create a "beautiful feeling" in the reader. French bistro food is, obviously, the subject of many, many books, but if you are looking for a new book that conveys the full sensory experience of enjoying what this culinary culture has to offer, it's a good choice. With recipes from A to D (appetizers to desserts), and easy-to-follow recipes for such classics as pâté, steamed mussels, onion tarts, and one-pot chicken dishes, French Bistro could well transport you to, well, a sublime French-bistro-sort-of-feeling.

A copy was provided me by Skyhorse Publishing. Would I buy it at $17.95? If I'd never been to France and was curious about the overall experience of dining there, or if I wanted to reproduce dishes I'd eaten there, yes. It's a lovely introduction.

Good Reads and Feeds

If you like wine, chances are you like food -- at least I hope so because you need something to absorb that alcohol. I’m always interested in seeing new cookbooks and while I’m skimming them I think about what wines would match well with the dishes that strike me as worth cooking. I also love to give cookbooks as holiday gifts. Here is an eclectic group of recently published cookbooks that caught my attention:

A Tavola! Recipes and Reflections on Traditional Italian Home Cooking
This is an especially useful and enjoyable book for food-and-wine lovers because the authors are a chef and a sommelier who provide both mouth-watering Italian recipes and many wine suggestions to pair with the dishes. There are also tidbits of food culture here and there including interesting reading on the culinary regions of Italy, the history of culinary traditions and Italian holidays and food.
Gianni Scappin and Vincenzo Lauria, $29.95, The Culinary Institute of America Dining Series, Lebhar-Friedman Books, New York.

Pastry Queen Parties: Entertaining Family and Friends Texas Style
The Chamber of Commerce of Fredericksburg sent me this book as a gift after I visited in September -- as if the visit to this charming town in Texas hill country wasn’t enough! Rebecca Rather is a well-known chef and baker in Texas whose Rather Sweet Bakery I dropped by. An entire book on pastry would probably not hold much interest for me, but this book, though chock-full of recipes for both food and cocktails, is about entertaining. It’s divided into the different kinds of soirees Texans like to throw, such as “Gulf Coast Beach Bash” and “Tex-Mex Fiesta,” with anecdotes and party tips that give you a window into the local Texas culture. After skimming through the book, I instantly wanted to make "Beans a la Charra" and "Gangy’s Spoonbread," which I did. There are at least a dozen more I want to try soon. 
Rebecca Rather; $32.50; Ten Speed Press, Berkeley.

Clara’s Kitchen: Wisdom, Memories and Recipes from the Great Depression. 
Clara Cannucciari, is a 94-year-old Internet star. Telling stories, dishing out snippets of wisdom she gained from living through the Great Depression and whipping up classics like Pasta with Beef Scrap Ragu in her home kitchen, she was filmed by her grandson, and elevated to stardom when he posted them on YouTube. Not only are the Old World Italian recipes in this book intriguing in a back-to-basics way, but they are also accompanied by some disarming (and entertaining) comments such as this one that you’ll find with a recipe for Holiday Fig Cookies: “These cookies are sweet and really good for you when you’re constipated. They really work good. It’s all the figs, I guess.”
Clara Cannucciari, $21.99; St. Martin’s Press, New York.

The Veselka Cookbook
From the landmark Ukranian coffee shop in the East Village of New York, this cookbook introduces you to such exotic comfort food as sweet potato pierogi, borscht and veal goulash. Apparently, this place attracts many New York celebrities and the book sports a cover endorsement from comedian Jon Stewart. I never thought I would aspire to make homemade pierogi, but leafing through this book made me want to try. 
Tom Birchard with Natalie Danford. $27.99 St. Martin’s Press. New York.

(Posted 11.22.09

A Cult Above

Bryant Family Vineyard makes one of Napa’s -- and the world’s -- truly top tier Cabernet Sauvignons; it’s one of Napa’s cult wines. It’s the only wine Bryant makes and they do it with the utmost care and skill. Barbara Bryant, co-founder and former owner of the winery, has fused her love of wine, food, vineyards and people to produce the new and beautiful Bryant Family Vineyard Cookbook, the proceeds of which go to one of her beloved charities, the Bowery Mission in New York. You’ll see my name in the book, but only because I assisted Barbara with her introduction. The book belongs to Barbara, her co-author Betsy Fentress, and the nation’s top chefs who admire the wine and gave their recipes for Barbara’s cause. This is a truly wonderful gift book, because it is all about giving.

The Bryant Family Vineyard Cookbook, $50, Andrews McNeel Publishing.

(Posted 10.21.09)