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.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Noma in Copenhagen: Best Restaurant in the World

The most updated version of this post can be found here:

As part of my 30-in-30 Challenge over the past year, I wanted to experience a meal at Noma.  Noma has been voted #1 restaurant in the world on San Pellegrino's "World's 50 Best Restaurants" list for 3 years in a row.  I've wanted to go ever since I saw an incredible blog post about it in 2010. They specialize in completely unique and innovative Nordic cuisine, using locally sourced, often uncommon ingredients that are usually presented in beautiful and playful ways. The idea is to make you think about the source of your food, to be surprised, and to have fun. 

I arrived at 12pm and left at 5pm. How's that for a lunch?  There were 22 courses if you can believe it, and it did not disappoint.  The whole thing was a whirlwind of fun and surprises, like an edible art show & theater performance all wrapped into one lengthy meal.  That time flew by, and it was a blast.

The waiter asked if we were ready to begin, and with that, he slid the flower pot towards us and informed us that we'd be starting with our centerpiece.  That's what I'm talking about.

Starter 1 of 12: A twig from the centerpiece, a beer malt & juniper bread stick

Starter 2 of 12: Fried reindeer moss with cepes powder and crème fraiche

Starter 3 of 12: 3 mussels were balanced on the huge plate of mussel shells. We were instructed to take the top shell off (the real one) and eat the whole thing underneath, which was a crunchy blue corn chip-like shell made to look like a mussel shell, topped with the mussel & celery jus 

Starter 4 of 12: Crispy pork skin with a thin layer of dehydrated black currant, the thinnest & fanciest fruit roll-up in the world. 

Starter 5 of 12: Danish "cookies" (buttery crackers) with soft cheese, arugula, and stems

6 of 12: Crunchy potato and chicken liver sandwich with trumpet mushroom powder

Each plate seemed to come faster than the next. You'd hardly have time to take a picture or ponder what you've just eaten. It's just a constant flow of one dish after another, often times getting a new one before you've finished (or perhaps started) the current one.  I wasn't expecting this at all, it was all so fast, one thing on top of another and I felt rushed, wanting to savor each thing individually. I couldn't keep up. Slow down!! 

Apparently there was a table earlier in the year who thought this beginning part of the meal was the whole thing, and they savored it all at such a pace that there wasn't time for them to get to the actual "main" courses (i.e. #13-22).  So they didn't get to have the second part of the meal because they took too long.  I guess this is how they try to ensure that everyone finishes and to help give a sense of urgency to people like me who would end up eating lunch until 10pm.

7 of 12: Rye bread, crispy chicken skin, and lumpfish roe. Oh man, oh man. 

8 of 12: Birchwood smoked, dehydrated carrots on hay ash with sorrel emulsion.  Look how beautiful these colors are.

The dining room is minimal, spacious, and simply designed with candles, wood, and touches of animal fur, with young attractive chefs running around presenting delicious food to you. In other words, it is a dreamland.  The cool thing about the service at Noma is that it's very informal and everyone is very casual and friendly.  The chefs are the ones who serve you, so you get to meet many different chefs, have them interact with you and ask where you're from, and then hear them describe the dish with excitement.  

You can tell they are passionate about what they've helped create, and it's great to have the chefs who prepared the food interacting directly with the guests who have come to enjoy their creations.  This set-up really makes the whole experience.  In a place where you'd expect everything to be super formal, instead you find a complete lack of pretension or stuffiness.  You feel freedom to relax and enjoy and are encouraged to have fun. 

9 of 12: "Radish, soil, and grass" - A potted plant of carrots & radishes in beer malt "soil". We were told to dig in and if we weren't getting messy, we weren't doing it right.  

10 of 12: What appears to be a dinosaur's egg is placed before us

"Smoked quails' eggs" - I love how playful they are!

All fancy restaurants should aspire to make their guests have this much fun.

Pickled & smoked soft boiled quail's egg

11 of 12: Fish Donuts! Traditional fried apple dumplings with a tiny whole fish shot through the middle, with pickled cucumber in the center, dusted with vinegar powder to counteract the sweetness of the dough. Boom.

This is just fun and ridiculous. I love this place!

Starter 12 of 12: Crispy herb toast, smoked cod roe, fresh herbs, & crispy duck bouillon skin

Truly a standout.  Each dish has so much detail - vinegar powder, hay ash, trumpet mushroom powder...going to the effort of creating duck bouillon just to skim the top of it & then crisp it, so that it becomes just a single component of 1 of 22 dishes.  We are beginning to see what makes this place special.

The unveiling of the bread (warm whole wheat sourdough), wrapped in a felt package, and served with virgin butter (a slightly acidic butter made from organic cultured cream naturally fermented and churned in buckets) and pork fat w/ crispy pork skin. Thank goodness we have this bread to tide us over before beginning the next TEN courses.  

Now seems like an appropriate intermission to mention that we've been having juice pairings as we go. These were all fresh squeezed that morning, and as you can see by the titles, not your average fruit or vegetable juice.

I love the presentation of the bottles with the hand-written labels, and the colors are like melted Crayons.

The flavors were fresh, delicious, and unique, not like anything I've ever had. You could choose a wine pairing instead (the drink pairings are extra), but how often can you get pairings of crazy fresh squeezed Crayola-colored juices?

Now onto Part Two of the performance:

Fresh peas and fermented peas with aromatic tea

Dried scallops, beech nuts, biodynamic grains, watercress, and squid ink

Squid ink or art? I'd hang it on my wall.

Brown crab that is so fresh it has never been refrigerated so it retains its sweetness, 45-minute slow poached egg yolks (unbelievable), sea mustard, dried woodruff, parsley emulsion, beach horseradish, herbs.  

What is sea mustard? What is woodruff?  What makes this horseradish of the beach-y nature?  At some point, I just have to pretend to follow along.  But it's seaweed, a flowering perennial plant, and I can only imagine it grows on the beach; respectively.

Steak tartare, wood sorrel, shallots, rye, juniper dust, and tarragon. No utensils were served with this course, so we were told we had to eat it with our hands. You have to grab a chunk and drag it through the tarragon cream. Eating with my hands TWICE during a fancy meal? Yes, please. 

"Asparagus & Pine" -White asparagus, cleverly browned to look like their woodland friends, with green asparagus and pine emulsion, creme fraiche, and baby pine shoots. 

Pike perch barbecued in cabbage leaves, beach herbs, verbena, and foam made from fish bone stock 

Next we're given a plate of herbs, flowers, and herb butter along w/ a scalding hot iron skillet and an egg 

Then the cooking instructions, given by a dashing gentleman. Hello, you.

Hay oil goes in the hot skillet & we crack in the egg. Wait for the timer to go off. Then add the herb butter, greens, a crispy curly potato, sea salt, and edible flowers.

Is it a garden? Is it lunch?  Fun, beautiful and delicious.

These are my dining extravaganza buddies, Camille & Peter. We had to cover ourselves with the napkin during the egg-cooking to block oil splatters.  

Did I mention that I found total strangers to join me in my meal at Noma just so I could eat here?  You have to reserve 3 months in advance, and the whole month fills up within 5 minutes.  When I tried to reserve, I couldn't reserve for just one person, so I reserved for 4 (my only option), and decided I'd have to find people to come with me.  I posted on to see if anyone wanted to join me, knowing I could probably count on other food lovers to be willing to dine with someone they don't know and book a flight to Copenhagen to eat at such a restaurant as this.  Et voila, an email from Camille, and the rest is history.

Sweet breads with bitter greens (foraged that morning), turnips, mushrooms, & green strawberries

with sauce added tableside from the pan

Finally, after 20 courses, we make it to dessert. A play on the cheese course: Milk curd, frozen "brown cheese" cubes (Norwegian specialty), rhubarb, rhubarb juice, & wood sorrel

Ice cream made from liqueur and caramelized milk with sorrel & sheets of dried milk. They love their sorrel.

And after all this, we move to the lounge for coffee & more desserts!

Chocolate covered potato chips w/ fennel.  Chips with chocolate and fennel?  That's what I'm talking about! What else can we cover in chocolate?? Chocolate dip the napkin. Put some sorrel on it.

Behold the meat caramels.  These caramels are made with bone marrow instead of butter, served in bone slices.  To be fair, I'd already seen this in other posts about Noma, so it didn't have the same shock value, but that didn't stop me from loving it.  So unique and out there, and the presentation - Served like bone marrow, wrapped in butcher paper, tied with twine.  The details kill me.  

A table this full after 22 courses seems a little ridiculous. I love this restaurant.

Coffee, tea, and bone marrow caramels!

THEN we got to tour the kitchen. Seeing the chef creatures in their natural habitat, where they cook up the magical delicious things.  Visiting restaurant kitchens is one of my favorite things.  In life.  

I found the container of hay ash, should you be needing any.

The station for filling and meticulously wiping containers of virgin butter

Our wonderful chef guide giving us a 30 minute tour of the downstairs kitchen, back area, and upstairs kitchen

Behind Noma - fridges and smokers

Private room by the upstairs kitchen

Pinch me that I'm walking through here!!

Where the chefs eat between services

They grow herbs for the cold winter months when they can't just go foraging in the morning. I heard the word "forage" more times during this meal than my whole life.

Dinner time for the chefs. Lots and lots of them.  Can I take one home?  Inappropriate?

It may seem strange to fly to another country and chase down complete strangers just to be able to eat at a restaurant, but this was truly an event to be remembered.  I still don't dare to go and make the conversion to figure out what I actually spent, so that my ignorance can keep me in bliss.  Now I can see why San Pellegrino has crowned Noma as reigning champion, and I can check that off my list...Not just in the year of 30, but in life.  I loved every minute.