Thursday, April 30, 2009

Paying it forward

A few weeks ago I received a package from Stephanie at Bonjour Madame as part of her pay it forward post. I was touched by her generosity and the thought that went into it, and silly with anticipation as I opened the small treasures inside. Merci beaucoup, Madame Stephanie.

I promised I would pay it forward, so now it is my turn. The first three people to post a comment will receive a colorful Moutet tea towel. I will check back tomorrow and contact the winners. And, following Stephanie's lead, when you choose to pay it forward you can do it with a gift to others, or, with some simple acts of kindness.

Thank you again, Stephanie, for the inspiration.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Tissage Moutet

I don't remember when I discovered Moutet textiles, but it was love at first sight. It was the vivid colors that first attracted me, but it was the tea towels that have kept me going back.

Moutet is a bit like the Hermés of tea towels; each one is a work of art. And like Hermés scarves, some people actually do frame these beautiful, practical torchons. They are collectible, and each season Moutet introduces several new designs. The designs are the creations of some of the world's most talented textile designers: Hélène Druvert, Zofia Rostad, Marion Levy, Véronique Georgelin.

I buy a few every year when I go to France--some to keep, some to give as gifts. I never worry if they will match the kitchen décor--they seem to go with everything. I especially love the ones with text, but the graphics are just as beautiful.

Has this piqued your interest? Check back tomorrow for a giveaway!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Putting it all together

I've really enjoyed writing this series of posts on shopping for and preparing meals "the French way." But, as the week went on, it struck me that perhaps I should refer to this as "the fresh way." The habit of shopping several times each week or shopping at the farmer's market really stems from the desire to use the freshest ingredients available.

I've always loved cooking, though meal preparation during the week was always a rushed affair. However, by making some small changes, shopping and cooking have become something I enjoy every day. As Mireille Guiliano says, "French DNA is not required for the experience . . . it is a question of conditioning and priorities of which you may find that you share more with the French than you realized."

Putting it all together, one only needs to make a few small changes:
  • push back the dinner hour
  • have a variety of meals to take advantage of what is fresh at the grocer
  • keep the fridge and pantry stocked with reliable staples
  • locate a farmer's market and buy seasonal when possible
  • use a pretty market bag or basket when shopping and don't overbuy
  • eat bread!
As I said, I have enjoyed writing this series of posts, and I have really appreciated your comments and questions. Merci! I think I want to do another series; I like the focus it gives my writing. But, what topic?






Sunday, April 26, 2009

Dimanche croissants de matin

Sunday morning is special, a time for rituals and traditions. For many it is a time to celebrate their faith, for some it is a time to visit family or close friends; many do both. However we spend this special morning, we still must eat, oui?

At my house, Sunday morning brings a special treat: croissants. I mentioned there is a pâtisserie in my neighborhood that sells the most delicious pastries, and they also make perfect croissants. Plain, amande, chocolat--everyone has their favorite. This morning it is deux pain au chocolat and three croissants. No need to go into detail who ate what; it's enough to say that they were delicious!

And for dinner, spinach ravioli with the pommarola sauce I bought yesterday at the farmer's market. Add to that a salad made with the last of this week's baby greens, and a glass of wine for a delicious late afternoon dîner.

Tomorrows post: Putting it all together

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Le marché

I am fortunate to live in an area where the farmer’s market is open year round. In the winter months the produce selection is limited to winter greens, squash, onions and potatoes, but I’m going today in the hope that there will be asparagus.

The American farmer's market is a not-too-distant cousin of the French marché. In fact, because of the recent increase in farmer's markets and the number and type of vendors, the American farmer's market is looking more like a twin than a cousin. In my area, all vendors at a farmer's market must be within a 125 mile radius of the the area, which guarantees food is absolutely fresh.

As the weather gets warmer, there are more vendors at the market. Today, I need to buy potatoes, onions, and garlic. I ask around and there is no asparagus this week, but one vendor has some beautiful carrots, so I buy a few pounds. I buy eggs from Polyface Farm; they're not at the market every week, but today I'm in luck. I also buy some fresh spinach ravioli and a jar of fresh pommarola sauce from Cavanna Pasta, one of my favorite vendors. On the way home from the farmer’s market I stop to buy bread at the bakery, and can’t resist the pastries so I buy a few.

So what will be for dinner this week? Well, there will be spinach ravioli for sure, an egg dish (maybe a quiche?), and for tonight I've decided to make a carrot soup. There are several excellent recipes for carrot soup, but my current favorite is on page 70 of Alice Waters' cookbook The Art of Simple Food. All the ingredients I need I have at home or in my market basket, including that baguette which smells so good.

Tomorrow's post: Dimanche croissants de matin

Friday, April 24, 2009

Dîner vendredi

Friday is unpredictable as far as who will be at home for dinner; this evening, it will just be me. To save a trip to the grocer, I decide on a potato gratin, to finish the potatoes I bought earlier in the week. And because I’m going to have a starch, I decide to pass on buying bread.

A potato gratin is easy to make and can be eaten as a side dish as part of a larger meal. But this evening the gratin will be my meal, served alongside asparagus and cheese. I preheat the oven to 350°, take out my favorite Emile Henry gratin dish and butter the bottom and sides.

I slice the potatoes and layer them in the gratin dish, seasoning each layer with salt and pepper as I go. I like three layers in my gratin, and I have just enough potatoes. I add milk and a few small bits of butter and place the gratin in the oven to bake for about one hour, or until the potatoes are tender and the top is browned and crisp. While the gratin is baking, I prepare the asparagus for steaming. There's just enough asaparagus from yesterday's purchase to round out my dîner.

So for this evening’s meal, I didn’t even need to go to the grocery, a welcome break after a busy week. There are several variations on this gratin: use cream instead of milk, add cheese, add onion, add meat or vegetables, and they are all delicious. Again, it was the staples that made it easy: milk, butter, potatoes, salt and pepper.

Once out of the oven, the gratin cools while I cut some cheese, pour a glass of wine, et voila. A perfect dîner for one, and the remaining gratin will make a meal for the latecomers who didn’t make it to dinner.

Are you ready for the weekend?

Tomorrow's post: Le marché

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Dîner jeudi

Having fresh bread for dinner means a bit of baguette leftover for breakfast, so this morning I enjoyed tartine beurrée with jam. I love the French; they waste nothing.

After leaving school, I make my usual stop at the bakery, then head to the market. We haven’t had fish this week, so I head over to the seafood section of Whole Foods. No specials today, but the salmon is wild and fresh, and I make my selection: a good size filet, cut into four pieces (three for diner, one for tomorrow’s lunch). In the produce section I am thrilled to find locally grown asparagus. I choose a bunch of tender stalks along with some tiny tomatoes and a lemon. This evening's dinner: salmon en papillote with asparagus and tomatoes.

This evening’s dinner is one of the easiest meals to prepare. When preparing dinner during the week, I try to use as few pots as possible, and cooking the salmon, tomatoes, and asparagus en papillote let’s me do that. I preheat the oven to 400°. While the oven is warming, I cut the woody ends off some of the asparagus, halve the tomatoes, and season it all with salt and pepper. Likewise, I season the salmon then place the salmon, tomatoes, and asparagus on top of the parchment, fold and crimp the edges, place each petit package on a baking sheet and put it all into the heated oven where it will cook for about 20-30 minutes.

If you've never cooked en papillote you should give it a try! Not only is it very French--and very simple--but the packages look like little presents on the plate. I like to use colorful vegetables when cooking salmon using this method. Because the food cooks using steam, the salmon turns a pale pink, but green and red vegetables cook to perfection and really do look like a present when you open the package.

Tomorrow's post: Dîner vendredi

Le pain quotidien

After I leave work, but before heading to the grocer, I make my favorite stop of the day: the bakery, to buy bread.

It's habit now, but if I'm serving dinner there will be bread on the table. And though we never finish the baguette at dinner, someone will have bread and jam for breakfast, or, I'll take a bit of bread for my lunch. What's left will be for the birds. How very French, n'est pas?

I'm fortunate to have a patissier in my neighborhood. It's true, their pastries are much better than their bread, but I can't complain. The baguettes are fresh every day, and buying bread is a daily ritual I cherish.

Despite what Mireille Guiliano says in her books, many of us are counting calories and carbs. Does anyone else still indulge in le pain quotidien? I would feel much better--maybe absolved--if you said "oui!"

Tomorrow's post: Dîner jeudi

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Les ingrédients

What goes into the daily market basket is important, but, perhaps not as important as the ingredients I have at home. Les ingrédients--shallots, oil, butter, salt, potatoes, cheese--are the backbone of my kitchen. Knowing I have staples at home is what allows me to buy that eggplant at $0.98 a pound and have a delicious ratatouille and couscous on the table at 7:30.

Today almost every cookbook provides a list of staples, ingrédients that are helpful to have on hand; every cook will edit the list according to his or her budget and tastes. I divide my list into perishable staples--the ingredients that are purchased every seven to ten days--and pantry staples, which are less perishable.

Perishable staples
onions
shallots
garlic
potatoes
lemons
olives
nuts
cheese, hard and soft
butter
milk
cream
eggs
chicken broth

Pantry staples
salt
peppercorns
spices
jam
rice
couscous
pasta
beans, dried/canned
canned tomatoes
anchovy paste
tomato paste
mustard
olive oil
vinegars
flour
sugar
baking powder
baking soda
wine

That's it. With these ingredients in my refrigerator and pantry, I am confident that anything I buy at the grocer can easily be made into a delicious dinner.

I asked a question yesterday, and I'm posing a similar one today: you are at the grocer and see that your favorite small, creamer potatoes are on sale, $2.39 a bag. The yellow and green zucchini look lovely, and fresh chicken is on special. Consider what you have in your pantry and fridge: what will you make for this evening's meal?

Tomorrow's post: Le pain quotdien

Monday, April 20, 2009

Le secret

How do I decide what to make for dinner? Well, true to "the French way," I like to see what the grocer has to offer before deciding. I do some shopping at Whole Foods, and they offer a good selection of produce, meat and seafood. I can see what is fresh, what is on special, and decide in the moment what to prepare for dinner that evening.

But the secret, I believe, to this approach to shopping, is to have a variety of meals that you can make that don't require planning. We all have that handful of meals in our cooking arsenal that we've made dozens of times, oui? I have about 8-10 meals that I can pull together at a moment's notice--a few chicken dishes, some meatless dishes, a few favorite pastas, several seafood dishes. These meals require no recipe because I've prepared them so many times. No special ingredients are needed, only pantry staples and what I can buy at the market on any given day. For example, today the butcher had some small, fresh (and local) whole chickens, so this evening's dinner will be roast chicken.

A small chicken can be roasted in little more than an hour, and combining vegetables and meat in a single pot makes the perfect simple dinner (and, if I add a few extra potatoes, I’m guaranteed a delicious lunch tomorrow!) In addition to the chicken I put two good size carrots, a bag of small white potatoes, some mixed baby greens, and a box of cookies in my market basket and checkout.

I pick-up my son from school and we arrive home at 5:15. After we enjoy a snack together, he starts his homework and I begin to prepare the evening meal. This will be a simple roast chicken, so seasoning with salt and pepper is all that's needed. I tuck a few bits of butter under the skin, and heat the oven to 375°. While the oven is warming, I clean and cut the carrots, pull out my Dutch oven, place it on the stovetop, and warm some olive oil. Into the pot I put the cut carrots, ten small potatoes, and a few sprigs of thyme snipped from my pot of herbs.

The warm oil releases the fragrance of the vegetables, especially the thyme. Once the vegetables are slightly browned, I place the seasoned chicken on top of the carrots and potatoes, and put the pot into the oven for about 75 minutes. Dinner won’t be served until until 7:30, but while it is cooking, the house is filled with the aromas of a well prepared meal.

This isn't a homework assignment, but consider it food for thought: let's say you've decided tomorrow is the day you're going to try grocery shopping "the French way." You go to the grocer to do your daily shopping and discover that fresh wild salmon is on special, eggplant is only $o.98 a pound, and the beef short ribs look especially good. Can you decide, in the moment, what you'll prepare for dinner?

Tomorrow's post: Les ingrédients

Sunday, April 19, 2009

To market, to market

When I first began to make a conscious effort to bring a bit of France into my home, the hardest habit to break was the weekly grocery shopping. It’s the way we live, after all. If you work, have a family, if your weeknights are filled with soccer practice, music lessons, homework, it’s convenient to have a freezer full of food and a stocked pantry.

But the French are no different: French women work, have families, take their children to piano lessons, help them with homework. So how is it possible for them to shop only a few times a week for their daily meals? As with so many things French, it all comes down to attitude. The pace of the day and the way they think about food and meals makes the difference.

As a practical matter, the big weekly grocery shopping is not done in France. If you have an apartment or modest house, the kitchen and pantry storage is small, limited. And while storage is a factor, it is a combination of thrift, habit, practicality, and the appreciation of fresh ingredients that influence the way the French shop for food.

So, is it possible to incorporate this habit into one’s life in here in the states? Oui, c’est possible, but, it takes time and a commitment to change.

The first change I made was to push back the dinner hour. Instead of eating at 6:00, why couldn't dinner be at 7:00, or 7:30? This would allow me time to make a trip to the market, come home and enjoy a pause, then take time in preparing dinner. Now, instead of an early rushed meal, dîner comes later in the evening and is something to be enjoyed together.

The second change came in the shape of a beautiful market basket, which I bought on one of my early trips to Annecy. I really wanted to buy a pannier, a traditional market basket, but when I spied this one, I bought it on the spot. It holds as much as a traditional pannier, but the I prefer the shape; it sits upright. Taking the basket when I go shopping ensures that I will buy only as much as my basket can comfortably hold.

So, are these changes you could adopt? Perhaps you might begin slowly by pushing your dinner hour back one or two nights each week, oui? Like me, you may discover that the evening is more relaxed, pleasant. And you don't need a basket from France to do your shopping (though I can make some recommendations). Today there are so many reusable bags available, and even the grocery stores are selling their own.

Give it some thought. I'd love to hear your comments.

Tomorrow's post: Le secret

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Le printemps

Holdiay is over and I'm ready to get back into the routines at work and home. I'm also happy to be writing again. I've thought a lot about topics for the next few weeks, and decided to write about grocery shopping, the French way. It's a good topic for the spring, I think, as all the vendors are returning to the farmer's market, many of us are thinking about seasonal menu changes, and some of us are even thinking about planting gardens.

So, for the next week I’m planning a series of posts with ideas on how one might adopt a different way of shopping for and preparing meals. I'll share how I plan my meals for the week (I don't) and you give you a virtual peek into my pantry and my fridge by providing a list of staples. And, I will let you know what I put in my market basket and talk about preparing the evening meals (and maybe a few breakfasts and lunches!)

I'm not an expert on this topic; I only speak from my experience. But I can talk about the changes in habit that I've made over the years. This is not a plan to follow, but rather posts to let you know that even busy American women who have jobs, families, and commitments are able to make small changes that can make a big difference .

Monday, April 13, 2009

Holiday

I'm on holiday--traveling this week during spring break--but I'll be back soon.

Ayez une grande semaine !

Thursday, April 9, 2009

La pause gourmande

In his book, Joie de Vivre, Robert Arbor devotes a chapter to la pause gourmande, the afternoon break. He points out that here in America, schoolchildren take that pause; it is the after school snack. Children come home from school and have a snack before playing or doing homework. Do you remember this from your childhood? For the French, this pause persists, and Arbor talks about his own afternoon break as an adult, living in New York City.

During the summer in Annecy, we eat a late dinner so we do have an afternoon snack. The boys might have a banana or a Pom'pote, my sister and I will have an afternoon tea and a sweet, my brother-in-law might have an espresso, or a beer and some olives or nuts. Sweet or savory, the pause gourmande is part of the French way of living.

True to my idea of blogging about bringing inexpensive but simple and authentic French touches into one’s life, la pause gourmande is at the top of the list. Truly, this is something that costs nothing. It only requires a shift in attitude, a way of thinking differently about your day. As Arbor says, the idea is to “have a little break that adds to your joie de vivre.”

So what do I do here at home, far away from the leisurely summer days in France? It depends on my schedule, but I might have a coffee when I stop in the bakery to buy bread. Or, I’ll sit down for a snack when I get home, but before I begin dinner. Some days it may only be a cup of tea, some days my son will join me, but everyday I take time to pause. Happily it’s a habit that was easy to establish, and I look forward to it every afternoon.

Small changes make can make a big difference in the way we live. Do you have a favorite way to pause?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A few of my favorite things

Last week, Stephanie at Bonjour Madame graciously passed on a Kreativ Blogger award to me, and I promised to pass it along. The rules are to list seven things you love and then pass the award on to seven others. So in no particular order, here are seven of my favorite things:

1. My book group. We've been together for more than ten years.
2. My family. We've been together forever.
3. Teaching. I love what I do.
4. My students. They make it easy for me to love what I do.
5. Playing the cello. I hope one day I'll advance past the D string.
6. All things French, especially my brother-in-law and nephews.
7. My home. I think I would rather be there than anywhere else in the world.

Now I would like to pass the award along to . . .

Paris Breakfasts I enjoy her blog, her art, and seeing Paris through her (camera) lens these past few weeks has been a treat. You'll enjoy the Misadventures with Andi. Andi visited my blog which led me to hers. Her banner will make you smile. So will the Parisienne Farmgirl whose writing assures me that I can still love all-things-French and love the outdoors, too.

A Simple Life is what we're after, non? I know this blogger has already received the award, but she deserves another for confirming that I am not the only one who wears a *uniform.* Euro Chic, does not need a formula for dressing, as evidenced her by her blog. She’s not posting regularly, but her blog was an early inspiration for my own.

Another inspiration is Emily at Stark Raving Cello. A cellist, a teacher, and a writer, I know I would advance quickly with Emily as my teacher.

Finally, who wouldn't love Parisian Spring? Tanya writes about Paris and Washington, D.C., two of my favorite cities.

And though she doesn't have a blog, I want to pass along a merci to Cynthia, from the FC group. She was my first fan.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Comptoir des Cotonniers

A few weeks ago I posted a link to Cyrillus, a clothing store I discovered last summer while exploring Annecy. On the same trip I also discovered Comptoir des Cotonniers, when I asked a clerk in Gallerie Lafayette about the skirt she was wearing.

Comptoir des Cotonniers is a decidedly younger line of prêt a porter, but they have a section on their website, "Mothers and Daughters," that features both mothers and daughters wearing the fashions. Stunning, so chic, and an inspiration.

Comments, SVP?

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Déjeuner

Although I've heard this is changing a bit, most French do not take their lunch to work. In French cities and towns there is bistro or café near where one works, and two hour lunches make it easier to go out for le déjeuner. But here in America, I teach school and take my lunch to work, as do many of us. But that doesn't mean I can't enjoy a delicious déjeuner.

For summer lunches in France, we almost always have salade composée: a handful of mixed greens and to which we add hardboiled egg, beans, tomato, olives--whatever we have on hand. For lunch salads we'll often add bits left over from last night's dinner--haricots verts, roasted potatoes, even chicken or beef--all tossed with a vinaigrette. The salade composée makes an informal but lovely presentation, and when paired with bread (to absorb the leftover vinaigrette), is a satisfying lunch.

This is something that I have continued to do here at home. After dinner each evening, I'll save any leftover bits to make a lovely lunch salad. In the morning, I add them to some baby greens--mesclun, romaine, mâche--put all in a lunch container (I use a small divided bento-type keeper from the Container Store), et voilà! At lunchtime, add a drizzle of olive oil and Alessi white balsamic vinegar for a delicious déjeuner. Simple, healthy, and very French.

Bon appetit!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Merci!

I want to thank Stephanie at Bonjour Madame who passed on a Kreativ Blogger award to me; just a few weeks ago I was wondering if anyone was even reading my posts. Stephanie, I promise to pass this along.

I also want to say thank you to readers who have visited my blog, left comments, and have promoted it. Although new to blogging, I am loving it. It is a wonderful way to broaden one's world, connect with people, and learn. I had no idea what was out there in the blogosphere!

Merci to all.