The New Convivialist

Category: travel

Salade Lyonnaise and Other French Mountain Fare

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A few weeks back I had the privilege of spending four days with friends at Benoit’s country house in Alsace. I say privilege not only because France, country house, and friends all in the same sentence is a delight which is self-explanatory, but also because this particular group of friends is so culinarily-oriented that we joked we could charge visitors a full-board fare of hundreds per night, if we were so entrepreneurially-inclined. The weather was not entirely conducive to the outdoor playing we had hoped for, but it did enable a kind of festive Christmas-like eat-a-thon that left us all basically incapacitated and unable to do much more than sit in front of the fire and play Settlers of Catan.

If you’ve never eaten the Alsacian regional specialty Choucroute, I cannot lie and say you need to run out to your butcher tonight to try and recreate it. It’s rather a kind of dish akin to, say, Icelandic puffin, which one needs merely to check off the list one time as done. I had first learned of Choucroute when reading Jeffrey Steingarten’s thrilling account of eating his way through Alsace. This essay fermented the idea in my mind of Choucroute being an exciting, mysterious, even cult-like kind of delicacy. However, I soon found that this steamed ensemble of sauerkraut topped with an eye-popping array of sausages, hocks and other fatty pork pieces (some identifiable, others not) is not for the meat-phobic or ‘flexitarians’ among us. I myself was slightly queasy before we even started the feast. (I might also add here that dinner the night before had consisted of the not exactly light fare of saucisson, fresh Maultaschen in broth, flaky duck pie, and flan.) We ordered enough Choucroute from the local butcher for the nine of us, but were encumbered with leftovers upon leftovers well into the following day, which we tossed on the grill to a quite satisfactory result.

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The inclement weather did hold long enough for two or three solid walks in the Vosges trails. Between intermittent sprinkles of rain and brilliant sunshine, we foraged for the sweetest of wild myrtilles along the trailside. Upon Benoit’s warnings of the dangers of fox pee on wild berry bushes and the horrendous sickness that can result, we resisted snacking on-site. Even so, picking enough of these tiny berries for a proper tarte was a challenge. We managed, though, with enough left over for what was perhaps the most heavenly jam I’ve ever eaten on my morning toast.

Ahhhh, salad! When it was suggested one day for lunch that some fresh salads might be prepared, we all breathed a distinct sigh of gastric relief. It turned out that two of Benoit’s childhood friends who joined us at the house own and operate their own salad bar in Lyon. The four Lyonnaise in the group got to work in the kitchen, chopping fennel, garlic, onions, and oranges, like line cooks in a harmonic progression that only old friends can accomplish. But when I saw a big slab of bacon being sliced into thin lardons, I became suspicious, wondering what in the world was going on with this salad concept? Damian, a former Lyonnais now living in New York, showed me how to make the traditional Salade Lyonnaise: fresh croutons sautéed in garlic, fried lardons, mixed in with fresh, bitter greens and mustardy vinaigrette, topped with a runny poached egg. The combination of the savoury and creamy with the sharp and crunchy makes for an exceedingly balanced, yet still fairly light salad, one for which we were all grateful.

 

Recipe: Salade Lyonnaise

Day-old French bread, roughly cut

Garlic, two cloves

Olive oil

Butter

Smoked bacon, sliced against the grain thinly in strips (lardons)

Frisee or other bitter greens

1 egg per person, poached

Vinaigrette:

1 Tbsp. Mustard

1 Tbsp. Melfor Alsacian honey vinegar (or red wine vinegar if you do not have this)

2 Tbsp. Olive oil

Salt and pepper, to tastealsace-food-blog-convivialistsalade-lyonnais-convivalist-blog-foodsalade-lyonnais-recipe

  1. Bring frying pan to medium heat and add olive oil and garlic. When garlic begins to become fragrant, add the bread pieces and a few small cubes of butter. Fry until golden and crunchy. Set aside to cool.
  2. Fry bacon strips until crispy. Drain and set aside to cool.
  3. Make vinaigrette: whisk mustard and vinegar together and slowly add olive oil in a steady stream. Season with salt and pepper.
  4. Toss the greens with the vinaigrette and mix in the croutons and bacon.
  5. Poach eggs: Bring pot of water to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Stir in a spoonful of vinegar and swirl the water in a circular motion. Crack the egg into a small bowl or teacup and gently lower it into the swirling, simmering water. Allow it to cook for 3-5 minutes until the white has set and then remove with a slotted spoon and allow to drain. Repeat with remaining eggs.
  6. Divide the salad onto individual plates and top with one poached egg each. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

A Marriage and a Seaside Paella

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A couple weeks back I was fortunate enough to be a guest at the wedding celebration of our friends and across-the-hall neighbors Nikolaus and Clarissa on the stunning island of Ibiza. No, it did not take place at the mega-club where Skrillex was in residency. The Ibiza we experienced was instead a dry, rolling farmland sheathed in a quiet interrupted only by lambs trotting through clumpy fields. All the wedding festivities were centralized around the hills of the tiny village of Santa Agnes de Corona, which the bride’s family has known as a home for nearly four decades. Read the rest of this entry »

Bulgogi and Vegetarian ‘Bulgogi’ : A Recipe

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In rural Spain, the tastes of South Korea are elusive. Or… not really. During my stay in the mountains outside Barcelona, I didn’t learn how to prepare calçots (the seasonal specialty that’s everywhere this time of year) nor did I try to recreate a melt-in-your mouth dish of stewed pigs feet I ate at the local restaurant. Instead I observed how to cook a staple of the Korean kitchen. Bulgogi, or ‘fire meat’ is one of the most popular Korean dishes, eaten both in the home and in barbecue restaurants as well as, apparently, in rural Catalunya.

I recently returned home after spending a couple of weeks in Catalunya at art artist residency, which consisted of a big old farmhouse renovated to accommodate up to twenty artists and writers living and working for short periods of time. I found myself there rather spontaneously and arrived without too many expectations. One perk of the residency is that dinner is prepared for all the artists nightly, allowing focus and attention only on the work at hand and not on such ‘mundane’ tasks as cooking a meal. While I appreciated this gesture in theory, naturally, being me, after three days I was itching to get into the kitchen and cook something inspiring for myself, even if it did take precious time away from working.

I was thrilled that among the other residents, two artists from Seoul were invited for the month. Apparently fed up or bored (or both) with Spanish food, they began at lunchtime a gradual commandeering of the kitchen to make Korean dishes. That is, within the confines of the limited ingredient availability found in rural Spain. One of the Koreans, Daniel, a bad-ass (just no other way to describe her) sculptor and street artist, was determined to perfect a version of Bulgogi and share it with the others in the group one night near the end of her stay. So, every day for a week, she could be found in the sunny kitchen chopping heads (yes, entire heads-see photo below) of garlic and marinating beef in a pungent soy sauce mixture, practicing her technique.

That last Thursday night, at the exceedingly early hour of 7pm – remember this is Spain – the dinner of beef and vegetarian bulgogi, along with a thick spring onion-cheese omelet was inhaled all of us, including the most traditional of the Spanish eaters, in utter silence.

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Recipe: Bulgogi

½ kilo beef, best is rib-eye or sirloin steak, cut across the grain in thin slices

½ head of garlic, minced

1 onion, cut in half and sliced into moon shaped pieces

2-3 spring onions, white and green parts, sliced

1/3 cup soy sauce

1 tablespoon sesame oil

1-2 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons sesame seeds

red chili flakes, to taste

black pepper, to taste

neutral oil, for frying pan

 

1. Combine the soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar, sesame seeds, chili flakes and pepper in a bowl and stir together.

2. Place the sliced beef, garlic, onions and spring onions in a bowl. Pour the marinade over the top and gently stir with your hands, lightly massaging the meat to infuse it with the sauce. Cover tightly and refrigerate overnight, or at least a few hours.

3. Heat the oil over medium flame in a frying pan. Sauté the mixture in batches, browning the meat on one side, and then turning over (flip only one time)

4. Serve with rice or lettuce leaves

 

Recipe: Tofu Bulgogi

¼  kilo firm tofu, cut into thin bite-sized squares

½ head of garlic, minced

1 onion, cut in half and sliced into moon shaped pieces

5 spring onions, white and green parts, sliced

1/3 cup soy sauce

1 tablespoon sesame oil

1-2 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons sesame seeds

red chili flakes, to taste

black pepper, to taste

neutral oil, for frying pan

 

1. Combine the soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar, sesame seeds, chili flakes and pepper in a bowl and stir together.

2. Place the tofu, garlic, onions and spring onions in a bowl. Pour the marinade over the top and very gently stir with your hands, since the tofu breaks easily. Cover tightly and refrigerate at least a few hours.

3. Heat the oil over medium flame in a frying pan. Sauté the mixture in batches, browning the tofu on one side, and then turning over (flip only one time).

4. Serve with rice or lettuce leaves

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In the cava hills

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Ambling leisurely down the main drag of the Catalonian village nestled in the foothills of the Montserrat mountain range that we call home for the next week, we realized we were warm. Actually warm. This being our first day in Spain after a few months holed up in Berlin, enduring its notoriously gray winter months, this sensation was something of a revelation. Paul and I had walked out the door of our residence down the hill in the late morning, naturally preparing for the elements as we were accustomed to doing each day: by piling on as many sweaters as would fit under a long green wool jacket (in my case) or a short black polar fleece with Gore-tex overcoat (in his). The wrapping of scarves, pulling on of two pairs of gloves and final addition of sensible hats made us models of outdoor-preparedness in Germany. And in the late morning in this particular valley of a mountainous region, I can’t say I was unhappy with our sartorial decisions. We had, however neglected to take into account a key factor that exists in Spain that does not in Berlin: sunshine. More specifically, the strength of the sun. The strength of the sun when one is situated directly below it and on a mountainside. Elated at the sensation of heat via actual rays of sun, we simultaneously, without speaking, peeled off our hats and gloves, unbuttoned our coats and wished that, without daring to utter the words, we had sunglasses.

The village itself is small. Not many people appear on the streets on a weekday morning, though I imagine this changes in high season or on weekends when hikers and tourists en route to the Montserrat monastery seep into the area. Only a handful of stores, mostly practical, dot the calle principal. A tiny grocery store, a pharmacy, bookshop, simple restaurant and two or three convenience stores could barely provide a half hour of ‘shopping’. But we, happy to be in a new surrounding, browsed the tiny shelves of every convenience store with care, mostly in search of ‘jamón serrano’, but also for anything novel that we might be able to feast on, literally or visually.

About halfway through the walk downhill we peered into an empty, cave-like storefront. There were no doors to speak of, just a darkened interior, seemingly cut into the stone, the left side of which was lined with large stainless steel drums, each with spigots on the bottom. More enticing than the visuals of the space was the smell emanating from somewhere even deeper within the cavern: something dank and musty, sweet and bacterial, one that can be deemed neither a stench nor an aroma. These are the most enticing of all olfactory sensations that humans experience: those by which we are simultaneously repulsed and attracted. Like with a good, ripe camembert, we are a little horrified at how it smells, but unable to turn away, in fact, just the opposite: we want it in the ultimate way the nose’s desires can be satisfied. We want to ingest it. By the smell of this particular cave, it was obvious wine production was in process, but probably of a rather low quality, of dubious sanitary standards, or both.

As we tentatively entered the storefront chamber, unsure whether or not it was even open to the public, a petite woman emerged from another small room on the right side. Her jaw was slack (frozen?) and didn’t move as she spoke, making her already jumbled mixture of catalán and castellano even more difficult to understand. I asked if they had any cava available and she pointed us to two of the large vats – one labeled as 15 degrees and 2.10 per liter and the other as 13 degrees and 1.80 per liter. She asked if we wanted to try- why not? It’s almost noon. I responded , and she grabbed the first tiny glass she could find handy with her surprisingly large paw, and went to the back to rinse it out (to my relief). She poured us a small beaker of the first cava. Tiny sip. Not good, but drinkable. When it was apparent we weren’t quaffing it with delight, she took the beaker and filled it full with the next one, claiming it was softer and lighter. Read: even worse. As we choked nearer to the bottom of the glass, Paul noticed two small fruit flies inside. I laughed and showed the woman and she responded, grabbing the glass and throwing its fly-ridden backwash over her shoulder onto the floor: “No es nada- están en el grifo.”

Truly, I didn’t want to buy any of the subpar cava, but I felt obliged to do so, given that this wistful, lonely woman had gone out of her way for what may be her only two customers all morning. As I paused and pondered, she gave me a taste from yet another vat, this one a smaller barrel. “Vermouth,” she explained, “para martini.” Yes, it was deep brown and intriguing, a great deal better than the cava, but, still, I didn’t exactly have an itching desire for the liter and a half minimum quantity of vermouth. But, my rusty Spanish failing me, I acquiesced: vale, ok, I’ll take it. The woman happily filled up a 1.5-liter water bottle (after kindly emptying it of its previous contents- whatever they might have been) with the sweet vermouth and took my seven euros twenty-five. Upon leaving, she pitched me an array of colorful necklaces and pins displayed behind her cash register, explaining she had made them herself and if I wanted to come back and purchase a little something for myself, they would be there, waiting. At once charmed and guilty, I couldn’t possibly feel swindled for the unwanted vermouth after this pitiful offer. Blinking in the momentarily-forgotten sunlight, I emerged from the cave to Paul, who had long-since made a discreet exit from the shop, with a knowing look on his face: “so she got you, did she.”

 

 

New York Impressions and Gift Guide for Food Lovers

I returned from my spontaneous Stateside trip earlier in the week with a bout of food-related illness that I attribute to an ill-timed visit to Veselka in Manhattan. Otherwise a wonderful last minute dip into authentic New-Yorkism with dear friends Ashley and Emy, perhaps a bowl of Ukranian Diner borscht was not the best choice two hours before boarding an intercontinental flight. Further details really not necessary. But suffice it to say that during the last days the only holiday dishes that have been on my wish list have been white rice and vegetable broth.

Before I foray into my New York holiday impressions, I will share with you some gift suggestions for the food-lover in your life, whether that be your great aunt, boss, sister, godson, best friend, brother-in-law or significant other. These are products from around the world that will not only impress during the holidays, but will also pay their rent all year round. I love food-related gifts: they’re unpretentious, (usually) won’t break the bank, and will never end up unused in the bottom drawer.

So, here goes:

riess-convivialstFor your sister, perhaps: Riess Cookware, edition Sara Wiener. This playful, yet sophisticated set of bakeware is designed by notable Austrian chef Sarah Wiener.

 

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For your great aunt, perhaps: spice grinder by Menu. Danish design that keeps it simple, featuring a ceramic mill, grippable silicone finish for finishing off the dish right.

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For your best friend, perhaps: Mast Brothers Cookbook. Best friends are always chocolate fiends, right? Or at least they should be if they are any best friend of mine. Try this new cookbook by Mast Brothers, Brooklyn-based chocolate manufacturer. The recipes run from savory to sweet to insane.

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For your boss, perhaps: Seagull Tiffin lunchbox. He or she loves cooking, so why not encourage the gift of homemade lunches for the New Year with this practical and plastic-free tiffin.

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For your little godson, perhaps: Sabadi Hot Chocolate Set. With these adorable and tasty hot chocolate sticks, you just need to add hot milk and stir. Fun for kids, and healthy, too, made from raw chocolate and local Sicilian herbs and spices.

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For your brother-in-law, perhaps: Four Grain Bourbon from Hudson Whiskey. This is the bottle I brought with me when I spent a summer alone in the Norwegian countryside. It’s that good. Your brother-in-law will think so too, neat or on the rocks.

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For your significant other, perhaps: notecard from Rifle Paper Co. My boyfriend and I never exchange Christmas gifts. Best possible from your significant other is a sweet note, on an equally sweet card.

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And…why not. For yourself, perhaps: Shirt Collar Apron by Aiste Nesterovaite. This Lithuanian designer makes the only apron I know that is neither folksy nor industrial. It is simply elegant, made from thick fabric, and with an air of formal attire. If you’re hosting a dinner party in 2014, this apron will outshine whichever outfit is underneath.

***

Now that a few days have passed and I have a bit of perspective my recent trip, I can reflect on the whirlwind that is New York as a visitor. I lived in New York for about five years, with many longer visits over the last three, which makes eight years of intense relationship with that huge apple. Given the fact that my visits have become less frequent and I no longer have a real ‘home’ there, my perspective on the city has changed immensely. Naturally, living in a much smaller and tamer city like Berlin will make the contrast even more stark, but there are a few things in particular I noticed this time that I found to be a new degree of shocking, dreadful or delightful.

1. No other city smells as great as New York during the holiday season.

I was walking down the subway platform in a dingy Midtown station and was suddenly overwhelmed with a surprising smell. No, not of trash, armpits or rat urine (though that wouldn’t be all that surprising), but of balsam, pine tar and forest! The multitude of tree and wreath vendors throughout the city might take up precious sidewalk space, but the intoxicating aromas extend even down through the subway vents and underground.

2. That place is expensive.

I know you know. But, no, really: It. Is. So. Expensive. It was the first time ever since being in New York that I essentially ate all my meals out or on the go. Even being as thrifty as I am, with an occasional dumpster dive, it was shocking.

3. Since when did it become appropriate for a server at a restaurant to ask you to leave after an hour at dinner so that they could have the table for another party?

This one really gets me. I know, space is a premium in New York City, and that includes restaurants. Places are tiny and hype is rampant, making waits for a table border on intolerable. But in the very short time I was in the city, this push-and-shove happened to me THREE times. The most appalling was on a weeknight at a small, popular Brooklyn restaurant (apparently one of Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s faves, I later found out.) After my friends waited outside for more than an hour, we sat down at a table for four and placed our order reasonably quickly. Since the place is BYOB and the menu is small, this was relatively uncomplicated. We dined in two courses, the second being slower as we became more full. The server tried two or three times to remove an unfinished platter of shared food from the middle of the table. We stopped her at all instances, but finally she just said outright: “I’m really sorry, but I have to ask you guys to leave. We have a party of four that’s been waiting outside for an hour.” As if we hadn’t. It was later in the evening, and as I glanced around the dining room, I spied three tables for two lining the far side. Empty. It would have been tight, but had I been in her position, I would have pushed two together and made it work, rather than very rudely asking paying customers to leave their table after no more than an hour and a half. Not to mention the fact that I hadn’t seen my friends in over a year, and all we wanted was to sit in peace and talk. We were all so taken aback by the request that we just stared, slack-jawed, and complied, but on the subsequent walk back to the subway I deliberated the alternative ways we should have behaved.

4. Those Salvation Army Bell Ringers went out and got themselves some SASS!

If you come from the US, you’ve seen them on city street corners in December, ringing their bells, calling for your loose change to fight poverty. While charming, the fundraising routine of the Christian charitable organization has started in recent years to seem, well… tired. With so many other distractions, not to mention our space phones, we barely look up if something doesn’t REALLY call for our attention. Well, on the streets of New York, those Bell Ringers just got younger and got some serious moves. They are no longer just ringing bells, but also lip-synching pop songs, singing and dancing to wrestle our attention away from our mini screens. And it works!

5. Where has the middle class gone?!

I am exaggerating certainly, but more than ever before I noticed an extreme wealth discrepancy in the city. Perhaps it’s the holiday season that brings in the tourists, but I have never seen more people strutting along 5th Avenue with Bergdorf Goodman bags and, conversely, more people begging or helpless on the streets. The unbridled consumerism of December only reemphasizes the stark contrast of New York’s haves and have-nots.

6. Music is EVERYWHERE.

For better or worse, I’ve become used to silence. Silence while I sleep, silence on the train, and best of all, silence while I buy my groceries. I think it’s a quintessentially American thing to pump music at high decibel into every possible corner of commercial space. Case in point: while picking up a couple of snacks at a Manhattan Whole Foods, rather than checking out some new products that could potentially be tasty or fun, I suddenly felt like I was suffocating. I had an irresistible urge to run for the exits as fast as I could. Why? Ahhh, yes, the music, if that’s what they call the cheesy techno-pop that pounds throughout the gourmet emporium. What’s so bad about a little quiet while deciding between the Lacinato versus Siberian kale?

Whether or not you live in New York or have been to New York during the holiday season, I hope you can relate to some of these observations. Give thanks for those that you experience yourself. Or, better, those that you don’t have to experience!