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Armchair Traveller: The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry

The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry

Several years ago, a friend gave me a copy of Kathleen Flinn’s The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry as a Christmas present. She said she knew I would like it.

She was right. I devoured the book.

I picked it up again last month when I was writing my post about the film Julie and Julia. I flipped through it, rereading bits here and there, but was stopped cold by this sentence near the beginning of the book:

With that, I lost a job I was desperate to quit.

I immediately sat down and began to reread the book from start to finish.

Kathleen Flinn wrote The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry after graduating from Le Cordon Bleu in 2005. A journalist by trade, she based her account on the journal entries she wrote during her time in Paris, the audio tapes she recorded during demonstration classes, and the interviews she conducted with students, school staff, and alumni. The result is a highly entertaining and enlightening account of one American student’s experiences while studying at one of the top culinary schools on the planet.

Studying at Le Cordon Bleu is not for the faint of heart. The curriculum is daunting, the expectations are high, and the classes are taught in French. Flinn completed the three-part Diplôme de Cuisine (Cuisine Diploma); each part (Basic Cuisine, Intermediate Cuisine, and Superior Cuisine) is three months long. One can also study pastry and complete a three-part Diplôme de Pâtisserie, or do both cuisine and pastry, and receive Le Grand Diplôme.

The binder of more than a hundred recipes each student is given at the beginning of the course contains only lists of ingredients. Students are expected to make notes during the demonstration class, then repeat the recipe ― exactly ― during their practical class. Like I said, not for the faint of heart. When Flinn explains to the chef she has never filleted a fish before in her life, he replies, “I can tell. You should practice ― at home.” Another chef yells at her after a particularly trying class, “Vous perdez votre temps!” (You are wasting your time.)

I learned some interesting bits of trivia while reading this book. For instance, did you know that quiche comes from the German word for “cake”? Or that the sharper your knife when you dice onions, the less likely you are to cry? (Cue the book’s title.) Provençal cuisine ― with its olives, olive oil, tomatoes, and saffron ― has its origins from the time of the Romans, who occupied the region and named it Nostra Provincia (our province).

Back to the beginning: Flinn lost her job and enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu (using up all her savings to do so) with the encouragement of her then-boyfriend (now husband) who remembered it was something she had always said she wanted to do. When she protests that she knows no one in Paris, he merely says, “You’ll know me. If you want me to, I’ll go with you.”

(Sigh. Not only is this book a food/travel memoir, but it’s a love story as well.)

“Living is like driving. You have to pick a lane,” Flinn’s grandmother used to tell her. At the start of Basic Cuisine, Flinn wonders if she picked the right lane, but by the end of this book, you know she has. The chef who told her she was wasting her time becomes her greatest mentor and she thanks him, in the end, for being so tough on her. She was already an accomplished food journalist before studying at Le Cordon Bleu; her culinary studies only cemented that career and proved to her she had found her bliss.

So why did the sentence I read earlier this summer (“With that, I lost a job I was desperate to quit”) make me drop everything and reread this book in pretty much one sitting?

It’s because earlier this summer I found out I was going to lose my job ― a job I didn’t know I was desperate to quit until I lost it. This past winter I was sinking deeper and deeper into a funk about what to do about this job I thought I wanted, and the only thing that was giving me any enjoyment was cooking.

Yup. I’ve been spending my weekends recuperating from my day job by hunkering down in my tiny condo-sized kitchen. Sadly, the most appealing aspect of all this cooking was that I was alone. Somewhere around Easter I realized I needed to avoid all contact with people on weekends, for the simple reason that when you’re an introvert, and you work in a small, high-energy office, it takes you two days minimum to recover before you are ready for Monday morning. Obviously, that’s not a tenable situation if you want to have any kind of social life.

Yesterday was my last day at work. I don’t exactly know what I will be doing next, although I’m pretty sure I won’t be running off to Paris to go to cooking school anytime soon. But this much I do know: there will be a lot more writing and travelling in my future.

And probably some cooking, too.

If you’re even minimally interested in cooking, I recommend you read The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry. (Yes, there are recipes, too.) And if you’re at a crossroads in your life and are wondering what lane to choose next, I highly recommend you read it.

E. Dehillerin

Dehillerin Exterior

There is one scene in Julie & Julia that cracks me up every time I watch the film because it’s so far off from the truth. It’s when Julia Child, Simone Beck, and Louisette Bertholle are (supposedly) shopping in E. Dehillerin, the famous cookware store that has been supplying French chefs with the tools of their trade since 1820. The store in the movie is pristine and light and airy, with lots of room for Julia Child to wildly swing her shopping basket.

That scene wasn’t filmed in the actual store, as anyone who has ever shopped at E. Dehillerin can tell you. The actual store is much darker and dingier and more cramped than the one shown in the film.

In the words of David Lebovitz, the only way to enter E. Dehillerin is to “brace yourself and step inside.” My sister and I stumbled upon it quite by accident one afternoon in December 2010, moments after we had stumbled ― also by accident ― into Saint-Eustache, a magnificent church in the 1er arrondissement.

Here’s how I described my introduction to Dehillerin in the journal I kept that winter:

We came around a corner and there was heaven: E. Dehillerin, which I had read about. It’s the cookware store in Paris where all the pros shop, including (it’s been said) Julia Child.

But it was massively packed; I’ve never been in such a crowded store. The basement was dusty and musty and filled with massive industrial-sized stock pots (and not as crowded as upstairs).

Upstairs, I tried to look at the knives, but you could barely get past anyone to get near the counter where they were displayed. (And “display” is a bit generous. They were simply plunked in wooden bins of various sizes and in various groupings.) We got out of there and decided on lunch in a place in Rue Montorgeuil.

A week later, I returned, this time with a friend who was spending Christmas with my sister and me. Not only did I want her to experience the store for herself, but I had decided I was going to buy me some knives as a Christmas present to myself. We wandered in and out of several cookware and bakeware stores that morning ― they are all congregated near E. Dehillerin because there used to be a giant market nearby where all the Parisian restaurateurs used to shop for their daily menus. The market is long gone, but the shops ― and the restaurants ― remain.

Dehillerin was insanely crowded on my second visit as well and my friend and I quickly gave up on my plan to buy some knives.

But, I was determined. I did some online research and learned that persistence was the only way to get results when shopping at E. Dehillerin. And so, I returned.

Back to my journal:

January 29. Saturday. I still wanted my knives from Dehillerin and, as they are closed on Sundays and I was leaving on Monday, this was the last possible day I could buy them. I’d put it off as long as I could as it seemed so intimidating, given everything I’d read about the place, and how crazy crowded it had been on my two previous visits. But … I persevered. In I went, and it seemed a bit crowded at first, but then all of a sudden it emptied out and I had all the room I wanted to pick out the knives I wanted.

I checked the price of one in the book at the end of the aisle, went back to the bins of knives, decided on another knife and then thought, “Oh, I don’t care how much it costs. This is the one I want.” That was the 20 cm chef knife. I then chose a 10 cm paring knife, and a sharpening steel, and took them to the table where they wrapped your purchases.

The clerk said something to me in French. When he realized I hadn’t understood a word, he said, “English?” “Yes,” I replied. He then explained that the sharpening steel I had selected was too small for the size of my knife. For only a few euros more, I could get the right-sized steel made by the same company. I said, “OK,” he went to grab the right-sized sharpening steel, looked up the codes in his book posted on the pillar at the end of the aisle, wrote them down on a slip of paper and handed it to me.

I took the slip of paper to the woman behind the counter and she took my payment. Two knives and a sharpening steel for 86 euros. Earlier that month, I had checked the prices of knives in the housewares department at Galeries Lafayette and a chef knife there went for 100 euros alone.

So, very pleased with myself, I took the receipt back to the table, another clerk jammed each knife tip into a wine cork and then wrapped the knives in brown paper. Off I went, the happy owner of some proper kitchen knives at last. The fact that I bought them in Paris, and that they have the Dehillerin name engraved on the blade, is a bonus.

That afternoon is one of my favourite shopping memories while travelling.

No, wait. It is one of my favourite shopping memories ever. And the best part? I get to take an imaginary walk through Dehillerin every time I use those knives.

Which is every day.

Dehillerin Interior

Reel Life: Julie & Julia

Julie & JuliaI had the opportunity this past week to introduce some friends to the film Julie & Julia. I was secretly pleased when they selected that DVD out of the pile I had brought, but I had no idea when I grabbed it at the last minute that most of the group had never seen the film.

Julie & Julia was Nora Ephron’s last film and stars the legendary Meryl Streep and the charming Amy Adams. It was Ephron’s producer who had the brilliant idea to combine into one screenplay two memoirs published around the same time. Julia Child’s My Life in France is about her life in post-war France, and Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen evolved from Julie Powell’s blog about cooking her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in post-9/11 Queens, New York. Beyond their names, Julie and Julia had in common the love and support of a devoted husband, a love of food, and the need to find some meaningful work to fill their days.

Early in the film, Julie Powell’s husband declares that “Julia Child wasn’t always Julia Child” ― and that’s precisely what makes the film so entertaining. Although I’m as fascinated as the next traveller about the daily routine of life as a New Yorker, the depiction of Julie Powell’s long subway commute and soulless work cubicle ring a little too close to home. But when the action switches to France, you’re transported to another time and place to witness the transformation of Julia Child, ex-pat American wife, to Julia Child, chef, author, and TV star.

Julia Child’s introduction to French food ― mere hours after she arrives in France ― is sole meunière. The epiphany she experiences in the look, smell, and taste of that first meal is, for me, the essential moment of the film. And it reminded me of the moment when I had my own epiphany about French cuisine. It was in a small restaurant in Perpignan where two friends and I shared a meal after a long day of sight-seeing. I ordered a tomato salad. It looked so simple ― a single layer of tomato slices on a small plate, sprinkled with an herb vinaigrette ― but I knew with my first bite that I was tasting something unlike anything I’d ever tasted before. The French don’t make simple tomato salads; they create spectacular tomato salads.

As much as my friends enjoyed Julie & Julia, they were a little more circumspect than I about the film; one remarked that she wouldn’t have reacted nearly as well as Julie Powell if the first words out of her partner’s mouth after disappearing for two days following a heated argument were, “What’s for dinner?”

As for me, whenever I’m homesick for French food, I’ll be (re)watching Julie & Julia.

West End Farmers Market

Strawberries

I know summer has well and truly arrived when the West End Farmers Market returns.

West End Farmers Market

As it did today.

Asparagus

And it’ll be here, every Saturday, until the end of October.

Lettuce

Oh joy, oh bliss. Shopping at your local farmers market is the best way to maintain a 100-mile diet.

Zucchini

Besides the West End Farmers Market where I shop (located alongside Nelson Park), Vancouver has six other summer markets. (There are also two winter markets.) You can buy fresh produce, cheese, baked goods, meat, poultry, and fish, and artisan products such as olives or fruit jams or soap. Vancouverites spend $8 million a year at their farmers markets and support 265 local farmers and artisans in doing so.

Vendor and Shopper

The best part? Everything tastes like summer. Truly.

Go on. What are you waiting for?

20 Years

Recipe Box: Boeuf Bourguignon

Boeuf Bourguignon

Before we get too far into spring, I need to fill you in on how I spent my non-winter.

(Because when one hasn’t the means for a mid-winter getaway, and there’s no snow to play in, how does one entertain oneself in Vancouver through a long non-winter that is most definitely not summer?)

Me? I entertain myself by taking French cooking classes. That way I enjoy some armchair travel (is it still considered “armchair” when you are run off your feet for three hours?) and learn something new about France.

This winter I chose a class focused on the food of Burgundy, and one of the dishes on the course syllabus was boeuf bourguignon.

Confession: I’ve never actually eaten boeuf bourguignon in France, but a friend made it for a dinner party she hosted in my honour before I headed off to spend the winter in Paris some years ago. It was my first encounter with the braised stew and it was delicious.

Like coq au vin, boeuf bourguignon is a former peasant dish that has made its way into fine dining; cheap (read: tough) cuts of meat are softened to a delicate texture by stewing them in wine.

The classic wine choice for making boeuf bourguignon is Pinot Noir, given that the prevalent grape grown in Burgundy is Pinot noir. My French cooking instructor provided us with BC Pinot to make our stew ― French wine was too dear for his budget. To speed up the cooking time, he had us cut the beef into smaller cubes, and cook the stew on the stove instead of in the oven.

Bon appétit!

Boeuf Bourguignon

3 pounds stewing beef cut into 2-inch cubes
4 garlic cloves, peeled and cut in half
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs fresh parsley
2 springs fresh thyme
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
2 carrots
2 onions
1 bottle Pinot Noir
6 ounces bacon cut into lardons (1/4 inch wide and 1 1/2 inches long)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons flour
2 to 3 cups brown beef stock
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 cloves mashed garlic
1/2 teaspoon thyme
1 crumpled bay leaf
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
brown-braised onions (see below)
sautéed mushrooms (see below)

Ingredients

1. Peel 1 carrot and cut into sticks. Peel 1 onion and cut into quarters.
2. Place the beef in a large non-reactive bowl. Add the carrot, onion, garlic, bay leaves, parsley, thyme, rosemary, and wine. Marinade overnight. (Note: In my humble opinion, marinating the meat is optional. My French cooking instructor taught us to do it, but Julia Child doesn’t bother with this step.)
3. Preheat oven to 450°F.
4. In a large sauce pan, Dutch oven, or cocotte, brown the lardons in butter. Remove from pan.
5. Strain the beef and vegetables, reserving the marinade, then dry the beef cubes with paper towels.
6. Reheat the bacon fat until it is almost smoking, then brown the beef in the fat. (Note: My French cooking instructor tried to get me to stir the beef by shaking the pan with a forward motion to flip the cubes from back to front. It was a heavy pan. But if you can manage it, go for it. It will make you feel like a real chef.)
7. Remove the beef from pan and add it to the bacon.
8. Peel and slice the remaining carrot and onion. Brown them in the bacon fat, then pour out the fat.
9. Return the beef and bacon to the pan and sprinkle with the salt and pepper and flour to coat lightly.
10. Put the uncovered pan in the preheated oven for four minutes. Toss the meat, then return to oven for another four minutes. (This step cooks the flour and gives the beef a light crust. Do not skip.)
11. Remove the beef from the oven and turn the oven down to 325°F.
12. Stir in the reserved marinade (or bottle of Pinot Noir if you didn’t marinate the beef), and enough stock to just cover the meat.
13. Add the tomato paste, mashed garlic, and herbs.
14. Bring to a simmer on top of the stove, then cover and return to oven.
15. Braise the beef for 2 1/2 to 3 hours, checking to ensure the liquid is gently simmering. When the beef is tender, remove from the oven.
16. While the beef is in the oven, prepare the onions and mushrooms (see below).
17. Strain the beef from the liquid.
18. Skim any fat from the liquid remaining in the pan, and simmer for a minute or two. Bring to a boil and reduce to 2 1/4 cups. To thicken, it may be necessary to add beurre manié ― a paste made of equal parts butter and flour. Use a whisk to mix the beurre manié into the liquid.
19. Return to heat and simmer for a few minutes until sauce has thickened, then remove from heat.
20. Return the beef to the sauce to reheat. The onions and mushrooms can be added to the sauce or served on the side. Sprinkle chopped parsley over top and serve with oven-roasted or boiled new potatoes.

Braised Beef

Brown-braised Onions

12 to 18 white onions about 1 inch in diameter, or 24 pearl onions
1 1/2 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 tablespoons oil
1/2 cup stock, dry white wine, red wine, or water
salt and pepper
one herb bouquet (4 parsley springs, 1 bay leaf, and 1/4 teaspoon thyme tied in cheesecloth)

1. Bring a pot of water to boil, immerse the onions for about a minute, drain, then cut off the root and peel.
2. Place a skillet over high heat with the butter and oil. When hot, turn the heat down to moderate and brown the onions.
3. Add the liquid, salt and pepper, and the herb bouquet.
4. Cover and simmer slowly for 40 to 50 minutes until the onions are tender and the liquid has evaporated. The onions should retain their shape. Remove the herb bouquet.

Onions

Sautéed Mushrooms

2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon oil
1/2 pound fresh mushrooms (cut into quarters if large)
1 to 2 tablespoons minced shallots or green onions (optional)
salt and pepper

1. Place a skillet over high heat with the butter and oil. When hot, turn the heat down to moderate and add the mushrooms. Remove from heat as soon as mushrooms are lightly browned.
2. If using shallots or green onions, add to the mushrooms, and sauté over moderate heat for 2 more minutes.

Mushrooms

Recipe Box: Sockeye Salmon

A sure sign that summer is morphing into fall is when the salmon start running.

Four years ago, the Fraser River had the salmon run of the century. More than 30 million sockeye swam up river to spawn that year ― the highest number since 1913. This year, their offspring are returning to spawn in spades, and both the commercial and sports fisheries are expected to match their harvest of 2010. (Time for a quick biology lesson ― just in case it’s needed. Salmon are born in freshwater rivers, migrate to the ocean, then return to the rivers to spawn. They always return to the river where they were born; thus, it can be predicted that a good salmon run one year will result in another good run several years later.)

False Creek Fisherman's Wharf

Now, if you live along the West Coast (as I do), you have the good fortune to be able to buy sockeye right off the boat (as they say). I bought a nice four-pounder last weekend. (I asked for the smallest one they had ― most were much bigger.) This year the sockeye are so prolific that the fishmonger up the street is matching the price I paid at the dock, and even my local big-chain grocery store is stocking whole salmon.

Salmons in the Sink

What to do with a whole salmon, you ask? Why, you fillet it. Or you cut it into steaks. (Trust me: YouTube is your friend on days like these.)

And then you grill it, bake it, pan fry it … the options are myriad.

I’ve tried all kinds of recipes, but my favourite way to prepare sockeye salmon is to keep it simple: season with salt and pepper, then pop it into a preheated 450°F oven. Bake for about 12 minutes, no longer. The key when cooking salmon in the oven is to not overbake it or it will be too dry.

And then: enjoy!

Salmon Steaks

Hollandse Kaas

Look what I got!

Dutch Cheese

I was hanging out in Solo again these past few weeks taking care of a houseful of cats while my sister and her husband were gallivanting around northern Europe. I’m back home again, but as a thank-you gift for my hard work my sister brought a gift for me from the Netherlands: echte Hollandse kaas (real Dutch cheese)!

I thought the timing was too perfect to pass up, given my recent post about my love affair with Dutch cheese, and so I just had to post a photo. Now, if you’ll please excuse me, I’m going to go eat some cheese.

Salt Spring Island Cheese

Last month, I told you all about the beginnings of my life-long love affair with cheese.

This month, I’m going to tell you about a stop I make whenever I visit Salt Spring Island — a place that’s perfect for cheese addicts (like me) looking for their next fix.

Salt Spring Island Cheese 1

It’s the Salt Spring Island Cheese Company.

Salt Spring Island Cheese Sign

I’ve long been a fan of this cheesemaker’s dairy products ― they specialize in handmade goat and sheep cheeses that are available in grocery stores and at cheesemongers all across Greater Vancouver. What I did not know is how incredibly fresh the chèvres taste if you buy them straight from the source instead of waiting for them to be shipped to Vancouver. Who knew the difference a few days could make in the flavour and texture of fresh goat cheese?

Salt Spring Island Cheese 2

Salt Spring Island Cheese Company offers a self-guided tour of the cheese-making process from start to finish ― beginning with a walk through the barn where the goats are kept all the way to the final wrapping and display of the many varieties of cheese for sale in the shop.

Cheesemaking

If you’re as addicted to cheese as I am (is that even possible?), be sure to check out the Salt Spring Island Cheese Company the next time you’re on Salt Spring Island.

Cheeses and More Cheeses

Alkmaar

Cheeses

I remember the exact moment I fell in love with cheese. The exact moment. Is that weird?

My family and I were enjoying a picnic lunch of sandwiches and fruit after a bike ride through the Amsterdamse Bos, a thousand-hectare park just south of Amsterdam. Mom handed me a sandwich, but I shook my head when I saw what was on it. I hated cheese.

“Taste it,” Mom said. “You’ll like this cheese.”

And ― whoa! That was the moment. I’d spent thirteen years pulling up my nose at fermented milk products, and all it took was a bit of Gouda cheese on bread to convert me to a wonderful new world. At that precise moment, cheese became my favourite food group. It seems, as was the case with me and beer, that I had to be in a country that knows how to properly make cheese (or beer) before I was able to appreciate its finer qualities. The discoveries you make when you travel.

And so, it was my love of Dutch cheese that brought me eventually (perhaps inevitably?) to the Alkmaar Cheese Market. (Dare I call it a pilgrimmage?)

Alkmaar Weigh House

Alkmaar Weigh House

Alkmaar’s centuries-old cheese market is held on Friday mornings from April to September in the Waagplein (that’s Dutch for “weighing square”) located beside the Weigh House. Alkmaar is only a thirty-minute train ride north of Amsterdam, so a visit to the cheese market is easily done as a day trip if you are based in Amsterdam.

Weigh House Close -up

There are always crowds, so get here early if you want to be able to see everything that goes on. Essentially, what you are watching is a tradition that goes back hundreds of years: the cheese makers bring their cheese to the market, the traders and buyers inspect it, and then the deals are made. All the while, men dressed in white carry the cheese using special carriers from the Waagplein, where the wheels of cheese are laid out in neat rows, to the Weigh House to be weighed and back again.

The following is a photo tour of what I saw and learned in Alkmaar. (Click on the first photo at top left to open the slide show.)

Back to the cheese epiphany I had at age thirteen. A few weeks after that momentous picnic lunch, our family settled in at the small Dutch town where we would be living for a few months. We soon got into a routine of going to the weekly outdoor market along the canal. Our first stop was always the kaas stand (cheese stand) where Mom showed us how it was expected that you always taste the cheese before buying. We’d each of us get a nibble of cheese, and then Mom would make her selection.

Oh, for the love of cheese.

Cheeses on Cart

Armchair Traveller: On Rue Tatin

On Rue TatinHow many shopping days until Christmas? I think I have time to squeeze in another book recommendation.

This one is by another American cookbook author who transplants herself to France, but she doesn’t write about cooking in the World’s Most Glorious ― and Perplexing ― City. Instead, she and her family live (and cook and eat) in a small village in Normandy.

On Rue Tatin by Susan Herrmann Loomis is part travel memoir, part cookbook. There is one long tedious chapter to get through that describes her history with France and how she and her husband came to live in Normandy, but after that the book picks up its pace. Many pages are devoted to their struggles (and expenses) of renovating the house they bought beside the Romanesque/Gothic village church into a family home. The building was a convent for three hundred years, then an antique shop; I dread to think of what it looked like when she first set foot inside. It is in this convent-turned-home that she also teaches week-long classes at her cooking school, also named On Rue Tatin.

Although the first chapter of On Rue Tatin almost made me put the book down (what was her editor thinking?), Normandy is an underrated region of France and for that reason alone I recommend giving the book a read. I also have to ’fess up that Loomis’s assessment of the amount of rain Normandy is known for made me laugh: as a former Seattleite, she assured her readers it was nothing. That was enough to convince me that I would feel right at home in Normandy. And her recipes are enticing enough that I have already decided my next cooking class will be on Norman cuisine (here in Vancouver, alas, not in Normandy). But I can already smell the tarte tatin I will be baking.