December 31, 2010

Christmases Past and Present

Christmas 2008 on PEI

When I was very little my family celebrated Christmas in Florida. For three years, we rented a house right on the canal near Marathon, in Key West. Those are the first Christmases I remember, and they were idyllic.

One year we couldn't find a real Christmas tree - this is Florida after all - so instead we bought a Norfolk Island pine. It was spindly, and only about 4 or 5 feet tall, but it ended up being the cutest tree ever. My Mom still has the tree ornaments we bought in those years. They remind us of warmer Christmases: slender, delicate seashells tied with ribbons, and brightly coloured wooden fish. I remember making decorations too: cutting squares out of paper and drawing with markers to create little flags that we strung on the tree.

There were sunny afternoons swimming in the canal, the time we rented a boat with my cousins, who lived in Florida, and spent the day driving around the maze of canals and jumping off the boat into the cool water. Lazy days at the Cabana Club, a nearby swimming pool on a beach. I think we spent nearly all our time in water of some kind.

My Dad had a crab trap set up in the canal behind out house, and I remember going with him to check the trap in the morning. I don't know if I liked eating fresh crab back then - I'd love to have some now. Eating on these trips was my parents' dream, especially my Dad's: he loved anything that came from the sea. He cooked fish year-round at home, but especially loved the freshest stuff in the summers from Nova Scotia and PEI. So being able to enjoy more fresh seafood over Christmas was fantastic.

As for food, what I remember most is the kid stuff: chili dogs at the canteen at the Cabana Club, and lots and lots of Christmas candy. Chocolate santas filled with marshmallow fluff, and sugar cookies left for Santa. Bowls of red pistachios that stained your fingers bright red, little paper baskets on the tree filled with candy and nuts. The baskets on the tree became a tradition that lasts to this day, when I'm lucky enough to celebrate Christmas with my family. We have red and white Swedish woven baskets, usually filled with peanut M and Ms or little wrapped candies. Going through the tree and picking out the candy is a great part of Christmas morning.

This year there were no paper baskets, no M and Ms, not even a Christmas tree. But there was much, much more. Chewy amaretti cookies studded with pine nuts. Soft, salty balls of snow-white buffalo mozzarella. One of the best Christmas days ever, cooking together in an extremely warm, unfamiliar kitchen with an 8-person extended family of three generations. Roasted, pureed butternut squash, roasted fennel with pistachios, mushroom risotto, lemony roast potatoes, chicken with red wine sauce, bottle after bottle of Italian wine. Singing carols, playing cards, telling stories. Midnight mass on Christmas Eve in a church with a statue by Michelangelo and a blue ceiling studded with stars, then a walk across a cobblestone piazza for hot chocolate and aged beef with parmesan at a little restaurant lit with Christmas lights. Wishing each other Merry Christmas at midnight, then peeking into the Pantheon, probably the most amazing building I've ever set foot in, listening at the doorway to the haunting notes of "Lo How a Rose E'er Blooming" waft up to the impossibly high, perfect ceiling.

Those and a hundred other memories have made this Christmas season one I'll never forget. We are back in Edmonton to ring in the new year, but my mind stays in Rome with my family. A broken compueter means no photos yet, but soon.
Happy New Year, and thank you all for taking the time to visit this litte corner of the internet in 2010.

December 16, 2010

Le Timbre - Paris

One of the best meals of our summer trip was at a restaurant in Paris called Le Timbre (the postage stamp). David Lebovitz mentions this place on his list of great food in Paris, and it also came up in a post I found from a woman with celiac disease. She said it was her favourite Paris restaurant, and that almost everything on the menu was gluten-free.

It was a cloudy day around noon when we wound our way out of the Luxembourg train station and through the small streets around the Jardin de Luxembourg to find the restaurant. Postage stamp is right: the place seats about 20 people, at tables of two pushed up against each other, forming two long tables on either side of the room. The decor is clean and traditional, with white linen tablecloths set with wine glasses, round white plates, and large, heavy silver cutlery. The tiny, open kitchen is set up at the end of the room, so you can watch the chef at work. The one waitress kept excellent tabs on the room as she hurried from table to table and back and forth to the kitchen, taking orders, pouring wine, and serving food. I noticed the economy of space in the kitchen - she even cut everyone's baguette in a little cupboard.

We were the first ones there for lunch and for a few minutes we had the place to ourselves. The waitress pulled out one of the tables so I could slip in to the bench. She offered us the menu du jour written up on a chalkboard. Though we're both fluent in French, many of the items were completely foreign to us, and we asked a few questions before deciding. We also had to make sure we knew what we could eat - me with no gluten, J with no lactose. The waitress consulted with the chef, who also spoke to us from the kitchen. They were very accommodating of our allergies, and almost everything was available. The price for three courses was very reasonable (26€ or around $35 Canadian) so we decided on that. You could also order two courses for 22€.

We drank our water (plat (flat) and gazeuze (bubbly), respectively) and decided to each order a glass of wine as well, since it was affordable at 5€ each. Other groups of two began to arrive, and so did our food. Here is where the bliss set in. The food was simple and served in relatively small portions, with elegance and amazing flavours. I realized as I was eating that it was my first meal in a French restaurant, and probably my first meal of real French food.

My first course (entrée in French) was a terrine de campagne. It's like a pâté of meat all squished together and seasoned. My plate arrived with a good-sized slice of terrine, accompanied by a confiture d'oignons, a few miniature pickles, and little piles of coarse salt and pepper. I cut off a piece of terrine, slathered a little confiture on it, sprinkled on some salt and pepper, and stabbed a pickle. I can still taste it now: meaty, rich, sweet from the onions, vinegary from the pickle, crunchy, soft, velvety, with little bits of salt and pepper popping out. We ate in almost complete silence, in reverence for the quality of the food (J said his sauteed mushrooms with ham were divine).

For the plat principal I chose cochon noir de bigarre, which came with roasted cauliflower, and J had roast quail with shallots and mushrooms. The amazing flavours and textures continued, although I must say that if I had to choose one course to eat again it would be the terrine. The pork was fatty and full of pure pig flavour. It rested on the cauliflower - cooked not too soft with some kind of fantastic sauce. It didn't taste roasted to me, and wasn't browned at all, but the whole thing was delicious. One of the best parts was a swirl of oil around the edge of the dish that included a bit of black olive puree. I couldn't place the olive taste until I was almost finished, but the slight vinegar note was perfect.

The dessert menu seemed so original compared to most North American restaurants. There was a lot of fruit, not just in things but by itself as well. I chose the dessert du jour, a poached pear in a honey syrup, and J got the roasted figs. There was also some kind of prunes, a mille-feuille (a puff pastry with cream), a cheddar plate, and a peach-apricot crumble.

It was lovely to end the meal with a bowl of warm fruit - I'd love to make more desserts like this at home. The pear was slumped into slices in a bowl and surrounded by a syrupy, honey-flavoured liquid, spiked with vanilla and a bit of anise. J's figs were dark and lush, roasted with a red wine reduction. The two desserts were a study in colour contrasts, and both were delicious. 

Our meal at Le Timbre felt like a languid dream. The grey day, the small, clean room, the unassuming yet charming waitress, and above all the superb, simple food. I felt as though I would just have to change a few details to slip back in time fifty years and eat the exact same meal. I don't know how else to describe the food except to say you could tell each ingredient had been treated with respect along its entire journey.  

By the end of the meal there were several other parties in the restaurant, and we had one couple on one side of us. It would be quite fun to be here when the place was full - no privacy at all, but I'm sure it's a convivial, joyous atmosphere. And because of the small size I could easily look at other people's food being delivered and eaten. I saw some fish, a potato and leek soup, the crumble and the mille-feuille, and it all looked as tantalizing as what we ordered.

If you're in Paris I highly recommend Le Timbre. I'm definitely not an expert, but to me it felt like a very traditional French dining experience, but without any stuffiness and pretension. Also, the chef is British, so if you're uncomfortable about your French, you'll still be in good hands. I also heard the waitress speaking English to other customers. As another plus, they are clearly used to dealing with people's special dietary needs. But most importantly, it's affordable and the food is exquisite. I look forward to other meals there in my future, when we get the wonderful chance of visiting Paris again.

Le Timbre
3, rue Sainte-Beuve
6e, Paris

Eating in Paris

Les jardins de Luxembourg

From Vienna, we went to Paris for ten days to stay with friends. Sylvie and her two daughters Adele and Louise lived in a suburb of Paris called Aubervilliers - but they were in the process of moving away during our visit. Aubervilliers, to the northeast of the city, is kind of the ghetto. It's the department of France with the most immigrants, many of them living cramped together in big apartment buildings. Sylvie lived in a beautiful house there for ___ years, and a few days after we left she moved to a different corner of the city.

But she told us it feels like Aubervilliers is getting more and more dangerous. This is where J lived for almost a year when he studied in France eight years ago, and we stayed with Sylvie three years ago on our honeymoon. The winding streets are narrow, with most buildings abutting the road with only about a foot of sidewalk and curb. There's only the odd tree here and there, and no sign of grass. Among the apartments are dirty-looking bars and corner stores. There are definitely some nice spots, including a great bookstore and some decent bakeries. And just being in a place so different from our home is fasinating - the African and Arab cultures are on display in peoples' clothing, the shops, and the markets. But the next time we visit Sylvie, things will be a lot different. She's moved to a ritzy suburb, more like what you imagine of a little French town: pretty brick walls, flowering trees and quaint shops.

In Aubervilliers we did most of our food shopping at a chain grocery store near Sylvie's house. It's called Monoprix, and it's actually a department store. The bottom floor is full of clothes, housewares, and drugstore items, and you have to go up the escalator to find the food. Usually one of us headed towards the back to grab a few bottles of the cheapest wine we could find. Yes, this holiday was all about cheap wine. In Paris it seemed outrageously expensive to our bargain-hunting minds - 3.50 euros intead of the 1.99 we drank in Vienna. 

Even in a boring, fluorescently-lit French grocery store, we could buy an amazing variety of cheeses, yogurts and meat products. Lots of goat cheese, thick Greek yogurt, and something I had never eaten before but fell in love with: rillettes.

Rillettes is a type of French meat pate, a mix of shredded or chopped meat and fat, and traditionally topped with a thick layer of fat. We ate pork, duck and chicken rillettes, which were all different and all delicious, spread on bread or crackers. Let me just say that a few years ago I'm pretty sure I would have found this food disgusting - for most of my life I've had a lot of disdain for animal fat. I think the combo of moving to meat-heavy Alberta and starting to add much more meat to my diet, plus reading Jennifer McLagan's wonderful book, Fat, have changed things for the better. I am now a huge proponent of natural animal fats. And so happy you can buy this stuff in the plastic tub at a French chain grocery store! I'm sure hand-made, locally-made rillettes are probably even more delicious, but this was good enough for us.

We also made a couple of special food excursions in Paris. I definitely missed the joy of French croissants and baguettes, but we went to Ladurée to buy macarons - naturally gluten-free! (made with ground almonds and egg whites). At David Lebovitz' suggestion, we tried the salted caramel and dark chocolate, as well as pistachio. At 13.50 euros for six tiny macarons, the things aren't cheap. But the salted caramel and pistachio were heavenly - rich flavours in a light package. And speaking of package, the box is the cutest!

Near Ladurée is a shop where we stopped on our honeymoon - La Maison du Miel. This translates as "house of honey" and that's exactly what it is. You can buy honey from all over the world and from almost any kind of tree or plant. It's really incredible to stare at all the jars and realize that you can get honey from rosemary plants and orange trees, and in colours ranging from almost transparent to caramel, with all the sunny, golden hues in between.

They also offer tastes so you can figure out what kinds you like. This time we bought tilleul, which is from a lime tree, and leatherwood, which comes from Tanzania. They both taste richer and more complex than any other honey I've had, and are best savoured by the small spoonful. The leatherwood is especially dark and dense, sweet but with a slightly bitter quality.

One of our favourite neighbourhoods in Paris is Le Marais. When Paris was founded it was the swampy area of the city - which is where the word Marais, meaning swamp, comes from. It's full of history, from the booming Jewish quarter in the rue des Rosiers to the elegant Place des Vosges. Before the French Revolution the neighbourhood was home to aristicrats and sumptuous architecture. The aristocrats are gone - replaced by an incredibly hip crowd of artists and fashion designers - but much of the architecture remains. A simple stroll through the Marais is enough to convince me that living in Paris would be incredible. The day we went to the Marais I forgot the camera, so you'll just have to imagine how charming it is.

We waited in line for the famous falafel on the rue des Rosiers. The better-known shop is L'As du Falafel, but according to some people the competitor just across the street is even better. I couldn't eat any of it, but J decided to sample the chicken shawarma instead of the famous falafel. He regretted it later when they brought samples of falafel through the line after he had already given his order. The small golden balls of crushed chickpeas looked and smelled fantastic. The atmosphere is wonderful too - hawkers for both shops call out to tourists and locals seeking a delicious, cheap lunch.

We lazed on the grass by the fountains in the Place des Vosges, among a crowd of sun-seekers. Then we went to visit another David Lebovitz recommendation, Dammann Freres tea shop, right on the square. This place is beautiful - high ceilings with tins of tea stacked to the top. When you make your order, the two young men working there climb up the ladders to fetch your request. There are gift and sample packages of tea wrapped up gorgeously in sleek black packaging, and plenty of loose teas to smell so you can make your choice more easily. We went home with a fragrant cardamom green tea.

Sylvie's three cats liked to help us out in the kitchen

One of my best food experiences of the entire trip was at a small gelato shop in the Marais. The famous Berthillon ice cream shop on the Ile St Louis is the most well-known in Paris, but many claim that Pozzetto actually makes the best ice cream. I ate a scoop of their pistachio gelato and have not felt the same about ice cream since. It was an earthy green, darker than any other pistachio ice cream I've seen, with flecks of pistachio mixed in. Imagine eating the freshest pistachios on earth, mixed with cream and sugar into cold, custardy goodness. I raved about that ice cream for weeks afterward, and it's now on my must-eat list of Paris. 
There are so many good things to eat in Paris, it can seem overwhelming. If I didn't have a gluten problem, I would be happy to subsist on baguettes, croissants, and rich hot chocolate for all ten days. But luckily, delicious cheeses and meat products also form a large part of a typical French diet, so I could indulge to my heart's content.   

December 14, 2010

Eating in Vienna

Shopping for food in a foreign country is so much fun. Especially when you're in a place where food is everywhere - in little stalls on the neighbourhood square, sold from street-corner stands, slurped up by people eating at open-air tables that line the streets.

During our week in Vienna we fell into a luxurious routine. We'd sleep in, get up and make a large brunch-like meal, go out and explore the city, come back to our apartment and cook supper, drink cheap Austrian wine and go to bed. Repeat.

It was a pretty awesome way to spend a week in Vienna.

We saw some fantastic things in that city. The Belvedere art museum, housed in a baroque palace, with gorgeous gardens and the largest collection of Klimt in the world. Another Baroque Palace, Schloss Schonbrunn, with more beautiful gardens, a maze, and a zoo. The crazily over-the-top amusement park in the Prater park. The Leopold Museum in the new Museums Quartier, with a fantastic collection of modern art. And lots, lots more.

To keep us going on these excursions, we ate a lot of chocolate-covered rice cakes. Definitely one of the culinary discoveries of the trip, and available in many different varieties everywhere we went in Europe. I know they don't sound very exciting, but they are excellent. The rice cakes we ate in Europe were thin and crisp, with much more flavour than your average Quaker's variety, and coated with good dark chocolate they make a fantastic snack. We often went through a pack in a day while walking the Vienna streets.

I also fell in love with the cured sausages we snacked on. We bought them at Spar, a grocery chain found across Europe. They were long and thin, spicy, fatty and chewy. They had just the right amount of fat to balance out the meat and spices that made your tongue burn a little, but not too much.

We spent one afternoon at one of Vienna's most famous food destinations, the Naschmarkt. It's a long, outdoor market filled with stalls, cafes and shops selling all kinds of foods. We stocked up on vegetables, drank some delicious fresh juice, visited a wonderful cheese shop, and even found a health-food store selling gluten-free baked goods!

J picked up one of his all-time favourite Austrian meals - a kebap with fresh sheep's cheese. He said this one wasn't quite as good as the ones he ate all summer in Baden.

We also visited the Saturday farmers' market at the neighbourhood square right near our apartment, Karmelitermarkt. The rest of the week, the square is a place to pick up a few groceries and go for an evening drink and a bite to eat, with a handful of bars and cafes and stores selling vegetables, meat, cheese and bread. It's already quite lively, but on Saturday it was full to bursting with shoppers picking up the freshest vegetables and other products from farms around Vienna. The ubiquitous chanterelle mushrooms, available all over the city, were everywhere, and stalls were brimming with other fresh produce: peppers, lettuce, berries, potatoes, and carrots. There were succulent cheeses, crusty baguettes, oils and vinegars, and plenty more.

We stopped at one stand to buy green beans, lettuce and potatoes that all looked like they had just been plucked from the earth. When the woman behind the stall told us the price, we laughed with surprise. "Oh", she said, "We don't use any pesticides on our vegetables, so that's why they are a little but more expensive." We had to assure her we were shocked by how cheap they were, not how expensive. We told her that where we come from, organic vegetables cost way more.

Our final memorable shopping experience in the city was of the more expensive variety. We visited the beautiful Meinl food store several times - there was so much to see and all of it so enticing. Meinl is actually an Austrian coffeehouse chain, but they've expanded their wares. The store includes a coffee bar and ice cream stand at the front, plus a wine bar and cafe down one level. The rest of the two floors are filled with a dizzying array of fresh and packaged gourmet foods. Towering displays of hot chocolate and apricot preserves, in-store bakery, deli and cheese counter, wine, liquor and beer, and yes, even a small gluten-free section.

I adore the huge selection of yogurt you can find in Europe. J was extremely happy in Austria too, because sheep's milk products are everywhere - all kinds of cheese, yogurt, dessert puddings etc. And they're all packaged so cutely, you want to buy every one.

 Cheese and meat were the definite culinary themes of our whole European trip. In Vienna, it was amazing sheep's cheese, both hard and soft, plus "chevre-au-lard" - literally, goat's cheese with lard. Soft discs of goat cheese wrapped in meaty bacon, fried up in a pan and spread onto (gf) bread for a gooey, salty, delicious snack. We also ate sausage after sausage, both cured and fresh, and bought a block of cured ham that we used to flavour almost every meal, whether it was based on quinoa, pasta or potatoes.

There's one last thing we ate in Vienna that I still find myself craving, even though when I explain it to people, it really doesn't sound that special. We stopped at a few cafes, including the famous Cafe Central, where Trotzky and Freud used to sip coffee. At places like this there aren't many gluten-free options on the menu, but one of them was simple sausages served with strong mustard and fresh horseradish. The sausages were nothing special, really - kind of like long, thin hot dogs - but combined with the strong bite of the mustard and horseradish they satisfied every time.

I still find myself dreaming about our idyllic week in Vienna - the apartment where we slept with the floor-to-ceiling windows open to the courtyard, woken by the strange calling of a mourning dove, crossing the Danube canal to explore the city, the excitement of being free to do whatever you want in a place you've never been. It was everything we could have hoped for.

Pumpkin Seed Brittle

On top of busy workdays and finishing essays, we're starting to celebrate the holidays in small ways around here. This is one of them.

We made this pumpkin seed brittle as a gift for two of J's teachers, along with an amazing roasted vegetable curry from the Moosewood Simple Suppers book. J's voice teacher and voice coach have really gone above and beyond this semester, so we wanted to find a small way to repay them.

We had never made brittle before, but I found the recipe on smitten kitchen and it looked easy. It was. More importantly, it was absolutely fantastic. The texture is hard, but kind of chewy at the same time, and the flavour is more than pure sugar: it's dark and complex, tasting of browned butter with salt, almost like toffee. It's really intoxicating, and I think it will become a Christmas-season staple.

In other news, we're going away for Christmas this year. It's a completely unexpected trip - we were planning a small, quiet Christmas in Edmonton with J's brother and his wife. Instead, Christmas in Rome with my entire family is how we'll be spending the holiday. It's unbelievable really, and even though we're leaving in a few days I haven't exactly realized that yet. We've never been to Italy, and I'm sure it will be amazing. Apparently it's a fantastic country for celiacs, with gluten-free products available everywhere. I'm excited to discover some new ones.

Before we leave I hope to post the rest of my stories from our summer European adventure - since it's now time for a new one!