Canapé Raid

© Jessie Kanelos

The only person who loves canapés more than me is my husband.  Invite us to your parties!  We will bring our own toothpicks!  No chip left undipped!  Last night in particular, after a long day of moving into our new place, we fortunately had an excuse to leave the sad, barren apartment we are still stuck living in.  Like every other night in Paris, we were invited to a ‘cocktail’.   And it was straight-up search and destroy.   Fetching a glass of champagne at the door, I did the preliminary scope out before the tag team, “2 o’clock, foie gras pinwheels and hummus zucchini cups.  4 o’clock, jambon de parme carving station.  Crudités, zero threat.  Beware of 12 o’clock!  Concorde grapes+unidentifiable white fish=most unfortunate.”  But my partner in canape crime lost momentum; his pacing got slowed down by conversation.  But I diligently treaded on, swerving through the partygoers to find what else lurked about.  “Viens VIIIIIITE!”  I jumped up and down, waving my coup de champ’ across the crowd.  Jackpot! Thai gambas à la minute in T minus 2 minutes!

Three hours later, the jambon de parme specialist knew my name, where I was born, and had a running count of how many chicken curry crepe triangles I had manhandled.  Gourmandise, the fine line of consumption between foodie and fatty, had been crossed.  But a few toothpicks of port-macerated prunes and cantaloupe sent us sweetly on our way back to our empty home.  I high-fived my hubby on our way out.

To be continued…

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A Sugar-Coated Milestone

© Jessie Kanelos

I am happy to announce that today I reached a major milestone in my life in France.   Sleepily ordering a pain au chocolat at the boulangerie this morning, the boulanger turned to me, looked me square in the eyes, and said, “Ca va?”  She asked me how I was!  And not in a “Damn, you look terrible!  Are you still wearing your pyjama shirt?” kind of way either.  France is not the kind of place where you hear “Hi, my name is Anne-Sophie.  How may I serve thee today, chéri?”.  It’s just not friendly.  It’s just that no one cares about a stranger’s day.  Only what they had for lunch.  But 3 years, a lot of pocket change, and bi-daily trips later, we are now kabitzing!  I need a friend like this.  She answers all of my burning pastry questions. “What’s in the chocolate flan?”  “It’s a flan, but with chocolate.”  “How does the viennois au chocolat look when watercolored?”  “I don’t know”  “What’s the difference between brioche and pain au lait?” “Nothing.” It’s a shame we are moving away from my boulanger bff within the next few days.  I should show my appreciation by baking her a cake.  Hmmm, or maybe not.

Moving out, moving on.

We’ve set a date!  The renovations are wrapping up in our new place.  And we are set to move in next week.  But sweet nostalgia is sinking in.  I’ll miss our untamed little garden out back.  The warm tradition at our local boulangerie.  The peeling paint.  And the curtains of cobwebs.  The assortment of wildlife that creep into our bathroom.  The defunct washing machine which serves as our only counter space. The scars on my shoulders reminding me of our ongoing war against bedbugs.  The upstairs neighbors and their Saturday morning smooth jazz sessions.   Wait a minute, let’s blow this joint!

 

99 problems but a zucchini ain’t one

Just like any other day, aside from the crisper drawer full of Kodak, the fridge is barren, except for a well-rounded collection of condiments with nothing to put them on.  But regardless of what’s inside, there are always a few zucchini lurking about.  They are sturdy, reliable, adaptable, and have already outlasted Kodak.

I never cared much for zucchini in my previous life, pre-France.  Growing up in the Midwest, zucchini was yet another victim of the deep fryer.  And in the summertime, my mom always thought buying a 5-pounder from the farmer’s market would satiate our annual zucchini consumption.  But in reality, half went to a zucchini bread and the other half was lost to the fridge.  Just like avocado chocolate mousse and peanut butter & banana sandwiches, zucchini bread was another cultural over-share with mon mari qui fume.  But that’s ok.  In France, zucchini always seems to be in season and the price is always in reason. Mixed with a little creme fraiche and sprinkled with cheese, it bakes up into a beautiful gratin.  I usually slice it and sauté it over a medium heat in olive oil with a crushed garlic clove until it caramelizes on both sides.  

Mixed with anchovies and pasta or made into an omelette, this super-simple preparation heightens the nuttiness of the zucchini in less than 5 minutes.  Now, what to do with all those condiments?

Clouds over Saint-Mandé

 

The April showers turned into May showers.  Come on June!  Kick out the precipitation and bring in the picnics!  But enough about the weather already.

I just committed the terrible sin of running errands in my nightdress.  A real Franco no-no.  In a culture which firmly separates the public from the private,  flip-flops, pajama pants, and convenience clothes are only found behind locked doors.  Needless to say, I did dress up my nightgown with a French touch, one of my husband’s v-neck sweaters.  I’d like the think it was California casual with Midwestern roots.  Anyway, the moment I left my flat (with all my Crocs and Snuggies padlocked behind me), I felt the first ray of premature summer sun hit my ankles.  And so it begins…

 

Just Another Apero’

I apologize if it comes across that France is all daffodils and Laduree.  In reality, like all great capital cities, a quarter of my time is spent on the Metro.  Another quarter is a bureaucratic wild goose chase.  And as a freelancer, another quarter is spent working and/or stressing about not working.

The weekends are welcome change of pace.  The only excuses to leave the flat are buying bread and attending the ubiquitous aperitif, or French house party.  The apero is quintessentially French, reminding me of what I am not.  In short, it is nothing short of a bowl of mixed nuts, carrot sticks, a strict byob policy, and a smoky room of heated conversations.  Unlike the All-American, all-inclusive parties I know, at an apero, one must fend for oneself.  I try not to read up so much on all the The French Do the Darndest Things books that stack the shelves of all the anglophone bookstores in Paris, but I did find a particular a-ha moment thumbing through Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow’s take Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong.  Nadeau and Barlow compare conversation in English-speaking countries to badminton.  Both parties must keep the conversation afloat by tossing it systematically back and forth.  On the other hand, conversation in France is a proper duel.   Wit, knowledge, and general fun facts of Haussmanian architecture are used to formulate an attack to outsmart the rival.  And conversation is not something that everyone can engage in.  It must first be engaged with guile.

I am an extroverted introvert, finally accepting the fact that I lean more towards the introverted side of the pendulum, feeling like I must be crass and crude for people to like me.   So this leaves me in an uncomfortable place at aperos.  I cling to mon mari for a while, but my smiles and head nodding can’t initiate me into the conversation.  I usually just plant myself next to the buffet and desperately make eye contact.  One bowl of cherry tomatoes and a wine mustache later, I am still immobile and impersonal, kicking myself for not throwing myself into the ring.  I try spotting out someone I can use my impressive knowledge of American primetime sitcoms from the 1990s.  But no one’s even looking at me!  I make eye contact with a few guys.  All they want to know is the origin of my accent and if I’ve heard of Bon Jovi.

Yes! I’ve finally reeled someone in!  An acquaintance of mon mari, you know, that chick with the bangs.  Someone finally feels my desperation and comes up for a little chat.   “What are doing at this moment?”  “Uh, nothing really.  I’ve just discovered steak-flavored chips.  And you?” “No, what are you working on at this moment?”  “Oh”, I say, whipping up the roster of expos I’ve seen in the last six-months to keep me in the intellectual joust.  Before belting out how how fabulous the Matisse was at the Pompidou, I’ve lost her to the kitchen.  After several hourly trips to the toilet and a bottomless verre, the soiree is over.  Phew!

So what’s a conversationally disenfranchised expat to do?  Fortunately, alcohol is welcome in these settings.  And thankfully, not all aperos are like this.  But after a long week, sometimes I would rather spend an evening with company of Don Draper and the gang at Sterling Cooper Draper Price.  Much like sussing up the illusive extroversion inside of me, it takes a little bit more courage just to take a deep breath and be myself in my new social climate.    But all in all, it is much easier to do, especially if I can scope out someone who speak intelligently of the Cosby Show.

Radishes & butter.

Terraces and cigarettes.  Rosé and the summertime.  Radishes and butter.  Radishes and butter?  Yes! As a Ranch-dipping American, this came as a bit of a surprise to me .  (How does one butter a radish?  Have the French found an excuse to dip things into butter now?  I admit to sneaking single-serving Country Crock packets under restaurant tables as a kid, but this is absurd!) In France, butter is the assigned spouse to radishes, with a sprinkle of extramarital sea salt just to keep things interesting.  Although everyone does it differently, according to mon mari qui fume, the butter to my radish, the radishes are cut into four parts which create the surface area for the butter.  The beauty of the pairing instantly makes itself clear; the smooth butter flatters the crisp, occasionally spicy radish.  Give it a try!  Anyone know where to get some Country Crock around here?

Even the kiwis are French!

I am a real foodie now!  I’ve started buying locally and seasonally.  Farewell, sweet bananas and pineapples from faraway.  See you sporadically!  However, I made a recent discovery.  Over Christmas vacation, we spent a few days at a friend’s cottage in the mountains near La Cévennes.  The only fruit in the house were tiny kiwis no bigger than my thumb.  And they were local, harvested just nearby.  I always assumed that kiwi’s acidity and zippy vitamin C meant their origins were more tropical than domestic.  But as winter fruit, they add a bit more variety to the apples, clementines, and grapefruits that fill the colder months.  But since Spring has sprung, I should scrap this watercolor.  It’s completely out of season!

Does this discovery come as a surprise to you, too?

Nail in Foot, Burger in Hand

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We are in the demolition stage of our new apartment.  This morning, as we walked into the place for our daily visit, our quirky 1950s flat to-be was transformed into the town of Bedrock.  Before I could even say “Wow, what a dump!”, “Ohmygawwwwputainmerde!”  My first step into the apartment, I got a nail in the foot.  The throbbing pain was the least of my worries.  Since I have the undisputed Generation Me dilemma of not having had health insurance since my shatterproof undergraduate days, I was sure I could feel my jaw locking in the matter of moments. Luckily, I had an unsuccessful semester in grad school that got me up to speed on that important tetanus shot.  Phew!

To help ease the pain, I was whisked off for lunch at the hyper-popular food truck Le Camion Qui Fume by mon mari qui fume.  Le Camion Qui Fume ends the search for an authentic American cheeseburger in Paris.  Although there are imposters on every cafe menu, 18 euros for a dry, uninspired hamburger on an industrial bun is not worth the ho-hum indulgence.  Food trucks have not  taken off in Paris yet, partially considering that the French cannot eat with their hands alone.  But fellow American expat Kristin Frederick has mastered the right fatty mix of ground beef, the soft, butter-brushed sesame seed buns, real cheddar and shoestring fries to cheer up any expat having a bad day.  Although the truck changes locations everyday, we dug into our burgers on the steps of the Église de la Madeleine overlooking the Place de la Concorde.  And at just 10 euros for a burger and fries, there is no better bargain or breathtaking view.

http://www.lecamionquifume.com/

Gervita, mon amour.

If I have not lost you already, now it is going to get interesting. Walking down the double-sided yogurt isle, I am always perplexed by the plethora of options for seemingly plain yogurt. There is yaourt nature, fromage blanc, caillé, faisselle, séré, yaourt au bifidus, and drinkable yogurt, all made from different kinds of milk. Although technically not yogurt, one of the things I quickly learned to adore in France is fromage blanc, or white cheese. It varies in textures and tanginess, but the style I love has the same texture of a fatty Greek yogurt, but is surprisingly low in fat and calories. How can this be ? Fromage blanc is a simple cheese made by boiling fresh, unpasturized milk and cream with a bit of présure, a fermentation starter. Although its texture is often likened to cream cheese, playing starring role in French cheesecake, its consistancy is more comparable to a high-fat yogurt. Fromage blanc is often on restaurant menus as the sole light option. Served with a berry coulis or honey, it is a protein-packed, simple dessert. I often eat it for breakfast with oatmeal and fruit. Or I will layer fromage blanc, sliced fruit, and maple syrup for a quick parfait. A welcome nudge for Mr. Meat & Potatoes, my husband, to eat fruit.

Speaking of the varieties of fromage blanc, it is onto a reader favorite, Danone’s Gervita. In Gervita’s packaging, a spoonful of this whipped fromage blanc floats among the clouds in a blue sky. It’s a spoonful of pleasure coming in for landing. On the first bite, the mousse melts on the tongue with the smooth, fresh milk taste of cream cheese, then that characteristic yogurt tang kicks in. And then it’s back to the smooth taste of cream again. Although I was a bit surprised the mousse was just a layer on top of a bed of fromage blanc, it is a pleasing flip flop of changing textures and character. Here is a 4-pack that won’t last more than a day at chez moi.

I have seen Gervain Petit Suisse in the refrigerators of most families and all of my serious friends who have a properly stocked fridge. It’s an after-dinner kiddie treat. Although I’ve tried unsuccessfully using a spoon to just dig in, Petit Suisse can be a bit deceiving. The Petit Suisse must first be squeezed out of its container and carefully disrobed of its colorful paper sleeve and served standing tall on a plate. Kids love presentation, eh? With 9.2 % fat content, this fromage blanc is more comparable to cream cheese.  Although it lacks the fresh cream taste of Gervita, it has the decadently rich texture of strained Greek yogurt and the tangy punch of crème fraiche.   Hence, a perfect accompaniment to all chocolate and fruit desserts.

So there you have it. I love fromage blanc, I like Petit Suisse, and I would marry Gervita.  But I think it is all gone.