Tuesday, November 13, 2012

An Emotional Roller Coaster

No, this entire post is not about Brussels sprouts.

That's a lie.  Have no expectation of emotion beyond the turmoil I am about to experience over Brussels sprouts.  Are you hooked?  Can you not bear to tear your eyes away?

At work the other day, we started talking about how excited we were that Brussels sprout season was upon us.  I just discovered last year that Brussels sprouts are incredibly delicious if you cook them correctly, so if there is one good thing that comes with cold weather, it's these sweet delicious treats, and I couldn't wait to spend all winter eating them.  Just rolling around in a bathtub full of Brussels sprouts.   

We all discussed different methods and recipes for cooking, roasting, sauteeing, and caramelizing them, so by the time I left work, I was drooling and would potentially get involved in a low level drug cartel to get my hands on them.

Like a rabid Brussels sprout werewolf, I flew through the night on my bike, snarling and growling through the cold to the grocery store.  I knew I needed other things but didn't care to grab a handheld basket let alone go anywhere except straight to the produce section.  I practically ran.

My craving was so strong that if there were not Brussels sprouts present (I hadn't seen them yet all year), I was going to flip my lid and start throwing eggplants and potatoes in a furious rage.  I searched, I looked, passed the zucchinis and peppers and onions, over near the fennel and cabbage where they stocked them last year. WHAT? WHAAAT?  No Brussels sprouts??  

I started spinning in a spiral downwards with my hands in the air to yell "Nooooo" but then as I spun around, I saw...on the shelf across the way...this one lone gleaming bag.  

Isn't that beautiful?  Aren't I the luckiest girl in the world?  It was a glorious moment, and my devastation immediately transformed into elation, with bright lights and singing and glitter falling from the ceiling.  The song Dream Weaver came on as I darted across the produce area lovingly towards the rare and precious bag.  As I was taking a picture with my iPhone to capture my incredible luck, someone started walking around the corner, so I reached out and snatched the bag like a crazy person, lest my joy be stolen from me.

Really, though, I looked crazy.  I snatched that bag so fast.

Now comes the turmoil, the horror.  After such expectation and longing, such searching and finding, almost losing and then recapturing what was desired...I accidentally overcooked them while trying to get the edges crispy, and it was the worst thing I've made in years.  Or maybe ever.  Usually things just come out good.  I don't even think I've ever made anything that didn't taste good.  I'll repeat that for the single fellas, I don't think I've ever made anything that didn't taste good.  And these just didn't.  Such highs, such lows.  It's just a part of living abroad.  

It has nothing to do with living abroad.

To quote some website:

The secret to good Brussels sprouts is to not overcook them. Overcooked Brussels sprouts have a pungent, sulfurous odour.   

Sulfurous!! I refuse to believe it could be a cooking error on my part.  The sprouts themselves must have been bad.  It's the ONLY feasible option because I'm perfect.  

They were so bad, they squandered my craving for weeks.  Now I have a new bag waiting, and I'm scared of them, so if you have a good recipe or method, please feel free to share in order to boost my hopes.

Thanks for letting me get that off my chest, it was a hard day.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

September Snapshots Pt 2: Bachelorettes, Markets, Rodin, & a Favorite Sunday Bistro

A few glimpses of the second half of September...

A relaxing Saturday morning on our balcony reading. I love late mornings like this.

Our friend Rachel is a lawyer who has been working the closing shift (6pm-midnight) all season long in order to help pay for her wedding. The week before her wedding, on her last closing shift, we all surprised her with a bachelorette party. Here we prepare the posters and decorations in the back office.

Jillian asked Rachel to go down to the underground garage (3 levels down...takes a while) to find some trash bags. While she was downstairs, we decorated in a fury. Too much of a fury to avoid damaging the ceiling. Hannah displays a piece of ceiling tile that we just broke trying to hang a poster. Please see giant hole in ceiling. Whoopsie.  

Lights were off, everyone was crouched, and then..."Surprise!!", cue music.

We had champagne and strawberry champagne cake and gifts.

I became obsessed with Sadie's new pants, and Hannah had the iPhone cover to match!

Then Brooke came to visit!! Italy, Italy, oh Italy. Here we are, sitting on who knows what piece of farm equipment while the rolling hills of vineyards stretch on in the background. I tried to run away to frolick within them forever, but Brooke wouldn't let me.  Brooke's visit will of course get its own proper recap.

Jack comes to visit from the Austin office, and is given the gift of ghost-riding a bike home through the rain in the cold without a jacket.

On a beautiful Saturday, I decided it'd be a great idea to spend it out in the city on bike.  I stopped at the lovely Saxe-Breteuil market, wandering up and down looking at all the beautiful products and watching everyone buy their weekly supplies.  It was one of those, "Oh yah, this is one of the reasons I love France so much" moments.

I collected myself a perfect little picnic: roasted chicken, heirloom tomatoes, an entire loaf of whole grain country bread, figs (perfectly in season), nectarines, and rosemary honey.

Picnic location: Rodin's Gardens

It was a crisp day, but when the sun was not hidden behind a passing cloud, it felt perfect.

Finally! It's the red sleeveless uni-pant outfit I've been searching for. You know how fashionable Paris is. Everyone will be wearing it soon. 

Manager's dinner at Semilla, the new restaurant by the same owners as Fish La Boissonerie. There's only one main dish, which tonight was veal with creamy baked mushroom macaroni, and you get to choose your 1st course and dessert. We all rotated our 1st courses and desserts counterclockwise around the table so we could try everything. Graham made the poor choice of asking for the biggest dessert, which also happened to be the worst. Sorry buddy.

Sadie attempts to open a bottle of wine sans corkscrew. The shoe method did not work out this time since we didn't have a solid enough surface, but somehow, we got a corkscrew. It's Friday, it's 6pm, it's pouring down rain outside, it's happy hour.

On my way back from our last Catacombs tour of the season, I happened upon the Raspail market, a really beautiful one that I've actually never been to.  Funny thing about the last Catacombs tour was that they decided to close it for fumigation and didn't tell anyone, so I had to turn around and tell our group of 20 people that they would not be going on the tour, and by the way, this is our last one of the season, so no chance of rescheduling.

A delightful discovery. On a Sunday night, I met Maygan & Kyle for dinner at Le Relais du Comptoir. I had been here once for lunch but just got a salad. Tonight, we ordered two incredible beef dishes and seared tuna with vegetables, and all three of us loved it. The interior couldn't feel more French, and we just glowed in the presence of good food, a carafe of house wine, and adorable surroundings. 

We vowed to make it our regular Sunday outing. Except we've been randomly busy each Sunday since then. But we will return, oh yes, we will return. A kick and a thumbs up for Le Comptoir.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Mushroom Hunting

It's as simple as this. You hear someone talking about going mushroom hunting the next day, and you say "Pardon?', and then you shift your Sunday plans.  

With mushroom guide ready in hand, we hop in the car and head toward the nearby forest, just a quick 15 minute drive southwest of Paris.  Who has a car, you ask?  Nobody, I answer.  What is this alien form of transportation?

There's something that is so good for a person about getting out of the city and just walking around in nature.  I wouldn't have cared if we hadn't found a single mushroom.  It was just great getting to romp around in the woods.  But we did find, oh yes we did.

This was our first sighting of a little purple mushroom that would soon become our most hunted treasure.  And on the bottom right, a chestnut, just begging to be fire roasted and eaten.  The porcupine looking things?  The chestnut's cocoon.  They are sharp.  Spread your wings, little one, and fly.  Into my mouth.

It's like Easter Egg hunting, and once you specifically have an eye out for mushrooms, you discover there is a whole other universe of Alice in Wonderland proportions on the forest floor.

Every time we found something crazy, we'd consult the mushroom book.

As it turns out, a lot of mushrooms look exactly the same, and we could turn from one page to the next with an identical-looking specimen, and one would have a 3-star delicious rating while the next was deadly poison with skull and bones.

So we tried to stay on the safe side.

We'd find something beautiful, and if there was any chance of it killing us, we'd toss it aside.

There are some crazy-looking creatures to be found.

These were the all-time favorite...the tiny purple mushrooms.
I just loved the color.

Once our mushroom-hunting session was over, with four full bags, we stopped by a pharmacy to see if there were any knowledgeable mushroom connoisseurs to check out our loot and verify was edible and what would kill us.

This guy said the phrase "It's not worth the risk" 27 times, "One can't play with mushrooms" 12 times, and "You eat one and you're dead" twice.  Sooo, I decided that I would forego my portion of the mushrooms and just call it a fun day.

After the pharmacy, we headed to one of my favorite spots in the greater Paris area, Nick's magical backyard garden.  We had a barbecue here one night in the summer, enter flashback scene:
Isn't that the cutest thing you've ever seen? Keep in mind that backyards don't exist in Paris.  Maybe that's part of what made this so great, but I couldn't get over the adorable table set up filled with food and joviality.  The guys built a fire in the bbq, put a little lamp on the table when it started getting dark, and we had grilled chicken, steak, potatoes, and all kinds of deliciousness surrounded by trees as we talked and laughed in the summer breeze. Tra-la-la.

So here I was, back in the Secret Garden, prepping wild mushrooms & chestnuts by pocket knife.

Then Nick's girlfriend's mom pulled a move that will forever endear me to the French.  "Does anyone want a drink?  Water? Beer? Wine?" "No thanks, we're fine."  "Okay, here's a tray full of various drinks, wine glasses, a plate of macarons, and a giant link of dried saucisson on a cutting board to snack at your leisure, should you so desire, while cutting mushrooms."  The epitome of hospitality in the magical fairyland garden.

Who has beautiful delicious macarons on hand just in case??  The French do.

We also started doing some research on these crazy little purple mushrooms.

It turns out they are called "Amethyst Deceivers".  In our research, Nick came across a song about Amethyst Deceivers, a trippy little number that included gem lyrics such as, "Pay your respects to the vultures, for they are our future...Amethyst Deceivers...Little mushrooms". What??  Destined to be a hit for all time.

And what did we do with the fire?, you ask.  I will tell you.  We roasted chestnuts that were gathered from the forest floor.  As if the garden wasn't magical enough.  I just want to move in under the tree in the corner.

Oh and they were roasted in what appears to be an 18th century brass bed warmer, but is actually a brass pan made specifically for dry roasting chestnuts. Stop it, already.  Just stop.  Why do you have this??  And the handle extends out so you can stand 50 feet away from the fire while roasting if you want to.  This was unnecessary considering the size of our fire, but funny to watch, nonetheless.  The chestnuts came out perfectly and made me really excited for Christmas markets, where they sell hot roasted chestnuts left and right.

If you get a chance to go mushroom and/or chestnut hunting, and especially if there is a magic garden involved, do it, I implore you.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

September Snapshots: Friends, Food, & Bikes

Ah, September. You lasted but 30 seconds and were gone.  Just a few highlights...

September was off to a good start.  On the 1st, I spent the day frolicking in the Luxembourg gardens on a gorgeous sunny day.  It was the kind of day that made me feel good about welcoming fall.

Kicking my feet up on a chair and reading in the sun became so relaxing I couldn't stand it anymore, so I decided to join the throngs of other Luxembourg sun-lovers laying in the grass.

I wasn't sure I'd find a spot. Parisiens know that when the sun is out, it's time to lay in the grass in front of some beautiful monument and soak it up.
but voila, my very own spot in the sun.  I sprawled out napped while some model guy sat nearby, I mean there was no question he was a model, and I pretended not to stare at him by using the super stealth technique of sunglasses.

Later in the week, Sadie, Jillian, and I decided to have a weekly Thursday night "Master Chef Night", where we would cook something delicious together and watch Master Chef after work. On our first night of watching, one of the challenges was themed around classic French pastries.  

The pastries were numerous and beautiful, propelling us into a pastry-craving tailspin that could only be rectified by having a pastry party the next day at lunch.  Here everyone expresses their excitement to dig into our giant box of Secco pastries. I wish I could show you the before and after. We destroyed them.

Jilly's friend Khaia comes for a visit, so we're off to eat at Dans les Landes.

where we eat delicious fried calamari out of a wooden shoe.

I've been wanting to try this place called Eggs and Co. near St. Germain for ages. They have about 4,000 different ways of making eggs, and they all look delicious.  They decided to have me and another solo guy sit together at this tiny space at a mini counter that can barely even fit two bar stools, and I mean tiny, so we were practically hugging each other while eating, aware of the awkwardness of our situation of being forced together as a couple and yet not speaking the whole time.

It was like when you get on an airplane and sit shoulder to shoulder with someone for 8 hours but both pretend the whole time that the other isn't there.  I wanted to put some Tabasco on my eggs at one point but felt like my silent stranger boyfriend might judge me.  And of course I'd look like a weirdo taking a picture of my plate of eggs, so I couldn't do that either.  Once he left, I at least documented part two of the brunch, my first pancake in Paris.  (Pancakes are not a French thing. But they the beloved crepe is the French pancake, so I can't complain).

I don't mind eating solo, but forced stranger-dining is just too much when a girl just wants to enjoy her eggs.  I'm partially annoyed/don't want to go back, and partially dawning upon the discovery a brilliant new blind date opportunity in Paris.  Maybe one day the model from Luxembourg gardens will walk in.

Other highlights include...

Master Chef Watching #2

We used our chef skills to whip up some boneless pork chops with fig & onion confit and minted green beans

 And a home-made fig tart. Fig season, we welcome you.

A relaxing Sunday morning perusing my beautiful gift from Mindy. (Thank you!!)

Paris has 20 neighborhoods called "arrondisements" that start in the center and spiral outward like a snail's shell. For Simon's 30th birthday party, he hosted an event called "20 in 20", a big group bike ride that has stops in every neighborhood.

There were balloon mascots, Pooh Bear and Zebra.  Unfortunately, there was a tift while riding.  Pooh, in a jealous rage, wrapped his string around Zebra's leg and severed it completely.  As you may or may not know, balloons cannot survive long with a severed extremity. It was a sad moment, as we loved Zebra dearly.  You can see the pain in Aurelien's face here as Zebra deflates before our eyes.  I hung on to his leg, and we did some reconstructive surgery later in the evening.

Our group took up the entire bike lane.  It was a blast riding all over Paris as a massive balloon-touting bicycle gang.  I joined them in the 15th at 5:30pm, and by 1:30am we were still in the 6th.  At least I made it to 10 neighborhoods.  After that, I headed back home, leaving the brave ones to finish the rest.

Having dinner with two new friends, Ludo & Svetlana. Ludo is a chef with an Italian restaurant who I met one night at Chez l'Ami Jean when he was there with his friend, Nicholas. Nicholas is now the chef at this new restaurant, Atelier Vivandaand the three of us had a great time together trying everything on the menu that night.  Talk about a perfectly cooked steak!  I'm loving hanging out with these fellow food lovers.  

We stayed til the end to see Nicholas and the team celebrate their successful opening night.  The restaurant's concept is focused on meat, perfectly cooked in the open kitchen right in front of you.  They offer 3 options for the first course, 4-5 meat options (steak, pork, lamb, sweetbreads), and just potatoes as the side dish, but you choose how you want them cooked (baked, au gratin, mashed, boiled, roasted).  I would return in a heartbeat.