Borgers with No Borders.

our lives, our loves — through our earthly adventures.

Sinking in the South of France: Nice

It was 4AM when we said goodbye to the still-rather-chilly weather of Paris.  We packed hubby’s SUV with our suitcases, a load of munchies, crepes, sandwiches, and fully-charged ipods.  We were driving 900 kilometers, estimated to take about 8 hours, and end up in the South of France:  Nice, Provence for the most part, with side-trips to the Gorges du Verdon (the Grand Canyon of France), Grasse, and Avignon on the way back.  St. Tropez was also on our list of places to go to — but we did not manage this, as you will find out in my later posts.

I was never an outdoorsy camping-lover, give-me-my-tent kinda girl.  I need my proper toilette, standing mirrors, electricity, and a crisp and fluffy duvet on a clean bed.  Accommodations is one of the three most critical ingredients for a sure-fire vacation.  Then comes the food — and the company — not necessarily in that order.

Nice had all three of these ever-present.  Especially the Food part.  For our first night, we stayed at the beautiful home of an old friend of my hubby, who used to be a 2-star michelin chef at one of Nice’s most prestigious hotels.  I love his story, but I will try to keep him out of my ramblings to protect his privacy — and hopefully, he will not mind my showing off a bit of his treasures:  his home, his kitchen (now, my dream-kitchen!), and his beautiful garden with his stone/brick pizza oven.  It was during these first 2 days that I witnessed the great chef at work, and ate the most amazing meals.

We had our lunch in his garden — and for the first time, I tasted “socca”  which is a specialty of southeastern French cuisine, particularly in Nice.  In northern Italy, it is called “farinata.”  Basically, it is a thin flat cake made from chickpea flour baked in an oven, generously seasoned with black pepper, and eaten hot with your fingers.  Ours were of course made a la minute — using his garden stone oven.  One bite of this and I thought I had died and gone to heaven.  My soul was longing to just stay in Nice — grow old, get fat, and die eating soccas.

The Master at work. Note the wooden stool -- at the perfect height to watch the miracle that happens in that oven.

Slicing the socca while I watch with my mouth agape, in total awe.

The French treasure their meal times.  Which is probably another reason why they don’t get fat.  They eat very slowly — savoring every dish, taking good breaks in between, and sipping all sorts of wines that go perfectly with each dish.  Our lunch took something like four hours — and indeed, it was an event in itself.  From the soccas, to the fresh pizzas with Provençal olives, Poilâne bread drizzled with only the best olive oil, a very fresh Daurade (which is “sea bream” en anglais) served with baby flowering courgettes — which again, I had never seen or taste before.  It was stupendous!  🙂  Here’s a picture of my half-eaten plate — photographed after I realized I had jumped into it even before taking a proper picture!

Daurade with Flowering Provençal Courgettes

By the time we had finished our fish — it was time to move to another part of the house because it was getting a bit too chilly.  So off we went to the poolside for our dessert:  a simple (but tres delicieux)  Fresh Strawberries (seasoned with lime zest) served with the best Ginger Ice Cream ever, freshly whipped cream, and strawberry purée.  Can you taste the lovely combination of flavors amidst an ambience like this?

After lunch, we were all too full and half-asleep … so we retired into our cozy “apartment” (still at their home!) for the much needed nappy-nappy.  And if you don’t believe how beautiful our surroundings were, all the way up to our bedrooms, here’s how our room’s terrace looked:

Cozy little garden by our room for afternoon nappy-nappies.

How can you go wrong with a 4-hour lunch with amazing food, great company, and extraordinary accommodations?  Life could not get any better.

Oh the good life ... a glimpse from my daughter's shoes. 🙂

My best part of Nice: Off the beaten, crowded, seaside rush.

Cuddling great company.

Stay tuned for more on our Southern France expedition.  🙂

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Loving Lourdes.

I have a Bucket List for Ma Vie à Paris.  A bucket list that requires checking for the next couple of years during our Paris assignment (if all goes as planned).  And this weekend, I got to tick one of the items on that list:  Visit Lourdes (pronounced as “loord.”)  Check.

Lourdes is located in the South of France, in the Midi-Pyrénées region, very close to the border of Spain and France.  I was originally supposed to go with my family — who were sad victims of the airport closures while the Iceland volcanic ash spread all over Europe’s air space.  They cancelled their trip all together, and I was left with two unnamed first class tickets on the TGV.

I tried not to dampen our well-structured plans  and tried to stay optimistic.  As my mantra goes —  “There is a reason for everything.”  It didn’t take much to convince my six-year-old to come join the fun (tried to make it sound like Disneyland for people who pray), and invited Ani (who was only too happy to visit a place she had heard so much about from all her Catholic friends.)

By 7:30AM, we were all comfortably installed in our little cabin, whose charisma lasted for but a very short moment.  Apparently, the chaos of panicky travelers trying to reach their destinations muddled up the records of TGV — and there were passengers with the same seat numbers, all hustling to make their way to the South where they could get on a plane to continue their journeys.  Our train didn’t move until one solid hour past our scheduled departure — and we just sat there, not amused by the added 60 minutes to our already lengthy 6-hour journey.

But it eventually moved… and we enjoyed the comfort for about 3 hours or so …

… until an all-French announcement said something about having to switch trains in Bordeaux.  “Voie 3” was all I barely understood — and before we could figure out what was happening, the train stopped, sput us out into another train that screeched to a halt.  Then… madness.  Where do we sit?  Which cabin?  Which seat?  Do we all have our belongings?  What ever happened to those First Class tickets I paid for?

Epic Fail.  Downgraded to the barracks, with nary a seat.  We managed to hop into just any cabin on that train that screeched by, before the doors were shut.  It was chaotic.  Everyone was scrounging for a seat, and the passengers who were originally on THAT train were looking at us like we were train-jumping-gypsies.  All seats were quickly filled up and we ended up in that little passage way between the door to the cabin and the metal luggage racks.  There we were — standing, squatting, and finally sitting on the floor for whatever time was left between Bordeaux and Lourdes.  Great.  We were off to a great start.

Here we are trying to make light of the situation, pretending that the train floors were not the filthiest surfaces on earth. (Take note of my teenage daughter’s huge effort to “just deal with it.”)  We had been reduced to refugees aboard the speedy TGV.

Yet again … we eventually made it.  We easily found a taxi, checked-in at Hotel Roissy — a simple, basic hotel with a great location, a mere 100 meters from the Sanctuary’s main entrance.  We walked down the streets that were studded with shops selling everything and anything made to relate to Lourdes:  from hats, to rosaries, to all sorts of shapes and sizes of bottles for Holy Water.  We intended to go to a restaurant claimed to be one of the best in Lourdes for paella — but when we got there, we were told it was closed.  No reason.  Just “fermé.”  Sad.  Lesson learned:  Research the restaurants first before going on a trip.  We soon found an alternative — which proved good enough for the intense level of hunger we had — and left like four satisfied piggies after their trip to the market.

Then, we walked through the St. Michael Gate to enter the Sanctuary.  Suddenly, the feeling of peace just enfolds you.  And when you are greeted by a site like this … you forget the 7 hour train ride, the grime on your jeans, and the total waste of money on those tickets you purchased.

Suddenly, your problems disappear and you are almost ashamed of all the whining of the past 3 hours.

Peace, enchantment, spirituality, wonder, and thanks.  Repeated feelings that moved each of us through the 24-hours that we were at Lourdes.

We joined the Torchlight Marian Procession at 9:00PM — which was the one experience that affected my daughter the most, I think.  She had never been to one before — and I am sure that her heart was touched as she witnessed the unified praying of the rosary in at least 6 different languages, the candles, the hundreds of sick people in wheelchairs and beds being pushed and pulled by volunteers and nurses.

My poor little boy was so tired towards the end of the whole ceremony that he fell asleep while sitting on top of Ani’s feet, amidst the sea of people who were praying and singing.  We all went to bed that night exhausted, but with quiet smiles on our faces.

The next day, we went to the Baths — which to me, was the most touching of all.  I cannot put into words the intensity of the emotions that just enveloped me.  Without much planning, we ended up in the Baths at the perfect time — when there was hardly a line, despite the hundreds of pilgrims we had just seen the night before.  The women helping at the Baths were totally amazing — I could feel  their inner goodness, their faith — just dying to be shared with all those filled with hopes in their hearts.  The tears from my eyes just kept trickling down as the women took my little boy, quietly coached him to pray to the Blessed Virgin, and to walk through that Bath before they plunged him down into the water.

He wriggled for a second from the cold, for sure — but in a matter of seconds, he was dry and warm again, no towel required, all set to get back into the clothes he had just removed.  Amazing.  Totally amazing.

For me, this experience alone is worth every minute, every penny, and any hardship of one’s long journey to Lourdes.

The rest of the day was spent filling up our 2-liter bottles with Holy Water from the Water Way, visiting and praying at the Grotto, the Crypt, and the St. Pius X Basilica.

IB filling up our take-home stock of Holy Water at the Water Way.

St. Pius X Basilica

There is always a miracle waiting to happen.

All four of us left Lourdes feeling a tad bit lighter, and a whole of a lot more peaceful — with renewed faith in our hearts.

And I am sure, that all the wishes and prayers that were whispered to our Blessed Mother were already heard and answered, even before we stepped out of those gates for the last time to catch our train back.

Helpful Links for would-be Visitors:

Official Site of Lourdes Sanctuary

Lourdes Magazine

Hotel Roissy

Hotel Padoue (beside Hotel Roissy, which looked a bit newer, slightly more expensive)

Not Quite the City of Love

This is the second time in the past six months that I’ve cursed quietly about what a blasted city of no-love this City of Love is.  Paris.  It’s not always the City of Love — because it does have its very dark side:  Petty Crimes.  In the past six months, my 16-year-old daughter has been mugged two times.  Doesn’t that just blow you away?

The first time, she was with 2 other boy friends in a Bus Stop, sitting, and waiting to catch the bus — in one of the most posh arrondissements at that.  Five teenage boys (about 15-17 years old) surrounded them and demanded for their money, cellphones, and watches — with a long sharp knife and a huge-spray-of- something as their weapons.  That’s at 5:45PM, Winter Time (as in bright skies!), along huge and busy Avenue du President Wilson.  For a measly EU30 snatched from the three of them, these punks have tarnished the beautiful picture of charming Paris.  My daughter and her friends managed to make it to the Police to report the incident — but only after my daughter had gotten over an anxiety attack, utter shock, and painful panic.

The Police were very impressive though — and the kids spent a good 4-5 hours at the station, making their statements and describing the assailants.  They were even shown videos of the Metro (where the muggers ran to after the incident) and books and books of photos.  But at the end of the day — how does one sift through millions of young boys in when they almost all look identical in their hoodies, sneakers, and shoulder bags?

Again, last night, on her way home from a cinema at about 11PM, along with 4 other girl friends, they were once again molested IN the metro by 4 other young boys.  Stroking their hair, dirty-talking, grabbing private parts.  The thing that bothers me even more is:  How can everyone else around simply watch what is going on, and not make a move to help (especially if they are locals)?

A friend of mine saw an old lady thumped, then her hand bag pulled away from her — again in the metro.  She was (or at least looked) French.  People were passing by … and didn’t do one thing.  They just let it all happen, and walked away — like they didn’t see a thing.  Indifference?  Fear?

What is it about all these petty crimes in Paris?  Are there not enough policemen around — especially fielded in Metro Stations and Bus Stops where most of these sort of crimes happen?  If these young boys are not apprehended for these cheap-thrills of theirs … what’s to stop them from moving onto bigger and bloodier tricks as they get older?

And tell me:  What can a mother tell her 16-year old daughter?

She loves Paris because she has learned independence here.  She is able to move around easily — but when there is this constant fear of being attacked … then where’s the fun in that?  I realize that the same things could happen in London or New York, or any other big city for that matter — but.  If you’re making Paris your home for a few years… there’s always that wishful-thinking side of you that makes you crave for just slightly safer environments.  Especially for a city that claims to be one of the world’s most visited.

If you are on the same boat, here are some pointers that I hammer into my daughter’s head, hoping she will not be a magnet for any more of this B*llsh*t.

1.  Dress decently.  A 16-year old need not dress like a grandma — but if you are flaunting your legs (no matter how tightly-clad they are in leggings or tights), or your chest — you are looking for trouble.

2.  Be extremely sensitive to what is going on around you.  Teenagers have a tendency to be totally oblivious to the world around them.  They put on their ipod earplugs/sound-cancellation ear muffs… and goodbye world.  THAT, to me, is scary.  They are transported to another world with their music, and all hell could break lose two feet away from them and they would still be nodding their head to the beat.  Scary, right?

3.  Don’t be loud.  And if you are, go easy on the English.  I read that most of these petty crimes are targeted towards tourists.  So, if you’re looking a bit lost, or if you are being boisterous in a foreign language — these are obvious signals that you are NOT French… and you become an instant target.  (Which is why I never look at metro maps in public.  I write out my route on a piece of paper, which is less obvious than a glaring Metro map.)

4.  Look confident, look strong, and look people in the eye.  If you look like an innocent pussy cat who walks slow on a busy street — believe me, you will stick out like a sore thumb.  Blend with the crowd, look local, heck — walk like a man!

And my last and forever advise to my daughter is — to always remember to pray.  At bedtime, before she walks outside the door, when she feels scared, when she sees a suspicious looking person … whenever!  God always listens to prayers — especially when they are made by children — and I know that He will listen.

Since the first time she got mugged, my constant prayer has always been to keep my children safe from harm.  And from all the evils that surface in this supposed City of Love.

Rungis: Food Tripping

On April 9, I crawled out of my bed at a very ungodly hour.  Three in the freakin’ morning, when the whole of Paris is either fast asleep, or still partying.  For people my age, it would be the former.  But I woke up (thanks to two alarm clocks set!), took a wake-up shower, downed two cups of coffee, and jumped into a taxi I hired for a 4:15AM pick up.

Along with a few other mothers from ISP, I joined a tour to Rungis, the world’s largest wholesale market for fresh produce.  This was where the old and famous “Les Halles” was relocated.  Officially opened in 1969, spanning 600 hectares of land, strategically located close to Orly Airport (7 kilometers from Paris), and at the intersection of France’s railway system.  This is where the restauranteurs, hoteliers, and gastronomic gods purchase their goods.  So while the rest of Paris is either sleeping or partying — there is hard-core work going on in Rungis, where the action begins at 12 midnight, and ends at 6AM.

The tour was totally amazing.  The whole area was almost like a town in itself — with buildings dedicated to each produce.  In fact, we had to take the bus to move from one to the other:  Seafood, Game, Fruits, Vegetables, Cheese & Dairy, Flowers.  Truly a feast for a chef — and for me, a feast for my very hungry eyes.  Fortunately, the tour ended with a yummy breakfast at 9:30AM — which then allowed me to go back to my bed after, to dream about all the insatiable things France can offer.  To me, and to the rest of the world.

The Rungis Tour reminded me of two things:  (1) That I was indeed lucky to be here in the Food Capital of the World; and, (2)  That my French still sucks big-time, I understood only about a quarter of what the French tour guide was rapping.

Sharing with you snipets of the trip.  Watch out for the skinned rabbits (lapin) and Miss Piggy peeping from out of the box.  🙂  Salivate at the foie gras, the agneau de lait, and the sumptuous cuts of beef.  Probably a must-watch for those who need that extra push to turn vegetarian.

Rungis Tour Operator:  (in French only)

Tangram Voyages
2, Les Grands-Champs 54330 Saxon-Sion
Tel: 0892 700 119
E-Mail: Tangram-voyages@editour.com

Sur ma table: Semaine 13

Sur ma table” means “On my Table” — my new title to the second season of our Julia Child Series.  It’s the second season because it has necessitated a change.  It appears, by popular demand, that I am no longer allowed to cook on Sundays. Who would’ve thought that the weather would affect even my cooking day, right?  Right.  Now that Winter’s got one foot out the door, hubby thought we should go back to exploring Paris, or simply liberating our lazy Sundays without me stressing out in the kitchen.  Fair enough.  No argument there.

After all, I always look on the bright side of things.  This could only mean that I can now cook in peace, in an empty house apartment on Mondays.  That makes my “Dimanche Repas” (Sunday Meal) impertinent now, ergo … the change to “Sur ma table,” which also no longer restricts me to a particular day in the week when I MUST be in the kitchen.  It’s a liberating detail, and probably one that might even allow me to cook many more times in the week!  (Like the title of my blog ever restricted me from cooking on ANY other day of the week.)  It’s a charming introduction to what you will see on my table — on any day of the week, whether edible or not!  🙂

This week, life got in the way for me … so I only managed one of the two dishes that Tina chose.  The two dishes were: Tranches de Jambon à la Crème (Sautéed Ham Slices with Cream Sauce) and Timbale d’asperges (Asparagus Mold).  I chose the latter, because along with this, I would have to learn an exciting and new sauce:  the Hollandaise Sauce.  This happens to be one of the five master sauces in the French haute cuisine mother sauce repertoire.  So heck… we’ve got to start somewhere!

Out came another one of my priceless acquisitions — which, when I purchased, raised snickers from the Peanut Gallery:  “Why in heaven’s name would anyone buy an Asparagus Casserole?”  Ha!  Pourquoi pas?  I love my little asparagus casserole — because it has a net-like doodad that holds all the asparagus, in a straight “standing” position.  Like soldiers, all being heated up equally, in a sleek casserole of boiling water.  🙂  Neat, right?  See how sweet they look:

Then… I chickened out on Julia’s recommendation to learn the Hollandaise the long and hard way.  She said that the Hollandaise Sauce is often the most dreaded of all sauces to make because the egg yolks can curdle and the sauce can turn. She says that “it is of great importance that you learn how to make hollandaise by hand, because part of every good cook’s general knowledge is a thorough familiarity with the vagaries of egg yolks under all conditions.”  Thanks, Julia.  But when you’ve had a full day, and have rushed home so you can fulfill your commitment to cook with 4 other people around the world, then blog about it, then still do your French homework, and put your 6-year old to sleep…. it just seems to make more sense to use the “Electric Blender Recipe.”  After all, “as the technique is well within the capacities of an 8-year-old-child, it has much to recommend it.”

So let’s leave it at that — and let’s just say, I passed the Junior Competition for now, and will join the Masters at a later stage.

My hollandaise did taste pretty nasty — in a good way.  I had to add water though twice or thrice because it was getting just a bit too thick in the blender as I was pouring the butter in droplets.  Never mind that my hair got quite a few splatters of the churning hollandaise.  It still tasted authentic enough.  Both from my hair and from the bowl.  🙂

The Timbale d’asperges was quite easy.  No fuss, healthy, vegetable dish — best eaten though as a side-dish to roasted meat, rather than a main course.  Next time I make this, I would add some mushrooms too — just to make it a little more exciting.  I also used stale whole wheat baguette bread crumbs rather than american white sliced bread — which, am guessing, didn’t do much to change the taste.  If anything, it probably helped to give it a little more color!   The recipe called for it to be made in a soufflé mold — which I still haven’t gotten around to purchasing.  So, I used my good ol’ reliable terrine silicone mold — which rendered its usual ease when turning over the  custard into a serving dish.

All gone in one sitting … thanks to my hubby’s vegetarian nephew who came that evening to enjoy an impromptu taste test.  All in a day’s work!  🙂

Where to Rest My Weary Head?

The much dreamed-about trip to Paris often happens in this sequence.

Let’s go to Paris.  Sure!  Who wouldn’t like to go to Paris?

Do we have the budget?  Uhmmm….  Husband checks his finances, wife promises to give up on a few pairs of shoes for the next three months or so.  The budget is reached, the decision is half there.

Then comes the most crucial question — which affects just about everything in the equation.  Especially the budget.  And especially me.  😉  Where will we stay?  Where COULD we stay?  Errr… Do you have friends there?  Hey, wait. Doesn’t the wife of your sister’s brother-in-law have a friend whose husband’s friend lives there?

Paris is the #4 city in the world with the highest room rates.  Moscow is on the top of the list, followed by Abu Dhabi, then New York City.  Understandable — why anyone would try to scrounge around for the most distant relative he has, tucked away in some corner of Paris.  Even if he hasn’t talked to that relative since their great grandmother passed away 13 years ago.  My point though is this.

Paris equals small living space.  No, miniscule!  All you have to do is look at a typical Parisian café photograph — and you will find that people are practically sipping on their express arm-to-arm with strangers on the next table.  So even if you have relatives, friends, distant cousins, or ex-classmates who are living here, chances are — they wouldn’t have much room in their place to start a Bed-and-Breakfast business.  Otherwise, they would have done it a long time ago — and you would have known it!

Accommodations is therefore a very valid, HUGE consideration in planning your trip to Paris.  And just to make the discussion more lively, here are a few points to ponder on as you make your choice:

What TYPE of accommodation are you looking for? Are you a typical hotel porn client who’ll take nothing less than palace accommodations, room service, and welcome champagne bottles and fruit baskets?  Or, do you want to live like a typical Parisian to experience the genuine la vie en Paris?  Maybe walk the streets in the morning to pick up your own baguette for breakfast?

How much of your time do you think you will be spending IN your hotel room? Next logical question:  Are you claustrophobic?  Are you on your honeymoon, with Paris as a mere backdrop?  Or, have you been married for 15 years and are simply visiting Paris to explore its deepest corners?  Shopping from sunrise to sundown — and you just need any bunk bed to take you into the next morning?

How MANY people are in your party? Traveling on your own would narrow down your choices in some way (for women), and perhaps widen the choices for men.  🙂  If you are traveling with a bunch of friends, or a whole family of 8, you should probably not even THINK of a hotel.  Think “short-term apartments,” bien sûr.

There are tons, gazillions, multitudes of hotel options in Paris.  That’s the good news.  It’s sifting through everything on  the internet that gets everyone confused in the end.  That’s the bad news.  But let me tell you, sifting through all that is half the fun.  As long as you are aware of the very basic photographic equipment called  the wide-angled lens.

Know this, know your arrondissements, know the answers to the questions above — and you’ll be totally equipped to dive into the big wide world web to find exactly what you are looking for.

Here are a few of my favorite sites which should give you good starting points:

FIRST, 3  disclaimers:

(1)  Out of respect for my husband’s business, I will not get into any of the Parisian palaces, nor the 5-star category hotels, because then … I would be utterly subjective.  I only know one Palace in Paris that will be worth your stay — but we will all have to wait until it opens!  Cross my fingers.  😉

(2)  I have not personally stayed in any of these hotels myself — but have merely chanced upon these sites, in much the same way that you may have.  I am just offering you a starting point to view your choices — knowing that some of them may not actually be very easy to find on the net.  It’s simply making the “sifting process” a little less bloody for you.  Do your due diligence by reading reviews and checking out the direct hotel link.

(3)  Prices stated below may change from the date of posting.  (As you know, hotel prices go up and down, depending on the season — as is the case in all other cities.)  For reference purposes, the rates below are based on Single Occupancy, Spring Prices.

Interesting Hotels for those with No-Budget Budgets:

Secrets of Paris Blog with an interesting line up of hotels.

Agoda. Tons of hotel choices from luxury to budget.

Paris Net. Narrow down your choices using the Option Window and begin your search.  Affordable options for Aparthotels, short-term.

Moderately Priced Hotels.

Prince Albert Louvre. 1st arrondissement.  EU69 up.

Ideal Hotel. 14th arrondissement. EU75 up.

Hotel Premium Montmarte.  18th arrondissement.  EU60 up.

L’Ermitage.  18th arrondissement.  EU82 up. Montmarte.

Hotel Atlantis.  6th arr.  (Saint-German-des-Prés).  EU105 up.

Hotel Langlois.  9th arr.  EU110 up.

Hotel Royal Magda. 17th arr.  EU100 up.

Hotel Duo.  4th arr.  EU140 up.  In Bastille, Marais, Chatelet area.

Hotel Pas de Calais.  6th arr.  EU145 up. In Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

Hotel Lorette Opera.   9th arr.  EU159 up.

Short-Stay Apartment Listings: (Great for groups of 4 and above)

Capricorn.

Holiday Rentals.

Way to Stay.

Bed-and-Breakfasts: (For a real taste of Parisian living!)

Alcove & Agapes

Chambres d’hôtes

France Lodge Locations

Et voila!  🙂  Hope this gets you excited, thrilled, and eager to venture on your own to find that perfect place to rest your soon-to-be weary head.

The Itch to Cook

Last Sunday, I did not get to cook the Potage Parmentier that Rx chose (through AC’s empowerment).  And, since I have been having a rather relaxed week — I decided to catch up yesterday.  Plus, my french classes were going to be held at my place today — so again, I had another excuse to be in the kitchen baking!  C’est parfait!

Off I went to tackle the Potage Parmentier (Potato and Leek Soup) which didn’t take much really.  3 cups of potatoes, 3 cups of leeks, a tablespoon of salt, 2 quarts of water, and a measly 6-8 tablespoons of whipped cream.  A suspiciously short list of ingredients.

Simmering the veggies for 50 minutes was no big deal for me because it got me all excited about once again trying out my good ol french reliable equipment:  le moulin à legumes!  A Vegetable Mill, in English.  Julia labels it as one of the two most “wonderful inventions” (she probably never owned an ipod before!) — the other, being the Garlic Press.

This witty contraption purées soups, sauces, vegetables, fruits, raw fish and even mousse mixtures.  And for this particular soup, it was perfect for straining out all the fiber in the leeks vis a vis a regular food processor (or blender).  Well, yes, there’s a little bit of manual labour involved … but nothing that could break your bones.

It comes with three removable disks so you can choose how fine you want your purée to be.  And you just turn that handle at the top, with intermittent pressure downwards, to allow the vegetables to churn.  Cool, yeah?

And that’s the end of my Potato and Leek Story.  Because THAT was just about all the excitement I derived from this recipe.

Following Julia’s recipe to the letter, I found the resulting soup trés trés trés watery.  The soup was much too light for my taste for sure.  And if I were to do this again — I would use 5 cups of chicken stock instead of a whopping 2 quarts of water, and a whole lotta whipping cream (half a cup to one cup, minimum).  It also lacked some flavor to it — despite my adding piment d’espilette — to help waken the flavors!

Maybe it’s my Asian tongue, and maybe this is how the French like their Potage Parmentier.   Whatever it is, you can be sure, that the next time I see this item on a brasserie’s menu — I am definitely going to sample it!  Just for my own peace of mind.  🙂

Off I went to the next agenda of the day (or should I say night — as I was in the kitchen again until 12.30 midnight):  a Tarte au Citron et aux Amandes (Lemon and Almond Tart).

This was quite fun to make, albeit a little tedious.  It called for caramelizing  sugar until thread stage, then sugar-coating the julienned lemon peel.  Neat.  Another opportunity to try out one of my other gadgets in the drawer that’s been waiting to be used:  my kitchen thermometer!

It was not until I used this thermometer that I realized how totally necessary it is to have one … especially when you are making caramel!  The first time I ever attempted caramel, it was a failure — because it was all a guessing game!  Had I, this second time around, not had my thermometer, I would have again removed the pan from the fire way too early.  But no.  This time, I waited until that red baby crawled up to 110 degrees C — and then only did I remove the pan from the heat.  Brainless.  Everyone’s gotta have one of those things.  Just like an American Express card.  🙂

The tart was delicious — but quite a lot of ingredients were wasted.  I used 2 cups of sugar to make the caramel — and hardly used a fourth of it to glaze the pie and sugar-coat the lemon peel.

A little shout-out though to those who plan to bake this:   The custard filling was perfect and delicious — but do go easy on the glaze — otherwise, the pie could turn out overly sweet.  And we all know we don’t need that extra confectionery, right?

So my little french class of 2, plus ma professeure, got their sugar fix.  But I’m staying indoors lest my neighbors start complaining about all the raging electric mixers and banging oven doors at way past midnight!

No cooking tonight.  For sure.  🙂

Pre-Paris Checklist

It is better to be prepared for an opportunity and not have one than to have an opportunity, and not be prepared.

– Whitney M. Young, Jr.

1.  The basic of all basics:  Know thy weather.

Paris is ruled by its seasons.  They eat according to the season, dress according to the season.  So don’t get caught wearing open-toed sandals in March or Ugg winter boots in August — or you will be in for a big surprise.  Then again, that would be a very legitimate reason to go shopping now, wouldn’t it?

2.  Read up.  Google Paris.  Do your due diligence.

The best visitors I’ve pleasantly taken around are those who know what they want.  The worst are the ones who arrive and say:  “OK, show me what you’ve got.”  Paris is H.U.G.E. — in terms of what it can offer.  Whether for dining afficionados, museum-thirsty culturalists, shopaholics, or whatever.  So, read up on what Paris has to offer and prepare a list of what you want to do, see, eat, drink, or buy.  Believe me, it will help you maximize every minute you have while here.  And that, you won’t want to waste!

3.  Learn to say these three (3) indispensable words.  A must.

You will not make shop-owners, waiters, clerks, or any French person happy unless you learn to say these words when the situation calls for it.  And believe me, every situation will call for it.

“Bonjour”“Bon” is good, “Jour” is day.  Good Day!  Hello!  Good Morning!  You are expected to say this every time you enter a shop, a boulangerie, a doctor’s waiting room, a restaurant.  Anywhere you find people.  The only time you are exempt from saying this is when you enter a department store (like Bon Marché or Lafayette) — where the area is just too big for you to be heard.  But if you enter, and there happens to be a security guard standing by the door — you will still have to give him that respect.

“Bonsoir” – Used the same way as “bonjour” — but for 6PM onwards.  🙂  Same rules apply.

“Merci/Au revoir” –  “Thank you/Good bye.”  Every time you leave a shop, café, restaurant  — whether you have purchased something or not, these words should come automatically as you are receiving your change, or as you are leaving.  Always.

When I was new to Paris, no one told me about this rule — and I always wondered why the vendors didn’t really seem happy that I was around to view their merchandise.  Maybe, if I entered the shop with the habitual “bonjour” — it would have changed a little.  Peut-être.

4.  Don’t go to Paris without packing a good great pair of  walking shoes.  Or two.

Before living in Paris, my shoe size was 38.5.  Since then, my feet have grown half a size bigger.  At my age, I thought my feet were supposed to have stopped growing.  Ya think?  Maybe they got wider — from all the walking?  🙂  Whatever it is, don’t leave home without your best pair of walking shoes.   And mind you, they don’t have to be those white sports shoes — which the French only wear when they actually DO sports.  Just good ‘ol walking shoes that will allow you to comfortably last the day.

Because it is only by walking the streets of Paris that you can truly appreciate its beauty.

5.  Get familiar.  With the “arrondissements.”

The whole of Paris is delicately planned to follow the shape of an “escargot.”  Its “districts,” commonly referred to as “arrondissements,” starts at ONE — at the epi-center of it all (Louvre, Les Halles, Palais Royale), all the way to TWENTY — which would be the end of the spiraling snail pattern.  “So what?” one might ask.  Well, my friend, just don’t tell me that I didn’t warn you as you scratch your head wondering why the coffee on the 16th was double the price of what you paid on the 4th.

Each arrondissement has its own relevance and charm, almost each one known for something distinct.  Or tasty.  🙂  The price of meat, vegetables, fruits … and certainly hotel rooms… will depend on which neighborhood you are in.  Likewise, walking the streets at 1:00AM on the 9th, for example, will offer you a totally different experience from running the streets at 1:00AM on the 19th.

For first-time visitors to Paris, I always think it is best to steer yourselves closer to the following arrondissements:  1st, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 15th, 16th.  Why stress yourself, right?

6.  When you have accomplished #1, get yourself booked!

Most of the best restaurants in Paris have a seriously crazy long wait list.  For some, it could take you up to three months to get a seat.  But believe me.  Most of the time, it is well worth the wait.  A growing number of restaurants do take reservations online, so it is worth a check.  And a plan.

Book your private walking tours, cooking classes, special dining evenings way before your visit.  Nothing like maximizing your precious time.

The Tooth Fairy: Bust!

Mon petit garçon is growing up.  This weekend, he lost one tooth on Saturday while biting on his lego.  The next day, he lost the other one while chewing on his towel.  Don’t ask me why or how — he just manages to chomp on everything he fancies.

He was the happiest toothless boy in town, I think — because he was well aware of the whole shebang:  You put your tooth under your pillow, and in the evening, the Tooth Fairy drops by, picks up your tooth, and exchanges it for some cash.

The first tooth was fine.  I barely made the “exchange” — using his morning toilet visit to dash to my wallet, pick up a bill, and slide it under his pillow.  The second tooth though was a total Bust — at least for my 16-year old daughter.  I could hear her snickering in her room when she heard me explaining to my 6-year old that I went to bed too late last night, that the Tooth Fairy refused to come into the house (since someone was still awake!).  So I promised him, while confronted with a pretty sad and disappointed face, that I would surely retire early on Monday night to give the Tooth Fairy her chance to pick up his tooth.

Whew!  That was close.

My daughter thought it was a lame excuse … but I thought it was a pretty witty story for a half-awake-mum.

Dimanche Repas: Semaine 11

This week’s menu was AC’s choice — with soup and dessert choices delegated to Roxanne and me, respectively.  His choice:  Homard Thermidor. Rx’s soup choice:  Potage Parmentier (Potato and Leek Soup), my dessert choice: Charlotte de Pommes (Apple Charlotte).

I loved the choice of the main course because the movie made such a spectacular impact on me then — that I thought, “Hmmm.  It can’t be that difficult to put a lobster into a casserole of boiling liquid, right?”

Wrong.

Here’s a clip to remind you of that particular scene:

This was the first time I was cooking LIVE  lobsters too — so I did some google-ing and tried to search for the easiest, least painful way of killing them.  Julia said that if you could not fathom steaming live lobsters, you could always kill them instantly first.  Yeah. So they wouldn’t have to perish from the heat of the steam or the bubbling boiling water.  She said:  Kill them instantly by “plunging a knife into the head, between the eyes.”

Someone even recommended putting them into the freezer for 30 minutes first to get them into a state of coma — and THEN cook them in their sleep.  Neat.  One day, I wish I could leave the world that way.

Here’s how the fate of my lobsters turned out:

The adventure started with Ani, my ever-reliable marché expert, who purchased my goods for me.  Eight pounds worth of live lobsters bought on Rue Montorgueil for half the price of those sold on the 16th arrondissement.  Strangely enough, when she bought them, les vendeurs simply threw them into a plastic bag, sans rubber bands on the claws, sans a box to keep them constricted.  Half-way down the block, she went running back to them — fearful of what the other Metro commuters would do should those shelled-creatures start crawling up their Gucci-clad-feet.  Good thinking, right?

Fortunately, les poissonières were kind enough to give her a box, and tied the claws neatly — the way they should have done in the first place.

Then came my big dilemma:  On the internet, all the videos I watched on “How to Cook Lobster” showed them being immersed in rapidly boiling water.  But Julia only prescribed using 2 cups of vermouth + 2 cups of water.  Hardly enough liquid to even cover their poor toes!  I panicked.  What a way to die.  “Drown me if you will, but don’t do it half-way!”  So I said a little prayer to Julia, and murdered her stock by adding a lot of water, enough to a comfortable drowning level.   And they all dove in head-first, as many others recommended.

That was the most painful part of the adventure because I could actually hear them blurting small squeaks of  “Eeeeeeeee!”  about 5 minutes into the boil.  It was heart-wrenching… but not enough to make me stop.  I persevered!  Starting with reducing all that liquid down to 2.25 cups — which took a good three hours!

The rest was smooth-sailing:  de-shelling the lobsters while carefully keeping their shells intact, scraping every bit of meat from their legs and joints, cracking their beautiful fat claws (which I saved and later served as appetizers) …

… removing their intestinal tubes, spooning out the lobster coral and green goo, incorporating the goo into the sauce, sauté-ing the meat in cognac.

Four hours later — and well into midnight, I was exhausted.  I reserved the rest of the steps for Sunday morning, when I would simply need to combine the meat with the sauce, put them into the shells, top them with grated parmesan, and bake them.

And there was still the dessert I had to make!

Tomorrow is another day, I thought — and decided to cram everything else to Sunday morning.

I woke up bright and early on Sunday — determined to whip up the rest of the meal with unrelenting commitment.  I started by giving up on the soup because there were just not enough hours left till le dejeuner!  (I promise to do this on Wednesday though!)

Now I had to tackle the Charlotte de Pommes.  Whose idea was this anyway?  Although the recipe was pretty straight-forward — there was one very crucial, hanging threat:  If your sauce is not thick enough, or your bread slices insufficient — it could lead to your whole le gateau “caving in.”  Thanks.  Just the stress I needed on a Sunday morning.

Persevere!

I lined my almost-charlotte-mould with bread, lightly browned in butter:

… thickened my apple sauce in the pan until it held its shape on the spoon …

… made my apricot glaze….panicked.

… piled up my butter-soaked-bread-pieces on my mould.  Panicked again.  Layered it with apple sauce …

… threw it into the oven … took a deep breath, and prayed that everything would turn out right.  Literally.

We were at the table by 12:30 noon — just as it is every Sunday.  I put my apron aside, and made every effort to look cool, calm, and collect.

And…  this is was what we had for one unforgettable Dimanche Repas:

Lobster Claws with Egg Mayonnaise

Homard Thermidore avec Haricot Verts

Charlotte de Pommes

The lobsters were oh so sumptuous, my Charlotte stood firm and proud, and all plates were wiped out.  I received valued compliments from everyone — INCLUDING my hubby!

And for me, when he says it was a “success” — then I dare not argue.  I  can heave a big sigh of relief and believe, that all the effort was well worth the massacre.  🙂

Bon apetit indeed!  🙂



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