formats

Chicken, Blackberries, Feta, Mango, Spinach & 10 Things I Really Like About France

Published on July 24, 2015, by in Uncategorized.

Chicken, Blackberries, Feta, Mango, Red Onion, Spinach

I really like French trains. Not because they’re usually on time, which, in my experience (and contrary to most), they tend to be, and not because they’re inexpensive, which, in general, they are (have you seen Amtrak rates lately? Yikes!). It’s mostly because I like the feeling of riding on a train that can take you through countless different types of countryside, through little villages and big cities.

I like the fact that, for most people in France, riding a train is not a big deal, and I like feeling the same way as they do until I remember that I’m on a train in France, and no matter how long I live here, riding on a train in France will always be cool.

I like that there’s no Internet on trains.

I like riding through familiar scenery, seeing familiar town names, or seeing towns I think I know, but I don’t; they just look like another town. I like imagining what people are doing in the towns that I pass, wondering what the people getting on the train are thinking, where they’re going.

I used to like to get off the train for the two minutes that it’s in the station to try to suck through a cigarette, but since I don’t smoke anymore, I like to watch other people doing it and pretend it’s me.

I like to hear the SNCF lady say, “Cannes, ici, Cannes. Assurez-vous de n’avoir rien oublié dans le train.

Paziols

I like the French conception of time, which TCB assures me is uniquely countryside, though I’m not so sure. Knowing what’s normal in different places has ceased being in my purview, seeing as I’ve pretty much romanticized the normal out of everything that used to just be.

Still, I don’t recall anyone in my American life ever talking about time in such wide terms as I’ve heard in France. “We’ll be by in the matinée,” means prepare yourself at 10, but don’t expect me before 11:30. “Let’s try to get to town in the début d’aprèm,” means when lunch is eventually over, we can smoke a cigarette and have some coffee and maybe smoke another cigarette and then mosey in the general direction of town.

To reconcile my type A self with this, I have created general definitions for what these broader terms entail. Matinée, in my mind, is from 9 to 11:45. Début d’aprèm is from 2pm-4pm. Fin d’aprèm is from 4pm-7pm. I have kept this well hidden from my laissez-faire French boyfriend, or had, until very recently, when I made an appointment with a rural beekeeper for the début d’aprèm and started freaking out because we were late for my secret arbitrary accepted arrival time of 2:10pm.

I am not French.

winery

I really like that France has reasonable air conditioning. I’ve been back in the States for 6 weeks, and I may well have walking pneumonia (or at the very least, the beginnings of an ear infection). My contact lenses are affixed firmly to my eyeballs every evening. And I don’t like carrying a sweater in my already heavy handbag when it’s 99 degrees out.

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I really like la bise.

I haven’t always. I haven’t always been good at it. It’s very hard to suddenly begin to intuit something that everyone else around you has been intuiting since they were too young to speak. At first, I didn’t know if it was appropriate to bise everyone, or just people I knew. Did I actually kiss or just make a kiss sound? Or did I make a sound at all? Some people didn’t, just brushed their cheek against someone else’s. And then it became normal, except when walking into or out of a room with over 10 people. Because then you have to go around, stop everyone else’s conversation, say goodbye, remember who you’ve said hello to.

But then I came back to America and didn’t know what to do when I walked in the room. I started by hugging people, but then do you hug people you don’t know? I did, and sometimes it was unwelcome. So now I’ve started walking into a room and awkwardly raising one arm in sort of a half wave generally directed at the empty far corner of the room.

I miss la bise.

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There’s a general lack of preciousness in France that I appreciate. It’s something that I don’t necessarily always think about until I’m in the States, and I’m struck by the exact opposite.

Case in point? Well… there are a few.

I was watching a commercial in California, for example, that was advertising a brand of soup for cats. I know people who give bottled water to their dogs. And it doesn’t stop at pets. There are just generally a lot of special requests in America, from line-cutting to special ordering at restaurants to other exceptions I can’t quite explain. I’m convinced that the reason that people are so obsessed with ordering dressing on the side or asking for their fish served atop steamed spinach instead of alongside rice or cutting to the beginning of a supermarket line because they have hypoglycemia, you understand,… all stems from a need to feel unique and special.

In France, you’re not a special snowflake. No one is. Ennui, I find, is much more tolerable than special snowflake syndrome.

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There’s a concept in France known as culture générale that I don’t find nearly as pervasive in America. I appreciate culture générale in France. Culture générale is kind of hard to explain in precise terms. I notice it in little ways. The way that most French jokes would be perceived as highbrow, but aren’t. The fact that most people can cite dates of important historical events without Googling. Perhaps the best example was one that a student of mine, the Law Professor, recounted. He said that, in general, French people will never admit to not having read Proust, and will say that they are “rereading” In Search of Lost Time over the summer. I just like it when people aren’t afraid of being smart, I guess. And I’ve always liked when smart is perceived as cool.

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The French have a very strong appreciation of free time. It’s near religious in nature, which for a country that prides itself on being entirely secular may be tough to swallow. But whereas in the States, free time is time to be filled — filled with that screenplay you want to write or that marathon you’re training for or a trip to India to help impoverished orphan girls learn to write, in France, free time is just that: free. I know a lot of people who believe that making plans for their free time wastes it.

It’s been something I’ve had to contend with and battle with a lot since I first moved here. I still don’t have the same love of a lazy Sunday as the Country Boy. I still feel like a waste of life if I haven’t accomplished something. Unlike some of my French friends, I don’t necessarily feel as though I deserve a vacation when I work hard, nor did I really look forward to my vacations in the same way as they did when I was working. But I can appreciate, from afar, the value of giving yourself time off the clock, time where you really are free to do whatever you want, whether that’s something or nothing, without a plan. Maybe someday, I’ll get to a point where I can do that. But if I’m honest with myself, I know I’ll likely be scheduling my “free” time until the day I die.

cheese

I grew up, like many people did, learning about table manners and etiquette. When I was growing up, it all seemed kind of arbitrary, but then I had to learn French etiquette, which, yes, is pretty different from American etiquette, and either because it was foreign or because I was older or for some other reason, I found it fascinating. Why? Maybe because it seemed to make more sense, intuitively, than American etiquette. Or maybe because every time I learned something new, there was a story.

Either way, one thing I have always loved in France is cheese etiquette. Mostly because cheese etiquette is a thing. It exists. That, in and of itself, is awesome.

But I also like the things covered by cheese etiquette, like the fact that whenever cutting a cheese, you’re basically trying as best you can not to screw over the other person’s cheese eating experience. If everyone could just think about not making everyone else’s experiences horrible when they do things, I think 90% of the world’s problems would be solved.

Cheese is a philosophical food.

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The Internet is faster in France. That’s pretty awesome.

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I really appreciate the fact that, in general, in France, children are expected to be a part of society. When an adult walks in the room, the child is expected to engage, at the very least, say hello. On the bus, in stores, whenever a child acts out, I’m constantly hearing parents reminding them not just to behave but the sorts of effects that their actions have on others. “Do you think this lady wants to hear you screaming?” “Stand up; this gentleman wants to sit.” Most adults don’t think of those sorts of things, but it’s nice to hear children being reminded.

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I like a lot of things about France, but there are things I don’t like as well. Like the fact that they think that combining sweet and savory is strange. But more on things I don’t like about France later — that’s a whole other post.

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Chicken, Blackberries, Feta, Mango, Red Onion, Spinach (serves 1)

Dressing:
1 shallot

4 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
1 heaping tsp. Dijon mustard
8 Tbsp. olive oil
salt and pepper

1 tsp. olive oil
1 chicken breast
1 handful spinach
1/4 red onion, finely chopped

1/4 mango, sliced
1/4 cup blackberries
1 oz. feta, crumbled

Make the dressing. Chop the shallot and place into a container. Add the vinegar and mustard. Purée with an immersion blender until the shallot has completely blended into the other ingredients. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Heat the olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Add the chicken breast. Season with salt and pepper. Sear on both sides until brown, about 4 minutes per side. Set aside.

Place the spinach and red onion in a bowl. Drizzle with some of the dressing; you will have leftovers. Toss. Top with the mango, blackberries and feta. Slice the chicken breast and place on top.

 

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formats

Chicken and Roasted Tomato Sandwich

Published on June 7, 2015, by in Chicken, Sandwiches.

tomato and chicken sandwich

Sorry not sorry*… I really like my life.

You’re not supposed to say that.

When someone asks you how things are going, you’re supposed to say, “OK.” You’re supposed to say, “All right.” You’re supposed to say, “Good, except…”

Except I can’t. Ever since I left my job and became my own boss, I’ve been thrilled with pretty much everything that goes on in my life, from waking up to riding the metro in the middle of the day to spending my afternoons working at the American Library in Paris. For someone who spent most of my adolescence purposefully angry, being blissful for four months has been a strange, new development. I didn’t much know how to deal with it, except to repeatedly tell the Country Boy, “I love my life. I love my life.”

“I know, baby. I know.”

It’s starting to fall on deaf ears. So now I’m telling you, and anyone else who will listen. I love my life… and I’m not sorry about it.

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I don’t know where we get this cultural necessity to always highlight the things that are going wrong in our lives, the things that aren’t as good as they should be. I know I’m guilty of it too. But there’s something to be said for understanding that you deserve to be happy, for accepting being happy, for enjoying being happy and not apologizing for it. That isn’t to say that it can’t be off-putting for some people, but I don’t mind that quite as much as I used to. After all, no amount of skepticism from anyone else could change the fact that the past four months have been some of the happiest of my life, and I don’t see a downturn anywhere in my future.

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Last night, I met up with some friends, a mix of French and American, different languages sailing across the two tables we shared in the basement of a trendy Parisian bar that I generally wouldn’t go to, because I’m not really a trendy sort of person. But this year, instead of hoping I would see people on my birthday, doing nothing about it and moping around wondering why I wasn’t seeing anyone or doing anything, I decided to do something I’ve been afraid to do since middle school: I threw myself a birthday party.

As I was sitting in the room with a woman I met through my writing workshop here in Paris, sharing delicious spicy fish tacos and enjoying the only cocktail I actually like, I confided to her something I haven’t been able to say out loud, not yet, not until yesterday.

“From now on, when people ask me what I do, I’m going to say I’m a storyteller,” I said. “And that’s what I’m going to do: tell stories.”

Telling stories has, after all, recently become what I do, slowly and without my noticing. It was TCB who recommended that I start doing guided tours of Paris again along with my freelance writing, and as the summer season has picked up, I’ve been visiting Paris’ most famous monuments every day, meeting new people who grin uncontrollably as they walk to the Eiffel Tower, and in between writing pages of my novel, articles about Paris’ food scene and recipes for this blog, I’m telling visitors all of the things I love so much about my adoptive country: its history, its art, its literature. I tell stories with my voice to make coming back to type all the more fruitful. It’s a lovely balance.

Tonight, I was giving a tour, a ghost and legends tour outlining, amongst other things, how scary Catherine de Medici was, and why you never mess with the Templar knights. There was a little girl on the tour, 12 years old, following me around and asking me questions. I know I used to be like that; at some point, I got scared of what people thought of me. I forgot that happiness is infectious, and self-consciousness is evident and therefore useless. I loved how excited she was, how she followed me between stops. She drew me an Eiffel Tower in rainbow colored pencil, and I brought it home with me.

“You’re a great storyteller,” the little girl’s grandmother said as the tour ended. “That was fantastic.”

And I said what Amy Schumer says no woman says. “Thank you.”

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My father has spent most of my life asking me questions appropriate for a Proust questionnaire. “What’s your passion?” “Where do you see yourself in 10 years?”

And the one I dreaded the most. “Are you happy?”

I never knew how to answer that question. Am I happy now? Am I content? Am I done working towards new things, because I have everything I need? I could somehow always manage to get off the hook with a shrug. There’s no shrugging now.

Yes, I’m happy. No, I’m not content; I hope I never will be. Yes, I’m going to keep working and working and working, to always be achieving goals and looking for new ones, uncovering passions and living them to the fullest. And in all of that, I will remain, I hope, the way I feel today: happy.

I think that’s the best 28th birthday gift a girl could ever give herself.

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Roasted Tomato and Chicken Sandwiches

One of the tours I run is a food tour along the Canal Saint Martin. I made these sandwiches so the Country Boy and I could enjoy them together once the tour had ended.

Roasted Garlic Spread
1 head garlic
1 tsp. olive oil
3 Tbsp. Greek yogurt
salt and pepper

Green Onion Chicken
1 green onion, thinly sliced lengthwise
2 chicken breasts
1 Tbsp. olive oil
salt and pepper

Roasted Cherry Tomatoes
1 pint cherry tomatoes
1 tsp. olive oil
salt and pepper

1 baguette, halved

Roast the garlic for the spread and the cherry tomatoes at the same time. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Place the cherry tomatoes, whole, in a Pyrex dish and toss with oil, salt and pepper. Cut off just the top of the head of garlic, so that the tops of the cloves are slightly exposed. Drizzle in one teaspoon of olive oil. Wrap in aluminum foil. Roast both the tomatoes and the garlic for 1 hour. Allow both to cool.

When the tomatoes and garlic are cool, squeeze the garlic from the papery skin and smash with a fork. Combine with the Greek yogurt and season. Set aside.

Prepare the chicken. Place the sliced green onions on top of the raw chicken breasts. Cover the chicken with parchment paper and pound the chicken breasts with a meat mallet or rolling pin until they are slightly flattened. The onions should be slightly embedded in the chicken.

Preheat a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the oil. Season the chicken on both sides with salt and pepper, and cook until golden on the outside and cooked through on the inside, about 3-4 minutes per side, depending on how much you have flattened the chicken. Once the chicken is cooked, allow it to cool slightly. If making the sandwiches ahead, for a picnic, allow to cool completely.

Split each half of the halved baguette. Spread one side with the garlic spread, then distribute the tomatoes. Slice the chicken breasts and place them on top. Close the sandwiches, and wrap tightly in plastic wrap if enjoying later. Eat somewhere beautiful, and be happy.

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*Sorry not sorry, Little Sister — I stole your phrase.

formats

Tuna and Cannellini Bean Salad

Published on May 18, 2015, by in Uncategorized.

tuna and bean salad

Isn’t it strange how some foods, some dishes, some flavors are associated with a place in time and space?

Sensory memory is a strange, strange thing. One moment you’re walking down the street, worrying about something that will turn out to be inconsequential, and the next you catch a whiff of something: roasting peanuts or wet paint or a perfume you smelled once on someone now long forgotten, and you’re transported somewhere, some-when, else.

Toronto

I was back in Toronto last week to visit my friends from my first year of university there — the year before I started this blog.

Toronto

It’s kind of hard to believe that that was 10 years ago — arriving in Toronto had me feeling, at once, that it could have been yesterday that I was walking around Little Italy, sitting in Tim Horton’s with a large coffee, stomping snow off my boots in front of one of our favorite pubs… or else that it really was 10 years ago, that I really have changed that much.

Maybe a bit of both.

Toronto

I spent one of my days there wandering around the city with the English One, snapping pictures of neighborhoods.

Toronto

That was one of the only things that I knew about Toronto before I moved there, before I arrived for orientation — which I remembered suddenly at one point during our trip, was called Frosh Week at U of T, how can you forget things that were once so normal? I knew, even back then, that Toronto was known as the city of neighborhoods, a city defined by the countless delineations within it. Cross this street and you’re in Liberty Village. Now Little Italy. Now Korea Town. Now the Entertainment District. Now the Beaches. I used to know them all. I also used to know all the provinces in Canada. Once, this was home, and now it’s foreign, like so many foreign places.

Toronto Church Street

10 years ago, Toronto was a strange place for me. I was strange in Toronto, had encountered Toronto at a strange time.

After three years at boarding school, I had wanted Columbia University so badly that I was convinced I was going until I got my rejection letter. I had picked my classes, my dorm. I chose U of T almost on a whim, because one of my best friends was going there, because it got me out of the northeast, because they had a good cinema program, because Toronto kind of looked like New York, though not at all. I don’t know how 18-year-olds are supposed to make intelligent choices when we hardly know ourselves yet.

Toronto Honest Ed's Alley

I was mystified by Toronto this time.

10 years ago, I wandered the city, begging it to be New York. And it wasn’t — like a rebound who’s smart and sweet and funny… but just shows up too soon. And now that New York and I are no longer in love, it’s like I was meeting Toronto again for the first time. And I regret not taking full advantage of it when I was there.

Toronto

We spent most of our days rehoofing our old haunts, pointing out the storefront that was once our favorite Thai restaurant, once the Subway where our friend worked, once the building that was home to the lecture we went to. Once. But what I loved even more was this day of wandering, of snapping pictures beneath a blue sky — I got a tan in Canada, if you can believe it — of wondering what it would have been like if I had been in Toronto in a time when I was ready to love it.

Toronto

I left Toronto for Cannes the first time, for Paris the second. Toronto was a necessary foothold between America and France, and yet, in my past, that’s all it is. Visiting it as a tourist, I only got glimpses of all the things I’ll miss. Its quirkiness. Its people. Its strange way it has about making me feel at home and foreign all at once.

Oh, and the beer. I’ll miss that a lot.

Toronto

But regardless of how I felt about it on this trip, being in Toronto also sent memories flooding back. After all, even though I was missing New York, I was having a lot of fun in Toronto, 10 years ago. I did send myself on forced marches, just like I had at night in New York — though, I’ll admit, I was far more lost in Toronto.

Toronto Chinatown CN Tower

 

I did have favorite spots, favorite addresses. I did have sensory memories. The Tim Horton’s smelling of over-steeped tea and maple frosting. The market in Kensington that reeked of pot where I bought strawberries.

And when I got home, this salad, which, I remember, was one of the first recipes I followed, alone in my kitchen in Toronto, as a lunchtime staple.

tuna and bean salad

The recipe itself had far more ingredients when I first made it. I bought them all: the flat-leafed parsley, even though I needed a scant tablespoon or two, the red onion I didn’t know how to dice properly, the olives that would languish and mold on the refrigerator shelf, because I didn’t like olives then, and don’t really love them now either, come to think of it.

It’s been years since I followed a recipe, really. Unless I’m testing a cookbook for a review, recipes have become guidelines for me — I look at them, think of the things I’d change, the things I have, the things that are a pain to buy. It feels as though I’ve always cooked that way, until I think about the recipes I used to make when I was in Toronto.

It’s hard to see ourselves changing, as it happens, but it does. And it’s lovely to be able to take a real trip down memory lane — even if memory lane is an ocean away — to remember who we used to be.

tuna and bean salad

Cannellini Bean and Tuna Salad

1 16 oz. can cannellini beans
4 3 oz. cans of tuna fish, canned in olive oil, drained
2 green onions, finely chopped
1 lemon
salt and pepper
mixed greens

Break up the tuna fish with a fork in a bowl. Drain and rinse the cannellini beans, and toss them with the tuna fish. Add the green onions and season with lemon juice, salt and pepper. Toss until well combined.

Mound the salad on top of the greens. Serve with a lemon wedge.

 

formats

Hotel Stories and A Cheesy, Sausagy Baguette

Published on February 13, 2015, by in Uncategorized.

sausage and mozzarella baguette

I’ve missed my weird part-time jobs.

Weird part-time jobs have been an essential part of my successfully living in Europe for this long.

There was that time I corrected (i.e. rewrote) a lettre de motivation for a girl applying for university and essentially had to stalk her in order to get paid. I had a lot of time on my hands at the time and ended up calling her, repeatedly, and even though she pretended to be her own landlord when I called and then e-mailed me saying her wallet had been stolen, I eventually got my money — all 80 euro of it. Success.

Then there was the time I called about a hundred restaurants to make sure that they were still opened. TCB started making fun of me because I would call and pretend I was going to make a reservation, but then I never would. Then he made even more fun of me because I started just calling and asking if they were still opened, point blank, no nonsense. Much faster.

I once had a job to set up someone’s Internet, but I had to pay the Country Boy to go in my stead, because I realized once I showed up that I didn’t know how to set up Internet, and that the people who call someone to set up their Internet aren’t necessarily too stupid to figure out which cord is the phone line and which cord is an ethernet cable. Sometimes it’s actually hard. Luckily, they took it well, and TCB got 20 bucks out of it.

My most recent in the line of weird jobs is visiting hotels pretending to be a client, like secret shopping but instead, I’m inspecting bathrooms. Some are five-star hotels, where I get a personal escort through the halls, into palatial bathrooms and secret, private executive clubhouses. Others are budget hotels where the person at the front desk hands me five keys and basically tells me to go nuts.

When I first started this particular weird job, I used a weird accent I had concocted that I thought made my plight more believable. In what turned out to be a very convincing version of an American who is still learning French and has memorized a few key phrases, I would tell them that my parents were coming to visit at Easter, and I would like to see a room. I had all sorts of extra details about their trop memorized, just in case.

It took me about two months to realize that no one actually cared. After that, I started speaking with my regular accent, the one that people sort of listen to, and then wait… and then ten minutes or twenty minutes or sometimes a few weeks later ask me, “Where are you from?” “Ça vient d’où, ce petit accent ?” They’re usually surprised to hear I’m American — I apparently don’t have an American accent — but when I ask them where they thought I was from, they never have an answer.

Which, I suppose, is a large part of why I found it so surprising that a concierge at one of the hotels, after I’d spoken maybe two sentences, started speaking to me in Italian. He was Neapolitan, convinced I was Italian too. I russled up my college Italian and managed to say that my father had Sicilian origins. He asked me — in Italian — if I preferred to speak in English, French or Italian. I chose English. He spoke with a faint accent.

I’ve almost forgotten how important it once was to me to be Italian, to be perceived as being Italian, to be part of that group. After all, the first place I sought out when I moved to Toronto was Little Italy. The first recipes I tried to master were tomato sauce and lasagna and tiramisu. For a long time, Italian was more a part of my identity than American was.

And yet I learned, soon after moving to France, that as expats, our secondary identities take a tertiary place. We’re expats, then Americans. Then you can be something else, if you want to. I kind of stopped wanting to, but I don’t know why.

At another hotel on the same day, a manager discovered I was American — through my petit accent, though he first assumed I was German. He told me there was an American intelligentsia who liked France and asked me if I had read any Carson McCullers, printed the page for me off of Wikipedia so that I could look up the works. He told me that he never had any people of color in his hotel, though he sometimes got “Mexicans from California.” Before I even had time to be shocked, he told me that racism wasn’t alive in America, but it was present. When I tried to discuss it with him, I was rebuffed; he had met a lot of Americans, you see. He knew how it was. I folded the Wikipedia page and stuck it in my pocket. I still haven’t decided if I’m going to take him up on his suggestion.

sausage and mozzarella baguette

All this to say, the strange, little part-time jobs are back. In fact, the strange, little part-time jobs are my full-time job now. I’m my own boss for the first time since… maybe the first time ever. I’m not a student. I’m not living at home. I’m not waiting to hear back on a full-time position, or consulting, or doing anything except exactly what I want to. Writing. Translating. And doing occasional strange little jobs, because without the strange little jobs, I wouldn’t have all that much to write about.

I’ve never been so excited to go to work.

sausage and mozzarella baguette

Sausage Baguette (adapted from Lady and Pups)

1 baguette
2 herbed sausages (I used Toulouse sausage, but Italian sausage would be great)
1 400 g can of whole tomatoes
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 pinch red chili flakes
1 tsp. soy sauce
4 ounces mozzarella cheese

Cut the baguette into four sections, or if you have an American sized oven, keep it whole. Cut through the baguette from the top, lengthwise, leaving about an inch in tact at either end of the baguette. You’re going to be stuffing it from the top, and you don’t want the stuffing to leak out the sides.

Remove the sausages from their casings. Heat a large pot and add the sausages, breaking them up with a wooden spoon. Cook until nice and browned, then remove, leaving behind the fat. Reserve the sausage.

Add the onion. Sauté for 5-7 minutes, until translucent and slightly browned. Add the garlic and sauté for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and chili flakes. Cook for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the soy sauce and remove the pot from the heat.

Use an immersion blender to blend the sauce. Add the sausage back to the pot.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Place the baguettes on an aluminum-lined baking sheet. Spoon the sauce into the baguettes. Slice the cheese and distribute over the top. Bake until the cheese is browned and bubbly. Serve.

formats

How the Grinch (ahem… the French Administration) Tried to Steal Christmas and Failed, Miserably. Also, Magret de Canard.

Published on December 30, 2014, by in Uncategorized.

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This is only the second year in the nearly eight that I’ve lived here that I’ve spent Christmas in France, but it’s the first time it happened at least partially by choice.

I could have gone home this time. It was physically possible. I suppose that last time, when the French administration let me decide between going home and giving up my visa or staying and keeping it, I also had a choice, but it didn’t feel like a choice, not at all.

This year, I didn’t have the choice in the way that many people feel like they don’t have the choice every year. My work didn’t want to give me vacation, but I bet if I’d whined enough and to the right people, I would have gotten a few days, even if I would have had to fly back to Paris on the night of the 25th. I could have, in August, when my status story was still unclear, said “To Hell with it” and booked the ticket back anyway, knowing that I’d likely be in the throes of visa woes (I was) and would have had to work customer service anyway while I was home (a grand total of 1 [one] e-mail this year… *harrumph*). But I didn’t.

It’s not that I didn’t want to spend Christmas with my family. I really can’t stress that enough. It’s that life got in the way. It’s that some things seemed more important, this year, than three days back home. And I guess it didn’t scare me as much as it used to, to know that I would be far, because I have a family here, now.

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As a writer, I try to hold on to memories. To feelings. I try to relive them as often as I can, because true experience is at the heart of a really meaningful work of fiction, and if all of those awkward, terrible, wonderful experiences are just fleeting moments… then really, what’s the point of writing anything down at all?

So I keep them. My first day of school, the way my wool socks kept sliding down my legs, how scratchy the grey jumper was.

The first time I felt ashamed, when a friend threw french fries over a second story landing in our favorite diner.

The first time I decided I was going to be kissed, the orchestrating that took place leading up to it, the piece of Big Red gum I chewed and spit out two blocks before I got to the place I’d chosen.

I can remember all those things, but I don’t remember what it was like to feel nervous in the moments leading up to meeting the Country Boy’s parents. I know, intellectually speaking, that I was nervous. I remember asking my boss at the time what sort of wine I could buy for people who lived in the Loire Valley, and him recommending a Saint-Joseph, and not caring how much it cost. I remember not being sure of how to give the wine to them and finally just plunking it gracelessly on the kitchen table. I remember that I spent years afterwards avoiding saying tu or vous, because TCB had told me that vous made them uncomfortable, but they had yet to tell me, to my face, to say tu.

But I don’t remember the moment of meeting them. I don’t remember knowing them in any time that wasn’t jovial and fun and sweet, TCB’s dad making fun of me for drinking more than any girl he’s ever met (and holding it together — no worries, Mom), and TCB’s mom shows me pictures of little TCB growing up and telling me all the stories I never would have known to ask about from when he was small.

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The first time I was stuck in Paris for Christmas, I was fully intent on spending it in my apartment, alone, eating Speculoos spread with a spoon. I told TCB not to tell his parents I was here — I didn’t want them to be burdened by my administrative crisis.

But TCB is a really bad liar. And when his mom asked if my flight had gone well, he couldn’t lie.

His father told me that I had a day to find a train to Gien, or he was coming to get me in his truck. This, from a man who hates Paris.

So I didn’t spend my first French Christmas in Paris. I spent it in Coullons, where it had snowed, and we went to the Christmas market and saw the small church lit up with a life-sized Nativity. That’s where I spent this past weekend, celebrating Christmas with the people who were not only willing to write a letter to the French administration (my sworn enemy, at this point), telling them of my language prowess and cultural integration, but then admonished me for thanking them with a bottle of nice wine.

C’est normal.” It’s normal. She’s like a daughter to us, they said to TCB.

Well, that turned the water works on. Luckily, they weren’t there to see.

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This year, because TCB’s brother wasn’t going to make it for the 25th, we had two Christmasses. We had one in Paris, with mass at Notre Dame and a truly excessive meal, which I did take pictures of and will post, someday. This is what TCB requested we eat – magret de canard and grits. I’d already bought veal, but it feels appropriate to post this recipe here, if only because for our second Christmas, on the 27th, we did eat duck — albeit confit and not pan-seared magret, with the traditional foie gras and scallops and ice cream for dessert, but we were all far too full for more than a clementine

We opened presents by the tree — my almost-in-laws gave me a book on the Normandy débarquement. We drank too much. We ate far too much. We laughed.

If I wasn’t going to have Christmas in the States this year, having like that was really the next best thing.

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Magret de Canard with Pan-Fried Apples and Grits (serves 2)

1 large duck magret
salt and pepper
2 Golden delicious apples

.5 cups uncooked grits
.5 cup water
.5 cup milk
2 Tbsp. mascarpone
salt and pepper

Score the fat side of the duck breast with a knife, not going all the way through to the meat. Place it in a cold skillet and slowly bring it up over low heat. Pour off the fat as it renders off (save this for duck fat potatoes).

Place the grits, water, milk and a pinch of salt in a saucepan. Heat over low heat. Don’t worry too much about them, but give them a stir every once in awhile.

After 20-30 minutes, depending on the heat, start checking the underside of the duck. You want the fat to have become thin and crisp. Once most of the fat has rendered, you may have to turn up the heat a bit to get it to look like this:

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When it does look like that, season the meat side with salt and pepper and flip it over. If you haven’t turned the heat up already to color the fat side of the duck, do it now. At some point while the duck is cooking leisurely and you’re on your second or third apéritif, peel and slice your apples. Leave about a tablespoon of fat in the pan, and add them in with the duck.

Cook until the duck is medium-rare. This will take about 3 minutes on the flesh side over a medium-high heat. Remove the duck and let it rest for about 10 minutes. I like to heat up my toaster oven a bit, turn it off, and leave it in there, where it’s warm but won’t keep cooking. Finish cooking the apples, stirring them occasionally until soft.

Stir the mascarpone into the grits and taste for seasoning. Slice the duck into slices. Serve on warm plates.

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formats

Stories from the Préfecture: My Christmas Present to Myself

Published on December 23, 2014, by in Eggs.

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Someday, I promise myself, I’ll write all this down. Someday it will turn into a book. A story. Something funny, where the reader empathizes with the narrator and yet has no idea how to empathize, because how the heck do you empathize with someone who’s putting themselves through so much misery for something so inconsequential?

Long story short, and for a lot of different reasons, I went back to the préfecture this month. I didn’t have to go back until July, so there’s no good reason why I would have gone back now, except that I did, and it was important, to me. Maybe it will make some of you laugh. Maybe it will help some of you. Maybe it will help those close to me understand why I’ve been such a pain for the past few months. Whatever the reason, this is the story.

August

I made the decision to return to the préfecture for a status change just a few weeks before I went in for a renewal, which meant that this year, for the first time in my nearly eight years in France, I’d be going through the process twice. It’s a process that the Country Boy has learned to loathe even more than I do; in my world, only the préfecture is crazy and demanding and slightly terrifying, but in his world, I become a reflection of that which I hate.

I asked a host questions at that first renewal — I always try to ask questions when I have a person in front of me, because they can’t hang up on you or ignore your e-mail. My questions were pointed and probably quite befuddling to agent #2, because while she didn’t know my plan, I did — I had put aside short-lived thoughts of applying for nationality and had had a heart-to-heart with TCB: we were going to get PACSed.

I would have to wait until getting my recently renewed visa in October before making an appointment to change statuses. That was fine, because paperwork was coming.

The list of required papers to get PACSed as a foreigner was long and involved several different documents proving a negative (never married, never PACSed), which I didn’t think was possible. Apparently, France doesn’t care that you can’t prove a negative. Here, you can and do. Actually, that part was relatively painless — send a request by post, receive the document several weeks later.

But there were crazier documents to track down. I ordered a new birth certificate. I realized through a series of odd events and two different phone calls with the same fonctionnaire trying to make a visa change appointment too early in the game that I had requested the wrong copy of my birth certificate. I ordered a new copy, and, because I had everything else I needed and was ready to go apply for a PACS, I sent my sister a typed and signed letter of procuration that she could show to the officials in New York (and franglaised my way through it because I’ve never written a formal letter in English) and then asked said sister to rush around New York City getting it signed and stamped by two different officials, then scan it and e-mail it to me so that I could have it translated, then mail it to me by overnight post so that I could apply for my PACS appointment in accordance with the schedule I had set up for myself in August.

She did all of the above with grace and poise and in under 2 hours. Score 1 America. And score 9,000 family.

September

By the time we had all of the paperwork assembled for our PACS, some of it was too old to be used; paperwork for a PACS needs to be no more than three months old, but when applying for a PACS in Paris, your PACS appointment is usually about three months after the day that you drop off your paperwork.

Logic.

Ergo, we would have to apply for some of it again, because the perfect timing of the paperwork did not work out exactly as I had planned. Cue first panic attack, whereby I have a meltdown because we were supposed to drop off our PACS paperwork on a randomly designated (by me) Thursday, and now we will have to wait until Friday, i.e. 24 hours later. On a related note, I don’t deal well with the unforseen.

Also cue the first time that our landlord pissed me off by not sending us rent forms. Which we didn’t even end up needing. But it made me mad anyway. It’s the principle of the thing.

When we finally received all papers, TCB and I were not speaking, because the aforementioned landlord issue had turned me into an illogical banshee and he decided he shouldn’t speak to me anymore, which at the time made me madder but in retrospect was a very wise decision on his part. We went to the Tribunal d’Instance at 8:50 AM in silence — the irony of going to get PACSed while not speaking together because of the assembly of documents for the aforementioned PACS did not escape me.

I stood in front of the doors to block two women who had arrived just after me and were — I was certain — going to cut me in line. TCB smoked a fair distance from me in case of literal Emiglia-explosion.

When the doors were unlocked, I realized the women I was competing with were employees of the tribunal.

Two men were standing in line behind us, ostensibly to get PACSed. They were in their 60s. It made me happy to see them. We dropped off our paperwork and were told to come back with the two documents that were valid now but would not be valid in three months. TCB and I made up without a word.

October

The day had come! October 16th.

I picked up my carte de séjour and tried to make a new appointment online, but the system would not allow me to make an appointment online, and instead I was told to call a number. Since I hate phone calls even more than I hate the préfecture, I tried again on the 17th. No dice.

I called. I spoke with a delightful* woman who, with grace* and poise* told me that she could not help me, and I should try the woman on line 3. I tried line 3. She sent me back to line 2. I started feeling like I was in a Kafka novel. I got back on the phone with the lady on line 2. She told me she couldn’t help me. She didn’t hang up on me, but she made it very clear to me that the conversation was over.

A month later, I would not be so lucky.

Parallel to all of this — because life was still going on, to some extent — TCB and I had finally planned our dream trip to Normandy in October and had thus taken a Friday off work.

Before driving off into the sunset (or sunrise, really), we went down to the préfecture, again, and asked the woman at the reception desk if I could make an appointment for a visa change — the same thing that the women on lines 2 and 3 had told me in no uncertain terms was impossible, but TCB is less easily swayed than I. She sent me to the 2nd floor, where I was told there were too many people today for him to even consider making me an appointment, but that I could try coming back on Monday. I explained that I would have to work. He told me life’s tough and then you’re dead.**

I tried the downstairs office again and put on a very adult* voice and asked nicely* and calmly* if there was anything she could do. The receptionist gave me a piece of paper with an address on it and told me to write a letter. I asked if I could speak to the person to whom I would be writing the letter in person instead. She handed me another piece of paper with the same address on it, but highlighted it this time.

I left and broke down hysterically crying on the Pont Saint-Michel.

We went to Normandy and had a spectacular time. When we got back, I wrote the letter, had it checked by three people to make it more French, flourishy and eloquent, and sent it.

I tried to stop thinking about a visa change, because at this point, I was certain it would never, ever happen.

*Replacement adjectives for my sanity.

**Copyright Jean Monaco, aka my mother, aka the reason why you don’t cry unless they’re’s blood. Sorry, Mom — there’s a fair amount of crying without blood in this story.

November

In November, I had planned a trip to Prague with my aunt. Based on the timeline I had meticulously made in August, I knew that planning a trip at the end of November might be dicey, but I also knew that if I decided not to go and nothing happened, I would regret it, so I planned the trip, knowing full well that it might interfere with all variety of appointments. Miraculously, it didn’t.

But.

The Friday before my Sunday departure, I came home from work to find a letter in the mail, telling me to be at the préfecture on December 9th with a list of documents. My flourishy letter had worked — I had gotten my renewal appointment!

One small problem. The documents. I had two weeks to get them, and one of those weeks I would be in Prague. TCB totally stepped up and agreed to track down most of them either while I was away or together once I got back — the only one I would have to get alone was an attestation de sécurité sociale, which one usually gets online. Unfortunately, the site was telling me that my social security number — which I had been using since 2010 — did not exist, and I would have to call for more information.

But it was a weekend. Everything was closed. I wrote down the number I could call and took it with me to Prague.

Enter the worst phone call of my life (so far). Apparently for the past two years, while living in a country with socialized healthcare — I haven’t had healthcare. A paperwork glitch from when I finished my Master’s degree and became an employee that could easily be resolved in four to six weeks — TCB was in Paris rapidly assembling more papers to do so — but that meant that I wasn’t going to be able to get that attestation. Since I know that papers are king in France, and since I know that no one here ever offers a life-saving paper of their own accord, I started asking about other attestations — could I get an attestation that I had been paying into the system (since I was…)? Non. Could I get an attestation that said that I was in the process of regularizing my situation? Non. Could I get a letter of any kind saying that I wasn’t a delinquent and that this wasn’t my fault?

Madame, j’ai répondu à vos questions, donc je n’ai plus qu’à vous dire au revoir. Au revoir madame.* Click.

She hung up on me. 45 euros later, all I had to show for my efforts were tears. Lots and lots of tears.

I had a fantastic time in Prague. I knew that when I came back, there would be a scramble, but I was ready for it. Kind of.

*Ma’am, I’ve answered your questions, so I have nothing more to do than to say goodbye. Goodbye, ma’am.

December

I got back from Prague on November 28th. My PACS was December 3rd. It didn’t give me a lot of time for any remaining paperwork.

Luckily, my secret weapon is my Merovingian boyfriend, who has a way of talking to French people that I will never understand. Literally, I once showed a préfecture worker a copie conforme à l’origine of my attestation d’assurance (one of these days, I’m going to do a post on French words expats don’t know in English because WE DON’T USE THEM). She said that I couldn’t use it; TCB said, “Mais si,” and she said, “Oh, you’re right, of course.”

That was the moment I realized that I would never win at this game, and all I could do was try to keep my head above water. The water of my constant tears of frustration.

ANYWAY. I got together as much proof of my continued payment of sécurité sociale as I could, and the morning of my PACS, TCB and I went to the social security office. I showed my social security number on my paychecks and a letter from the head of billing at my company saying that I had, in fact, been paying into the social security system, but no dice.

“I can’t write an attestation for something that I can’t prove in my software,” the very nice man said. “And what’s more, my software is broken.”

I could see TCB, who works in IT, physically holding himself back to keep from crawling over the desk to fix the software of this lovely man who was beginning to remind me of a bureaucrat à la Douglas Adams.

“But sir, please, I have a renewal appointment next week. I didn’t realize that my situation wasn’t regular.”

“Well, mademoiselle, there are certain administrative things that you have to keep on top of, you know.”

Yeah. At that, I started crying.

Which is when the very nice man decided that in order to get the crazy girl out of his office, he could write an attestation attesting that I had a social security number attributed to my name.

Fine! Perfect! Yes! Sign! Stamp! Put another stamp on there! Can someone else sign it? Just pass it around like a birthday card and get everyone to sign! He’s the janitor? I don’t care! He can sign it too!

I took my paper and we left. We bought some Christmas decorations and thought about having a stiff drink, which we did not do; the day wasn’t over yet.

Our PACS was relatively uneventful, save the moment we showed up at our assigned office and saw a piece of paper on the front door, which usually means fermeture exceptionnelle pour grève, but this one was just telling us to go next door. So we did. The woman who was PACSing us inverted my first and last names, got my birthday wrong, and looked like one of those people who wouldn’t react if you exploded a paper bag next to her head. She also spent more time explaining how we could de-PACS than actually PACSing us.

We went to our favorite restaurant for dinner and drank a delicious Crozes-Hermitage. It felt like we were nearing the end.

D-Day

Six days later, I got up very early and had a cup of coffee, but I couldn’t eat anything.

I’m very superstitious about visa day. I spend the entire pre-appointment period thinking of all the things that could go wrong, which in my mind makes it impossible that those things could happen. It usually works; this time it did not. I missed one.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. After a week of back-and-forthing with our landlord trying to get quittances de loyer that proved that we pay our rent (which we do), and deciding, finally, to meet in person on Tuesday, she called TCB on Tuesday morning letting him know that she had just dropped them off at the post office. Luckily, she didn’t call me, or I might have rendered us homeless. Also luckily, we had several other proofs of residence, including lots and lots of attestations from our insurance company, based in Gien. They’re lovely. We brought them a big box of chocolates last weekend.

TCB tried to be helpful by telling me that we could show the people at the préfecture the repeated bank transfers to our landlord and show that the person we were sending said bank transfers to was the same person on our lease, but I wasn’t sure. I drank another coffee and tried not to throw up in the street.

We showed up at the préfecture at precisely three o’clock. We stood in line for a full hour behind two (2) other people. The line did not move. My back hurt immensely, because I was carrying 10 pounds (not hyperbole) of documents on my back.

When we finally made it to the front of the line, I showed the person behind the desk my convocation. He passed me a piece of paper with a few lines handwritten on it.

“Please pick another date.”

“…What.”

“Software problem. We’re running behind. The earliest is the 7th of January.”

In related news, the French administration needs new software.

“I…”

“While you’re picking your date, I’ll tell monsieur which documents you need to bring.”

I gaped for a while longer, but when it appeared that the woman behind the desk was getting frustrated with me, I picked the 7th. I tried to tell myself that it wasn’t a big deal — just one more month of waiting — but I didn’t quite believe myself. Just next to me — but seeming about a mile away — I heard TCB say, after the exhaustive list of documents given by the agent, “But… we had all of them.”

The agent looked sadly, pitifully to his colleague. “They had everything.”

Sensing a bit of compassion, I tried to barter. “I can stay till the end of the day, if that helps.”

The woman who had become frustrated with my gaping raised her eyebrows and scoffed. “Or you could have no visa. We could decide not to give you one.”

“The 7th is fine.”

I gathered my folders and we left. I felt tears welling up. I turned to TCB. “I give up.” The tears started coming. I tried to hide behind a wall, which is difficult to do, if you’ve never had the opportunity to try it. “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t take it anymore.”

TCB tried to get me to calm down, or at least move outside, but the tears were free-falling by then, and I was too embarrassed to walk past everyone else. So I cried, as silently as I could, next to my wall.

I have a vague recollection of the agent, the compassionate one, coming up next to me, asking TCB if I was OK.

“Yes, she’s just disappointed. She’s been waiting since July. It’s stressful, you know.” He spoke with the perfect combination of apology and frankness. The agent nodded; he understood. He went out to smoke his cigarette. TCB managed to get me to the coffee machines.

The agent came back from his smoke break. He said some stuff to TCB that I refused to understand, but 5pm and wait here were involved. TCB looked at me, smiling, and said he’d buy me a coffee.

“Did you understand?”

“No.”

He fed change into the machine and pressed the button for an allongé, no sugar. “Dry your face. Drink your coffee. He said he’d do your dossier at the end of the day.”

And now I was just plain mortified.

I drank my coffee and calmed myself down as best I could. We went back into the first room, where the woman who had tried to take away my visa was staring daggers at me. The room was nearly empty before agent #4 called me over.

It was the fastest préfecture interaction of my life. He barely glanced at our papers. I was scrambling through my Important, Might Be Important and Random Extra Visa Shit folders (and yes, they are labeled as such) trying to give the agent everything he asked for. He was making photocopies — which we’re supposed to make ourselves at 10 centimes a pop — like a pro. And then, the moment of truth.

Attestations de sécurité sociale?

I knew that all I had was my fake attestation from the week before. And TCB, who had brought his whole life in document form, is known for the bizarre pride he has of not having had a carte vitale since 2006.

We were fucked. (Pardon my French.)

I gave him my fake attestation. He asked why I didn’t have a real attestation, and I played dumb. For once, it worked. Then he asked for TCB’s. TCB was still fake combing through his documents. “I don’t have it. I didn’t know. But you can see on my work contracts…”

“Look. You have a dossier en béton. In concrete. But I have to run all new PACS visas past my superior. Wait over there for 15 minutes.”

We went back to the waiting room. Now TCB was nervous, but I knew that there was nothing else to do but wait. The agent had told us that in the worst case, we could drop off any remaining documents to complete our dossier at our convenience. If nothing else, we had moved forward today. We might not be going home with the visa, but it was something.

“Madame Monaco?”

I sat down in front of a terrifying lady who was combing through my dossier. “Why are you applying for a status change? Your visa is good until July.”

“Oh! I actually wrote a letter explaining…”

“Where’s the letter?”

“I sent it. Here. To you.”

“I don’t have it.”

“Well someone must have gotten it; that’s how I got the appointment.”

“And you don’t have a copy?”

I pulled out my phone and started frantically searching my e-mail outbox for an old copy — any copy.

“You got fired?”

“No! No. I just want to leave my job to do freelance work.”

“You’re suffering at your job?”

“I’m not… suffering. No. I just want to do something else.”

“Oh. That’s fine.”

She passes the dossier to agent 4. Agent 4 starts stamping stuff. Stamping is good.

“Sign here.”

I sign. Pass the form back.

“You signed in the wrong place.”

What? We’ve come this far… he’s going to turn me away! I start to panic again.

He laughs.

“Here.” He hands me a new version of the form. “Sign here.

“OK. Thank you. What can we do? How can we — repay you?”

“Put a comment in the comment box.” He grins.

“What’s your name?”

“Agent #4.”

“Thank you Mr. Agent #4.”

“I won’t give you a récipissé, since your old visa is still good. Just come in February and pick up your new visa. Or whenever. After February.” He stamps more things.

“So… that’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“I still have my old visa.”

“Yes, but the new status.”

“The new status is good. I can… do whatever I want.”

He looks me in the eye.

“You have all of the rights of a French person. You can iron all day, if you want to.”

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After that, we didn’t go out to celebrate. We were too exhausted.

We came home, had a beer, and I made comfort food. Not this comfort food — I was far too tired to take pictures of what I made. I made this, if you’re interested, and it was delicious.

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Salt and Vinegar Fried Potatoes, Mushrooms, Spinach, Soft Egg

300 grams small potatoes
1/3 cup white vinegar

water
2 Tbsp. duck fat
2 shallots
4 tsp. olive oil, separated
300 grams mushrooms
2 eggs
2 handfuls baby spinach
salt and pepper
malt vinegar

Place the potatoes and white vinegar in a pot and cover by one inch with cold water. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Boil 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender.

Meanwhile, quarter the shallots and toss them with 2 tsp. of the olive oil. Place in a baking dish and place in the oven (use a toaster oven so you don’t waste energy) and roast for 30 minutes.

While the potatoes and shallots are cooking, thinly slice the mushrooms. Add the rest of the oil to a pan and cook the mushrooms until browned. Season with salt and set aside.

When the potatoes are cooked, halve them and heat up the duck fat in the same frying pan as you used for the mushrooms (to keep TCB from asking why you always use every pan in the house while making dinner). Add the potatoes and cook until golden brown and crispy, about 10 minutes.

Remove the potatoes from the pan and add the eggs. Fry to your liking. Runny is good for this dish.

Add a handful of raw spinach to each of two deep plates. Top with mushrooms and potatoes. Finish with shallots and the egg. Season with salt, pepper and malt vinegar to taste. Collapse on couch and eat.

formats

Cucumber, Seaweed, Avocado, Chicken and Ikura Bowl

Published on November 28, 2014, by in Uncategorized.

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The other day, The Country Boy looked at me with relative shock as I burst out laughing. I’m not without humor; it’s what made me laugh that made him so confused.

Le Grand Journal is Canal+’s “news” program in the evening, but the weather girl speaks with a strong Québécois accent and spends her entire segment making plays on words that I don’t understand, much of the weekly world news is presented by marionnette puppets — with a Sylvester Stallone puppet playing every American–, and the “on location” segments involve the journalist asking famous people from Anna Wintour to François Hollande to take strange dares.

In related news, France may be the birthplace of irony.

I don’t really like watching Le Grand Journal. I’ve assimilated fairly well into French culture — at least, that’s what I’m currently trying to convince the French government–, but if there’s one thing that still eludes me here, it’s the humor. You can’t just translate French jokes and have them still be funny — although apparently the opposite works, because when I told TCB about one of my father’s favorite phrases — saying an ugly person has a “face for radio” — he burst out laughing and didn’t calm down for a good two minutes. But French jokes — like French conversation, really — involve something different, something elusive, something that, for me, still remains very foreign. La culture générale: general culture.

It’s telling that, in France, when you say to someone, “I’m not an idiot,” what you actually say is, “Je ne suis pas sans culture“: I am not without culture. Here, the difference between “smart” and “intelligent” that isn’t really made in American English is very, very evident. Smart implies wit, a vast sea of knowledge and the ability to call upon the appropriate reference at the appropriate time. Smart is important here if you want to follow a conversation or laugh at a punchline… and I’m still left grinning like an idiot at the end of most of them.

Which is why I think it was so important to TCB when, during a Petit Journal skit, I cracked up laughing. To explain it would require a lot of lengthy references. I will say that it involves Zaz and the German occupation of Paris (I didn’t say that French humor was always light). Maybe it’s because ever since we visited Normandy, I’ve been reading up more and more on the occupation. Maybe it’s because we’ve just started watching Un Village français, a series that charts the occupation in a small French village. Maybe it’s a combination of these things or none of these things and I just found la légèreté sous l’occupation française to be funny. Who knows?

What I do know is that I sometimes laugh at French jokes. I’m shocked, on occasion, when I see an American do something that I deem American — talk loudly, order off-menu, drink soda with a meal — , and then I wonder how long it’s been since I did the same, or if I ever did those things at all. I do the crossword in French now. It’s no New York Times, but it’s something.

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Bento Bowl (ingredients per person)

60 grams uncooked sushi rice
1-2 tsp. sushi vinegar
1 chicken breast
1 tsp. olive oil
1/2 cup prepared seaweed salad
1/4 cucumber
1/2 avocado
1 sheet nori
2 Tbsp. salmon roe
1 tsp. sesame oil
sesame seeds
salt

Prepare the sushi rice according to package directions. Mix with the sushi vinegar and place at the bottom of a salad plate.

Heat the olive oil in a frying pan over medium-high heat. Season the chicken breast with salt on both sides and cook until browned on the outside and cooked through on the inside, about 4 minutes per side. Set aside and allow to cool slightly before slicing.

Finely slice the cucumber on the slicing side of a box grater or with a mandoline. Toss with a heavy pinch of salt and place in a strainer. Allow to drain slightly while you finish preparing the other ingredients.

Remove the avocado flesh from the skin with a spoon and slice into lengthwise strips.

Use scissors to cut the nori into strips.

Slice the chicken and place on the rice. Place the seaweed salad and avocado on the rice. Press down on the cucumber to remove any remaining water, then place on the rice. Sprinkle with the nori strips and spoon the salmon roe into the middle. Sprinkle the sesame seeds over the top and drizzle with sesame oil. Serve with soy sauce on the side.

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formats

Savory Summer Clafoutis

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If 12-year-old me knew that there would be some days when I wouldn’t even think about the fact that I was a loser in 6th grade, I don’t think she would know what to do with herself.

Let’s be clear, here, before I go down this road. 12-year-old me coped pretty well with the fact that she was kind of a loser. She didn’t feel like the kinds of losers you see in movies. She didn’t gasp and say, “My God! That’s me!” when she watched She’s All That or whatever other Freddie Prinze Jr. movie featured a loser girl at the time (there were many). She had a handful of friends she hung out with. She didn’t get invited to too many parties, but she wasn’t all that into parties. She felt pretty dumb at church basement dances, and she couldn’t figure out how to deal with her hair, and her uniform skirt was a bit too long to be cool, but she was a good writer, which she liked, and she was pretty good at pretending that everything was all right, and so she believed it.

There were only a handful of instances where 12-year-old me came face-to-face with the fact that for whatever reason, she wasn’t really winning the whole middle school game. A former best friend uninvited her to a party once. That happened right after we had done a project in social skills on how not to be a bully, and 12-year-old me, instead of getting too upset about it, tried to decide if it was bullying or not. (It was.)

12-year-old me let a sometimes friend tell her that the popular kids were talking about the way she dressed, which may have been true and may just have been the way that this sometimes friend decided to tell her that she didn’t really like the length of the pants that 12-year-old me was wearing at the time. It doesn’t really matter which one it was, because 12-year-old me still cared what people thought.

I distinctly remember thinking, maybe not at 12, but soon after, how great it must be not to care what people think. I might have read it or heard it or seen it in a movie, the people who say, “I don’t care what people think,” “I don’t care what people think of me.”

I didn’t realize that you have to put in effort not to care.

In high school, things got better. I started not caring what people thought right about at the same time that I met people who really cared about me and whose opinions I valued. The combination allowed me to forget that there was a time when I was always scared that people were talking about me, and, worse, the fact that if I was always scared, it was because it was sometimes true.

I’m 27 years old, so you’d think that these sorts of school-aged politics would barely cross my mind anymore. And that’s true, most of the time. I’m a pretty well-adjusted person, when all is said and done. I get along  with people for the most part, and I have a very small handful of close friends, which is the way I like it.

I’m not used to being on edge, to wondering if people are talking about me behind my back. I’ve mostly forgotten what that feels like.

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I’m one of the foreigners that people look at after a rant about foreigners in general and say, “But not you.” The reasons that they say that are multi-faceted. I’m white. I speak French. I come from America. I speak French. I have read classic 19th century literature, know who Astérix and Obélix are, enjoy listening to music by Jean-Jacques Goldman and nod along when people complain about social security, taxes and politics.

Did I mention that I speak French?

I come from a country built on immigration, and while I am fully aware that there are immigrant groups that are not fully integrated into American culture, it’s important to recognize that we don’t really ask people to integrate in the same way that the French do. We are proud of diversity. We are excited by difference. We want to know about your culture, and we will try to understand when you make English blunders. I’m reductive in my logic here, I know. I know that things are hard for immigrants in America as well. But I will say that if a French person with my level of English moved to America, people would find accents, trip ups and mistakes charming.

And if said person had a good enough level of English to be able to correct native English speakers’ writing, I think we’d call that a success.

Why am I telling this story?

Because I found out recently that I’ve been committing a major French gaffe, and worst of all, people have been noticing it and, instead of telling me about it, talking about it behind my back. Office politics are the same as school politics, but 27-year-old me does not have quite the happily oblivious nature and rhinoceros-thick skin that 12-year-old me had. When I found out that people were talking about me, I took it fairly badly. With poise on the outside, granted, but inside I was steaming.

Want to know what my gaffe was?

I don’t say bonjour enough.

And here I was, thinking that I was doing a pretty good job of integrating. I wrote my Masters thesis comparing French and American culture as expressed linguistically in literature. I can change up my language registers like a pro. I can condescendingly “Mais Madame,” with the best of them. Surely I was close enough to this topic to know how to do things right?

Nope. Wrong. I don’t always say bonjour; I am the office bitch.

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The friend who told me this tried to explain why bonjour was so important, but it’s hard to explain something so culturally ingrained. You have to step outside yourself, and that’s not an easy task. When I really think about it, really think about the values that are important in French culture, I think I can understand it… especially because it’s the topic of my thesis.

If you get really reductive about it, America was founded on the principles of freedom. Freedom to work. Freedom to speak. Freedom to thrive. If you build it, they will come. If you work hard enough, you can achieve anything. Freedom from the English became freedom to do what we want. Freedom to be American. Freedom to be.

France, on the same reductive principles, was founded on the value of equality. Equality between the tiers état and the aristocracy. Equality of opportunity. Equality of pay, of paid vacation, of rights, of privilege. Every citizen is a citizen. Everyone is the same.

My friend who tried to explain this to me balked when I, frustrated, said that bonjour doesn’t actually mean anything. That it’s a cultural word devoid of true meaning. Merci I can get behind. Pardon has a purpose. Excusez-moi is just plain polite. But bonjour? It doesn’t really mean anything.

No, he reasoned. It means that you recognize the other person.

Everyone is equal. Everyone deserves a bonjour.

I get it, now, I think. It doesn’t mean it comes easily to me. I’m used to telling visitors that when they walk into a store, they can’t just smile and say, “Excuse me, do you have this in a size 6?” That’s very rude in France. You have to preface it with bonjour. I’ve been proudly crowing this for years, only to realize that I’ve been committing an even bigger sin — not saying bonjour to my colleagues every single day.

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Oh Victor. I like to think of us reading together along the Seine and laughing jovially about your clever use of tutoiement and vouvoiement to evoke the changing balance in equality in Les Misérables… but the truth is that I probably would have committed some major gaffe and you would have silently hated me and told all of your friends that I was a bitch. And then Charles Baudelaire would have hated me too.

It’s probably good that I get to love Vick and Chuck from afar. Like, 200 years afar.

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I’m a big enough person to admit that I chose to live in a country, which means that I choose to live by its principles, norms and standards. (Doesn’t mean that more often than not I’d rather live in a hermit cave and meet up with my friends from Hermits United every 10 years or so…) I’ll apologize for my linguistic gaffe. Today, I said bonjour to everyone. I said it four times in a row when four people walked into the office slightly staggered but not close enough for a group bonjour.

But I won’t apologize for this. I took a classic French dessert and made it savory. I don’t know if that’s blasphemy, but I do know it’s delicious.

My kitchen, my rules. The autonomous dictatorship of Emily Thinks This Is Delicious-Land.

So there.

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Savory Tomato and Zucchini Clafoutis

1 zucchini
1 onion
1 pint cherry tomatoes
2 Tbsp. olive oil, separated
2/3 cup flour
2 eggs
1 cup milk
3 oz. feta, crumbled
salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Dice the zucchini and thinly slice the onion. Place the cherry tomatoes in a glass baking dish and toss with one tablespoon of the oil. Bake while preparing the rest of the clafoutis.

Heat the other tablespoon of oil in a pan. Add the onion and zucchini, and sauté until the onion is soft and slightly browned and the zucchini has given off a good deal of its liquid, about 10-15 minutes.

Whisk the flour with a bit of salt and pepper. Whisk in the egg, then slowly add the milk, whisking all the time, until you have an even batter with no lumps. Season with salt and pepper.

Remove the baking dish from the oven and remove the tomatoes, leaving any juices they have given off in the pan. Add the zucchini and onion and then cover with the clafoutis batter. Top with the roasted tomatoes and the feta cheese.

Bake for about 20 minutes, or until the clafoutis puffs up. It will fall the moment you remove it from the fridge.

Eat warm or cold. Share it with your friends if you want, but don’t give a damn what they think about it, because it’s delicious.

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formats

Early Autumn Savory Fruit Salad

Published on September 26, 2014, by in Salad.

fig and goat cheese salad

It’s hard to have the same voice in two languages.

I’m not talking about timbre and tone, though I know my voice is pitched differently in French and in English. My father told me once — it’s higher or lower in English, but I don’t remember which.

But when I talk about voice, I mean it as a writer, as a person who relates to the world through words, whether written or spoken.

I do not write in French as I do in English; this bothers me less, except when it comes to the Country Boy, who doesn’t read my English the way others do. As a writer, that can be a strange thing to experience, having the person who knows you best unable to know your craft.

But what strikes me even more is the way in which I communicate in both languages, especially now that, after nearly eight years, most of my friends in France are French.

I find that nearly everyone I meet in France speaks a passable amount of English… except my close friends. I can count them on one hand, the people whose high, solid boundaries I have finally been able to break down, the people who, in a short time, have become so close that we call each other sister, that we share clothes and beds and secrets. I didn’t think I would find that now that I’ve left the comfort of dormitories, but it’s happened again. And yet of my close friends here, nearly no one speaks English. I speak to my best friends and my boyfriend in French; I write, I am moved to write, in English.

And I don’t feel like the same person.

It’s not a new problem; it’s one that’s been following me for years. I once assumed that it would dissipate as my French got stronger; maybe it would have if I weren’t a writer, if I weren’t still so drawn to my native tongue.

My friends are interested in my writing. They want to know what stories I tell. They want me to teach them words in English. They want to be part of my world.

I’m not looking for solutions… just asking questions.

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I’ve created two versions of this dish, one simpler than the others. Fresh black figs with olive oil, black pepper, basil and fresh goat’s cheese is hard to beat, unless there’s even more fresh fruit at your market stand. For the second version, the recipe’s at Organic Authority.

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formats

Feeling Good About 27

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I am feeling really good about 27.

I’m not too good at figuring out what my feelings are. I don’t have a lot of them — I mostly just have moods. Moods are not necessarily excellent when you’re being raised by my mother — of German extraction and not a huge fan of moods — but I have them all the same, even now, maybe more so now, than I did when I was a moody teenager. Maybe it’s because I don’t feel like a stereotype anymore. It’s just the way I am.

But ever since I turned 27 a bit over three months ago, I’ve been feeling really good about it, in a way that I haven’t felt all that great about most of my 20s… a large part of which has to do with the fact that I really, really enjoyed being 17. I don’t know if everyone feels this way about certain ages, but as one of those kids that people were always calling an “old soul,” I’ve never quite felt that the age I was was the age I should be. With a few exceptions.

I loved turning 7. Not only was it what we elementary school kids in the know called “my magic birthday,” (I was born on the 7th of the month), but I also had a fantastic party complete with a baker dressed up as Snow White teaching us to make frosting rosettes on the dining room table we otherwise never used and a “pin the apple on the wicked witch” drawn to perfection by my father.

And it wasn’t just the party. Being 7 felt right to me. There were 4 of us then, aged 1, 3, 5 and 7. I liked the evenness of it. (Aside: I have always been excellent at counting by twos. I aced those 2nd grade tests.)

But after turning 7, I didn’t really feel that way about another age. I liked being 10, because that’s double-digits, which everyone knows is awesome. I enjoyed turning 16, because I had a great group of friends, a fantastically obsessive crush on a boy, and an excellent summer to look forward to. But 17… 17 was kind of a magic number.

I guess the best way I can explain it is that I felt like myself at 17. Many of the things that, today, still feel like me were things that I started doing that year. I’ve always read a lot, but 17 was the year I started carrying a book everywhere — then in cargo pants, now in an oversize purse which, let’s be honest, is just a more socially acceptable version of said cargo pants. I started carrying a coffee thermos around with me everywhere. I started spending evenings wandering New York in the dark with my best friend.

What’s strange, looking back, is that I remember feeling very clearly at 17 that I wasn’t having the experience of the age that most people do. I didn’t drink or smoke or do drugs. I listened to ‘At 17′ by Janis Ian and felt very far removed from the lyrics. But still, I have felt slightly 17, in one way or another, since I turned 17.

Until this year, that is.

Is it because a decade has passed? Decades have meaning because of our numbers system, so I have a hard time believing that the number 10 could be so important to my way of identifying myself, but maybe it is. More than that though, I feel like maybe it’s the number 7. I was born on the 7th; maybe all of my 7 birthdays are magic birthdays.

Or maybe I’ve just found my way back to the things that were important to me at 17.

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Another thing that I really, really felt connected to at 17 was my Italian origins. 17 was the year I wrote two embarrassingly poor plays, one of which was a cheap, transparent adaptation of Goodfellas and the other of which was about a 17-year-old girl who finds out that her grandfather was a mafioso, which actually could have been good, except that I am and always have been a strict realist and refused to take my teacher’s advice to create some sort of drama, because I was convinced that even a mafioso wouldn’t start a full-out war on Christmas in front of his grandchildren.

Mafia references aside, my interest in my Italian background had me trying my hand at dozens of Italian specialties once I got my own kitchen, the following year. Eggplant parmegiana was one of them, though I never really got it right.

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This version isn’t exactly traditional, but I find it even more delicious. The eggplant stays crispy, the scant mozzarella doesn’t turn globby but adds flavor and texture, and the homemade tomato sauce adds the perfect amount of tanginess and freshness.

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Eggplant Parmesan Stacks

For the sauce:
2 onions
1 clove garlic
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 can peeled tomatoes
2 tsp. soy sauce (optional)
salt and pepper

2 eggplant
salt
2 eggs
1/2 cup flour
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
olive oil for shallow frying
6 oz. mozzarella
fresh basil

To make the sauce, finely chop the onions and mince the garlic. Heat the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pot and add the onions. Season them with salt and cook until translucent and slightly browned, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, 1 minute.

Add the juice from the whole peeled tomatoes and cook until reduced and thick. Add the tomatoes, using a spoon to break them up, and reduce the heat to low.

Simmer the sauce for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, slice the eggplant into rounds. place them in an even layer on paper towels and salt them.

After about 30 minutes of simmering, taste the sauce. If it lacks depth, add the soy sauce. (I nearly always do, but it depends on the quality of your tomatoes.) Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper, and purée the sauce with an immersion blender.

When the sauce is finished, brush the excess salt off the eggplant. Set up bowls of flour, beaten egg and panko. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and heat a pan over medium-high heat with a thin layer of olive oil.

Dredge the eggplant slices in flour, then dip in the beaten egg, and finally into the panko. Add to the frying pan and fry on both sides until golden brown.

When all of the eggplant slices are fried, place a layer of tomato sauce in the bottom of a glass baking dish. Stack the eggplant slices by threes, trying to keep slices of the same size together. Add a small amount of mozzarella between each slice, and top each stack with a bit of mozzarella. Bake for about 15-20 minutes, until the cheese is melted and the eggplant is soft all the way through.

Top each stack with a basil leaf. Serve with extra sauce on the side and a side of pasta.