Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Cornichons

It surprises me the variety of inexpensive, simple things I can do here in the states to preserve my French state-of-mind. Some are experiental--line drying my linens, using a market basket when I visit the grocery store. Then there are touches in my home--a small bunch of fresh flowers or a fragrant block of savon de Marseille. Then of course, there is the food, which may be the easiest way to bring a bit of France into my home. No surprise that it always makes me smile when I open my fridge and see that jar of cornichons. Is it the name that makes me smile? The size? The flavor? Je ne sais pas.

These aren't your everyday gherkin. These are Parisian pickles, cornichons by Maille. Makers of mustards, vinegars, and of course, cornichons, Maille's storefront is located at 6 place de la Madeleine, Paris. In France we eat these tiny pickles with salads or cheeses, my French brother-in-law eats them with foie gras, my nephews eat them for le snack. Smaller, spicier, and crisper than American varieties, I found Maille cornichons at my local Safeway for $3.59.

I was dismayed, though not surprised, when I heard recently that Maille is no longer buying their cornichons from French farmers; Maille now purchases their gherkins from India. However I was surpised to learn that Trader Joe's cornichons are grown in France, in the southwestern Garonne Valley.

And so it goes that even the lowly pickle is not spared from globalization.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Art of Simple Food

Everyday French cooking is not a pricey affair. The French are thrifty--even frugal--perhaps a holdover from WWII when food was scarce. In everyday French cooking, less expensive cuts of meat, fresh aromatic vegetables, and savory sauces combine to make simple but delicious meals. And unless there is a large kitchen and ample storage, ingredients are purchased daily, or several times each week. This insures that indgredients are fresh, and nothing is wasted.

I've adopted these same shopping and cooking habits. Of course it took months to break the routine of a big, weekly grocery shopping and stocking the pantry full. Now, a trip to the market means buying fresh bread, meat for that evening's meal, and several fresh carrots instead of a two pound bag. Even if I market several times a week instead of daily, I only purchase ingredients for two or three meals, not a week's worth. I've made it work for me, and I believe I have the French to thank for it.

A cookbook that has helped is Alice Waters' The Art of Simple Food. An advocate of buying fresh and local long before it was fashionable, Waters changed many people's minds about the way they shop for ingredients and cook. And while not a French cookbook, the approach in The Art of Simple Food is très French: the freshest ingredients, simply prepared. A recipe for a pâte sucrée can be prepared in fifteen minutes, and a recipe for braised chicken legs is as delicious as you would find in any Parisan bistro. I also love the book itself: the sunny yellow cover, the red cloth spine, the pressed lettering, and its size and weight make this book a pleasure to hold. The price of $23 was worth it since I use it several times a week.

Today was cold and rainy in the DC area, a perfect day for a meal from this favorite cookbook: braised short ribs cooked with vegetables and potatoes. This humble cut of meat is so inexpensive but so delicious when prepared à la Waters, and the aroma filled the house all day.

The cost of the meal, including wine and bread: less than $18. How very French, non?

Emile Henry

Preparing meals during the week is a hurried affair. It's easy enough to set the table with linens, light some candles, open a bottle of wine. But the meal preparation is rushed in an effort to get dinner on the lovely table.

Today is Friday. Friday begins the weekend, and the weekends are different: a slower pace and more time to shop and prepare meals. In season, there is time to visit the farmer's market. In the colder months, the weekend allows time for a slow cooking cassoulet or a fragrant roast. The weekend is the time to try new recipes or perfect favorites. And, preparing meals on the weekends is a chance for me to use my favorite oven cookware by Emile Henry.

I've always appreciated these simple, unadorned gratin dishes; what I didn't appreciate was the price. Then during a visit to France, I was in one of the hypermarkets; browsing the wares I discovered an aisle where the shelves were lined with Emile Henry ovenware (hypermarkets are similar to Target or Wal-Mart, except the wares are French). The prices were reasonable: 15 €, as opposed to $49 USD. I couldn't resist buying one, and so began my collection of Emile Henry. My very first piece, a small oval gratin dish, is pictured above.

Can't get to France? Non, non, don't be discouraged! You see, I chose to post about this because Emile Henry is currently on sale at amazon.com. While it is not deeply discounted, many pieces can be had at a savings. You can also buy it online at the Emile Henry Factory Outlet. Again, not a huge savings, but you can find some bargains. Finally, if all you're after is the look, check T.J. Maxx, Marshalls, and HomeGoods stores; I've never been there when I didn't see a beautiful gratin dish.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

La vache qui rit

In the summer when we take my nephews to the lake, we pack lots of snacks. A healthy snack the boys enjoy is small cubes or wedges of "The Laughing Cow" cheese, or La vache qui rit, as it is known in France. "The Laughing Cow" cheese has a long history in France, dating back to the 1920s. Available in the states for years, the cheese recently gained in popularity when it was included as part of the South Beach Diet.

This is not gourmet cheese, but it is found in many French households. Ah, ah, before you say that no respectable French would have such a cheese in their fridge, my sister's French husband said "The Laughing Cow" was one of the foods they always had in the house when he was growing-up. For me, "Laughing Cow" is an inexpensive (and delicious) way to bring a little France into my day.

Because it is pasteurized, the cheese can be left unrefrigerated for hours, so it is perfect for packing in a lunch. At my neighborhood grocer, I can buy a package of eight wedges for about $3.50, which last me the week. The cheese is also perfect if you enjoy a cheese course with your dîner but don't have that Comté in the fridge.

So, if you haven't discovered "The Laughing Cow," look for it the next time you go to the grocery store, and you too may find yourself asking, "Pourquoi la vache qui rit?"

Comments SVP.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Paris apartments

I'm always looking for inspiration on how to add touches of French decor into my home. As with fashion, I enjoy looking at pics for ideas and then trying to replicate the look. Although filled with ideas, most of the French decorating books I've seen boast a style that is more Marie Antoinette than moi.

Then I discovered Paris Perfect.

I found the site when I was searching for Paris vacation rentals. The Paris Perfect site provides a detailed description and numerous photos of each apartment. Most of the apartments are located in the 7e arrondisement, and many of them within view of the Eiffel Tower (I especially love the photos of the Eiffel Tower at night taken from the balconies of some of the apartments). With more than fifty apartments available, the photos have provided me with hours of entertainment and lots of inspiration.

Clearly the owners have found a decorating formula, as touches are repeated in many of their apartments. But no matter; every apartment is lovely and I have found something to appreciate in each of them.

So if you enjoy looking at photos of Paris apartments, take a peek at Paris Perfect!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Cyrillus

I love discovering something new, and a real find was Cyrillus, a clothing store for men, women, and children. Cyrillus also has a line of interieur goods, mostly linens. Far from being couture, Cyrillus is relatively affordable. And if you're lucky enough to hit an August sale, you can find some bargains.

But the most wonderful thing about Cyrillus is their website. From there you can view (or download) their online catalogue and preview the upcoming season's styles. Yes, you can order from Cyrillus, though the shipping makes it expensive. Much more fun is paging through the catalogue then copying the styles with purchases from Target, Old Navy, j.crew, T.J. Maxx--wherever you shop.

And the styles are authentic. True to French prêt-à-porter, the clothes are simple, practical, and of high quality. The dresses in the spring collection can be worn on their own, though you'd be just as likely to see them worn as a top with a pair of cuffed jeans.

The Cyrillus website has an English version and a version française, providing an opportunity to practice your reading in French! I subscribe to the Cyrillus newsletter; the newsletter is free, keeps me up-to-date on styles, and is like a small gift from France everytime it shows up in my mailbox.

Check it out, and let me know what you think.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Tulips

Cut flowers in a glass vase are an easy way to add color and elegance to a room. Très European, they are an affordable way to bring that je ne sais quoi into your home. You don't need to spend a fortune on cut flowers; most grocery stores have a floral section.

Today I visited the floral section of my neighborhood grocer and came away with a small bunch of yellow and orange striped tulips. The cost: $5.99. At home, I stripped away some of the outer leaves, rinsed the sandy soil that was clinging to the stems, gave them a fresh cut, and placed the flowers in a low, rectangular glass vase. Et voilà, a touch of French springtime that will make me smile all week.

Enjoy yours.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Bonjour!

For months I've been following bloggers who write about things French--decorating, food, fashion and style. There are many good ones--I have my favorites--but none seem to have exactly what I am looking for, so I decided to create my own.

I am American but have the good fortune to spend some of my summer in France. For several years now, I have spent that time in Annecy. About 45 minutes from Geneva, Annecy is a lovely city in the Haute Savoie region of France. I discovered Annecy through my sister; she and her French husband bought a home in one of the villages that circle Lac de Annecy. This is where we gather each summer, a celebration of family and friends.

Over the years, I have adopted some French habits that have become part of the way I live in the US. These are small things that influence the way I buy and prepare food, the way I shop for and wear clothes, and the way I keep my house.

If you are looking for a site on how to create a French minimalist wardrobe or redecorate your house to resemble a Parisian apartment, you won't find that here. There are wonderful sites that touch on those topics; I leave that to others who are more talented and have more vision.

What you will find here are ways to introduce small but authentic French touches into your life. These additions are simple, inexpensive, and most important, compatible with the way we live in our own country. Since there seems to be interest, I thought might share my France experience with others.

I hope you enjoy it, and I invite your comments.