Paris Gastronomique

Ah Paris. What an amazing city.  It was my first time visiting this gorgeous place and it couldn’t have come at a better time, my schooling at Le Cordon Bleu is just a week away from ending and my internship at a modern French Boston restaurant (Menton) is just about to begin.  The stars aligned for this one.

Throughout my life, I have formed opinions of how the French people are, most of my influence came from movies, books, and stereotypes. Even cartoons such as Pepe Le Pew when I was a child conjured ideas in my head about the snotty and rude French.  However, I must say, after spending seven days in this country I did not encounter one rude, maladjusted, or condescending person. I asked for directions, ordered meals, and participated in everyday language both in English and my horrible French without any problems at all.  Perhaps it was my boyfriend’s ability to speak French so eloquently that enabled us to fit in seamlessly, but, then again he’s English and that’s a whole other story. (Why the French hate the British).

We arrived in France on a rainy and cold afternoon, after finding our way out of the Luxembourg station in the 6th arrondissement, near St. Germaine De Pres we were steps from our rented Parisian apartment (Thanks Airbnb!). Although I was too excited by all the smells, sights, cafes, and well-to-do-frenchies, we decided it would be best to nap off our jet lag a bit.  I awoke to wine, brie, and a warm and crusty baguette…right! I’m in France! Yes I have the best boyfriend ever. I shook off my foggy head and got down to business with wine and travel guides.

After stuffing myself full of cheese, bread and wine, we went to hit the town around midnight. Although the French often eat later in the evening and restaurants’ usually stay open until 2am, this was not so much on a rainy Monday night.  We found ourselves just a block away at a covered outdoor café that faced the Luxembourg gates.  It wasn’t anything special, but my surroundings and company were, so we had a fantastic time.  The elderly owner was still fluttering about serving us and the few remaining Parisians that still imbibed sipping wine and smoking.  We enjoyed a wonderful bottle of Bordeaux until our teeth looked like wood and Dan splurged on a plate of frites while I took in all the sights and smells of the world around us. Our waiter/owner did not rush us albeit approaching two in the morning, he let us sit and sip and relax until we were the last people in the restaurant.

After three bottles of wine and ten hours of sleep we awoke without one trace of a hangover.  How can this be we thought! A spot of coffee and a few croissants later.. ok and a pain au chocolate.. ok AND a bit of baguette with jam we made moves.  Pastry overloaded and quite happy we decided to plop our carbed out bodies on a tour of the city by way of the Big Bus Tour.  Two and a half hours later we had seen all the major sights and scoped out our adventure areas for the week.

On Wednesday we woke up to torrential rain, it was not what we had planned for, however we were in PARIS and it didn’t matter.  After a few train rides on the metro, we ended up in the largest and oldest covered market in Paris. Tiny books stores, craft shops, wine boutiques, tiny restaurants, artisans, and the occasional empty space filled over 4 city blocks of undercover market places. It felt like true old world Paris.  I could feel the tinkers, butchers, and cheese mongers who formerly occupied this space. It was very special.

While most of the lunch spots were bustling with customers, we were starving and a bit defeated when we stumbled upon a rather fancy but empty looking spot; Passage 53, located at the 53rd address of covered arcade.  We entered a modern minimalist dining room adorned with simple art, and colorful place settings. The maitre’d greeted us in a smart-looking, sleek black suit, with a black skinny tie. He was very French looking minus the thin upper lip mustache, and with a bright smile he welcomed us. He sat us and quickly explained that there was no menu, only pre fixe gastronomique tasting menu; the lunch version, or if we wanted to go bigger, the dinner tasting menu.  But before we were to choose he needed to check with the chef to see if he could accommodate two more for lunch. He further explained that they run solely on reservations.  I started to get nervous. I felt under dressed; I was wearing a simple sun dress soaked in rain, and Dan in his t- shirt and shorts. I was convinced he was checking with the chef to figure out a way to tell us to leave. We were under dressed but that didn’t seem to phase the wait staff, the Maitre’d came back with excellent news that they had room for two more. To our delight, we began to discuss the menu options. Without question Dan and I went for the whole shebang, plus the extra course with caviar. We’re on vacation, bring it! My nerves were instantly calm, we had been accepted.  As guests started to arrive, we noticed their anticipation and energy flooding the room and we quickly began to realize that we were somewhere unique.

If I could eat tasting menus everyday of my life I would. They are such a thrill, a rollercoaster for your palate, and always an adventure of new flavors and products. What I am about to walk you through is an endless homage to traditional French cuisine but in the most simple flavors and modern techniques of our culinary culture to date.  It is and exquisite experience to eat such developed flavors and to understand their depths and difficulty.  Fourteen courses of pure amazingness; some simple, some complex, but all fabulously harmonious.

Amuse bouche #1-Grilled salsify, first poached in butter.

Amuse bouche #2- Veloute of fresh pea with a quenelle of pea ice cream

Course Un- Caviar alongside potato strings with chive and chive blossom

Course Deux- Crab, English cucumber, pea gratinee, horseradish cream, poured cucumber jus with verbena

Course Trois- Gentle poached langoustine with cauliflower cream with crisp cauliflower shavings

Course Quatre-White asparagus, Parmesan cream, crumbled egg yolk and parmesan crisp

Palate awakener- Veal Consomme with a 3 minute egg, sorrel mushroom, chives and asparagus

Course Cinq- Turbo with peas, lima bean, and butter poached wheat berries with wood sorrel

Course Six- Veal breast with fingerling potatoes, celery foam, fennel foam, cabbage, mustard micro green and mustard seed puree

Course Sept- Squab, pumpkin cardamom puree, a micro brunoise quenelle of carrots vichy

Course Huit- Crème Brulee with an isomalt crackle

Course Neuf- Lemon curd ice cream with a lime candy and a cold lime crème sauce

Course Dix- Burnt caramel ice cream with a shaved white chocolate crumble

Course Onze- Season cherries, cherry sorbet, grated white chocolate and cherry grantinee on top of a white cherry ice cream

Course Douze- Chocolate ganache tart with citrus honey

All in all; 14 courses with champagne to start and coffee to end.  Our bellies were full, our minds were swirling with excitement and my taste buds were dancing around in my mouth. It was one of the best meals of my life; simple, well executed, unexpected, and entirely memorable.

Paris Part Deux coming up soon!

Technique: Sous Vide… What is it?

Sous Vide is magic.

It’s like a jacuzzi for meat.

What is sous vide [soo veed], really, you ask? Technically, according to www.epicurious.com it is “French for “under vacuum.”  Sous vide is a food-packaging technique pioneered in Europe whereby fresh ingredients are combined into various dishes, vacuum-packed in individual-portion pouches, cooked under a vacuum, then chilled. Sous vide  food is used most often by hotels, restaurants and caterers, though it’s expected to become increasingly available in supermarkets”

That is a boring definition. 

I would say that sous vide is the most exquisite way to cook a piece of meat. Picture this: You have 60 minutes left to live before the end of the world. Forget sex, calling your loved ones, or crossing off a bucket list item, you want to have your favorite last meal; perfectly cooked medium-rare, marinated steak on the grill. So succulent, juicy and flavorful, that you can die happy (am I projecting here?). Good thing, you miraculously have all the ingredients and equipment needed; a bad ass piece of beef, a really good marinade, a state of the art sous vide thermal immersion circulator, a vacuum sealer, and hot char-coaled grill.  We’re in business.

The sous vide method works like this: Steak, in a vacuum ready plastic bag. Marinade, poured in. Pouch, vacuumed. Sous vide in an immersion circulator, 125*F for 30 minutes.  Open bag, place on a high-heat hot grill, sear to perfection, 3 minutes. 7-10 minutes of rest.

Slice.

Eat.

Enlightenment.

59:59.

Death.

Ok, so it’s not really the end of the world, but forget 24 hours of marinating, or “overnight in the fridge for best results” With the help of one of these you can have a little end of the world, steak party for yourself.

Joking aside, using a sous vide method under vacuum pack eliminates most of the air, allowing whatever marinade or spices placed inside the bag to be absorbed by the meat and to lock in flavors normally lost when cooking.  Cooking in a water bath, or thermal immersion circulator, of constant temperature penetrates the protein from all angles and evenly cooks throughout. Overcooking is pretty much impossible considering the constant set temperature.

One disadvantage that can be easily fixed is the lack of a caramelized (maillard reaction) crust. Because the protein is being cooked so evenly and not over an extreme heat, there is no maillard reaction of the protein surface caramelizing.  One way to fix this is to sear  on a hot grill after sous vide cooking. This will give a juicy evenly cooked steak the crusty texture and char it deserves.

Lets not forget about vegetables! Using the sous vide method on vegetables also has its advantages.  This method will thoroughly cook  the veg while maintaining a firm to somewhat crisp texture, the cell walls do not get destroyed by high heat, and the gelantinization of starch in the vegetable can be achieved without over cooking!

There are a few food safety risks with using the sous vide method, in particular botulism. Duh duhn duhnnn. Don’t freak out! It’s not prevalent but like any other food safety and proper handling are important. To prevent this bacteria from happening always remember to pack food under vacuum pack below 38*F.  The means, don’t put a 45*F steak in the bag if its been on the counter for 8 hours thawing.  Time and Temperature safety- just like all other foods we handle. If you are cooking meat for a long duration, it must reach 135*F within 4 hours and be kept there in order to pasteurize the meat. For example, 48 hour short ribs.  Sound good huh.. tender delicious and botulism free if correctly heated!

Buying a sous vide machine will cost you a pretty penny ($400-$1000 +), but if you are an avid home cook and like exploring new cooking techniques this will not disappoint.  Also to learn more about this cooking technique, pick up a copy of Thomas Keller’s Under Pressure- you’ll be a pro in no time!

For accurate cooking times and temps here is a handy chart from TK; http://www.sousvidecooking.org/tag/thomas-keller/

Toro, ole!

It’s the first sign of fall; rainy, gusty, goosebumpy kind of cold. It is also a perfect night for dinner in one of my favorite spots; a cozy, energetic, neighborhood gem that is Toro; a Ken Oringer + Jamie Bisonnette love child. Oringer, a local Boston acclaimed chef, opened Toro in 2005 with instant success. He brought dramatic Spanish style tapas along with Chef Jamie Bissonette to a once risky corner of town that now boasts a cult like following in a thriving, posh, part of the South End. I am totally drinking the kool-aid.

Chef, Jamie Bissonette

Dan and I arrive to the undoubted 45 minute wait, perfect. We don’t mind, it’s expected. A little wait time, a catch up chat of our days events, and a boozy cocktail is just fine with me. It will also allow for the insatiable smells wafting from the kitchen to really get inside me, intrigue me, and allow for my hunger to build up even further.

I’m a huge fan of warm, aromatic, inviting, romantic spaces and Toro has the atmosphere down. A rugged, old school, brick building, dimly lit by votive candle light, a bustling, yet well controlled back kitchen area, with staggered high-top to table top variation, sleek bench and titanium chair seating, adds a modern note. It’s a great space for a night like tonight and I’m excited to revisit some of my favorite dishes and tack on a few new ones! My dining companion tonight, Dan, has the famed title of successfully eating through the entire Toro menu, with a worn out menu in checklist, scribbled out pen ink to prove it. I’m impressed and also in store for some new things!

photo courtesy of http://www.hauteliving.com

The menu is extensively diverse. There’s really something for every kind of eater, but mostly foodies of a feather flock together here. Pork butter, veal sweetbreads, tuna belly, uni, and bone marrow are just a few of the oddities/nasty bits/sensational bites one can expect to try.

After a delicious Dark & Stormy, we are seated at probably the best spot for two in the house; a nice little corner table in the window, we sit and begin to plan our attack. Dan is easy and adventurous so this is going to be fun! First stop: Ventresca– Spanish tuna belly, tomato tapenade and celery leaves. It arrived on a thin, crisply toasted, slice of their house bread. It tastes much like chunky tuna, rather than the fatty “belly” characteristics like that of Pork or Lamb Belly which I am more accustomed to. A salty tang and oily finish solidify I am in for a good dinner tonight! Next up: Escalivada Catalana-smoked eggplant, onions, peppers, and tomatoes with sherry vinegar and olive oil. This was served similar to a ratatouille with a smoky, spicy bite; we sopped up every drop of it with the crusty bread. Then onto: Datile con Jamon– Medjool dates filled with marcona almonds and cabrales blue cheese wrapped in jamon serrano. Sweet, salty, mushy, crunchy, in the three bites it took to devour, my taste buds were dancing and I was glad these came one per person; It was a rich and fulfilling 3rd course. Onto my favorite, and a staple I was glad to see back on the menu since my last visit: Costilla de Bourguignon– Braised short rib with bacon, mushrooms, and pearl onions. A simple, beautifully braised short rib that fell apart before my fork was even through it. Elegantly presented with a potato or parsnip puree (couldn’t exactly tell), brought me back to my fond first time experience at Toro in 2006. YUM.

Maiz Asado con Alioli y Queso Cotija

Following a meaty, entree-type progression, we found ourselves quickly diving into the Panza de Cerdo– roasted pork belly, atop a bed of corn, bacon and tomato salsa. This was one of our favorites, very crisp bacon top- almost like pig ear, hiding a delicate, gelatinous bed of pure pork fat. It was like eating savory, stick-to-your-teeth candy and we loved it. The kind of flavor that keeps on giving, if you know what I mean. An interlude was necessary. Another glass of wine, some fun banter, and a quick breather to assess what was next. Ah yes, the house special, a must for any visitor, the Maiz Asado con Alioli y queso cotija– grilled corn with alioli, lime, espellete peppers and aged cheese. Since its’ debut a few years ago, it has never taken a vacation. Any given bite will excite each flavor distinctively; crunchy, salty, limey, cheesy paradise. I’m starting to get full, but Dan suggests we get the Asado de Huesos– Roasted bone marrow with a radish citrus salad and oxtail marmalade. Done. Daring. I’ve never had bone marrow, let’s do it. Oh my goodness this stuff is good. After all the times I’ve watched Anthony Bourdain slurp it down, I can’t believe this is my first time, I want more!

Who needs desert after a meal like that! I went home feeling the sides of my teeth and being happy there were a few morsels of goodness still left to enjoy.

Ian, our server was great. He didn’t rush us and he checked back at just the right times. He even gave me a another plate of the Tuna Belly since I clumsily dropped half of it on the floor, nice touch. Thanks for the great service!

Take away: GO TO Toro! 1704 WASHINGTON ST BOSTON MA (MAP) 617.536.4300 http://toro-restaurant.com/

Thanks for reading! xo-G