I’d always considered the fact that I didn’t sleep with my husband on our first date as one of the more noble things about me until I read Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes, by Elizabeth Bard. In her very first sentence, Elizabeth, (Doesn’t she look like a Fun Girl?), announces that she did indeed sleep with her husband halfway through their first date and suddenly I felt like I had missed out.
Like the good girl (she clearly is) who is playing a turn at the bad girl (likely told to do so by her editor because it would sell more books, and, hey, it got me to buy her book), Elizabeth quickly goes on for another several paragraphs explaining how it just so wasn’t like her, she’s just not that type of girl, she isn’t your typical college student tramp sleeping with every French guy she has lunch with, blah, blah, blah. But who cares? He’s French and it’s Paris and behavior like that under those circumstances is definitely understandable, at least to une fille américaine like me. I guess my morals are slipping, or my coquettish French slip is showing, because I just couldn’t rouse much moral indignation at her opening revelation. In fact, I confess that I’ve possibly been reading a few too many romance novels lately because what I wanted most was for her to skip the rationalizing and quit her explaining and get down to his chiseled chest and muscled forearms. She doesn’t.
But what Elizabeth lacks in bodice-ripping, purple prose she makes up for by writing the sort of book I wish I could write: smart, amusing, insightful, and jam-packed with delicious French (and North African) recipes that are easily accessible to any home cook with a halfway decent market.
I love when a book finds me at the exact right time. When it happens it always reminds me of that old Chinese proverb, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” And what a nice (and just slightly naughty) teacher Elizabeth is. Lunch in Paris found me last week at the perfect moment: caught between battling our annual spring-time monumental snowfall (we’ve had somewhere between 160-250 inches of snow in the past 9 days!) and preparing for our upcoming vacances to Paris (we leave on the 29th).
This Spring the snow has been truly epic (see picture below), and when this happens my husband and I have it all worked out. He goes outside to battle the elements, plowing and shoveling to maintain the ingress and egress to our home, while I stay inside in my pajamas and cook. It is a happy arrangement that we both like, well, now that the kids are grown.
Here’s what the snow did last night to our our awning and siding to our outbuilding. Yes, that’s a roof on the ground and that’s plywood and a tarp where siding and a window ought to be. I’m totally bummed.
The worst years of my cooking life were the ones when I had to come up with a meal for my family every flippin’ night. So boring. I hate the monotonous drudgery that is often the dinnertime chore of the stay-at-home mom/cook. Blech. And my husband, who would deny it even under threat of torture, is actually not that easy to please. Forced to survive as a child on his mother’s canned green beans and over-cooked hamburger patties, one would think he’d be facile. One would think, wouldn’t one? But he detests leftovers and doesn’t really like to eat the same meal twice in one year. The man demands, albeit with so much subtlety and charm that only I can really detect it, variety. Night after night he wants variety (yep, you’re reading into that correctly, but that’s another post for another blog or maybe just another sort of book I always wish I could write). My husband loves nothing more than when I come up with something wonderful he’s never eaten. Free from child-rearing, I have now come to love the challenge of shocking and awing his pants off (Hey, maybe I do have a future as a romance writer.).
Who doesn’t love (and sometimes need) inspiration in the kitchen? As a whole, The Fun Girls all agree that our favorite cookbooks are the beautiful cookbooks filled with mouth-watering, colorful photographs of food. Ina Garten’s, The Barefoot Contessa, recipe books would be among our favorites and we’ve had entire vacations together where the main thing we did was watch her show (T.R. Pescod, anyone?), read her recipe books, and cook Barefoot Contessa recipes for one another. But Lunch in Paris is not really one of those cookbooks. Lunch in Paris is a paperback love story told in recipes. Good recipes. And what I love about them most is that they are the sorts of recipes I like: malleable and open to personal interpretation. Elizabeth also brings some new ingredients to my attention (Celery root? It’s actually delicious. Who knew?) and opened my eyes to seeing some familiar old friends in new and unexpected ways (Bacon and figs? Together in a savory cake? Intriguing.).
So yesterday while my husband showed off his masculine prowess with feats of strength against snow, I surprised him with Mussels in White Wine and Chocolate Eclairs (yes, I made chocolate eclairs!). Here’s my take on Bard’s inspirational recipes:
Mussels in White Wine
(Don’t be afraid. This dish is easy and so delicious.)
Mussels are a living creature (but don’t worry, they don’t scream or anything when you’re cooking them) and need moisture to stay alive. Once home, immediately take mussels out of any plastic bag and place in a bowl. Take a clean dish towel, soak it in water, and then squeeze off the excess until towel is damp but not dripping. Cover mussels with the damp towel and place the bowl in the refrigerator. Make sure towel stays damp until you use the mussels and pour off any water that collects in the bottom of the bowl. Just before use, soak the mussels for 20 minutes in water to help them filter out any unwanted sand, then rinse mussels and remove the “beard”. The “beard” is the hairy-like stuff (actually called bysall threads) that protrudes from the shell. Grasp firmly at the base near the shell with your fingers and pull it off. Discard any mussels that have cracked shells or are open.
- 2 lbs Fresh Mussels
- 2 tbs butter
- 2 tbs extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 large onion, finely chopped
- 1 fennel bulb, finely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, finely sliced
- 1 tomato, chopped
- ½ cup dry white wine
- ½ tsp salt
- ¼ tsp pepper
In your largest frying pan that has a lid or a dutch oven, melt butter and oil over medium heat, add onions and fennel and saute until onion is translucent (5-10 minutes). Add garlic and cook for one minute. Add tomato and cook for two minutes. Add salt and white wine and bring to a simmering boil. Add prepared mussels, stir to coat with sauce and then cover and steam mussels for 10 minutes until mussels are opened and flesh is firm. Discard any mussels that do not open.
Remove mussels to serving platter and turn up heat on the sauce until slightly thickened (3-5 minutes), add pepper to taste. Pour sauce over mussels and serve with French Bread. You can use the French bread to soak up the sauce but you can also eat the sauce like a sort of a vegetable soup. Don’t let any of that fennel go to waste; fennel is pricey but is great for you.
Serves two people for lunch especially if one of them has been shoveling snow all morning.
Okay, I can’t believe I made chocolate éclairs. I’ve never, ever made chocolate éclairs before. While somewhat time-consuming, it wasn’t really that difficult and it sure impressed the heck out of my husband.
Chocolate éclairs just happen to by my husband’s favorite dessert in the world. Our local bakery makes the most disgusting version (the choux puffs are soggy and I think it is possible that they use Jello vanilla pudding for the filling.). It has been years since he’s had one and I thought this might be both a good surprise and a much needed reminder that, despite all this infernal snow, we’re going to be in Paris this time next week. This recipe is actually not in Lunch in Paris (she has a recipe for chocolate profiteroles though), but Bard’s joie de cuisine and adventurous spirit in trying new things inspired me to give it a try. Here is what I did:
Pâte à choux
½ cup whole milk
- ½ cup water
- 8 tbs unsalted butter, diced
- 1 ¼ tsp sugar
- 1 level tsp coarse salt (I use kosher, and yes, you need this much salt)
- 1 cup flour
- 4 eggs (room temperature) (place in a bowl together so you can stir them in rapidly)
- 3 tbs powdered sugar
Preheat oven to 425°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, over low heat, combine the milk, water, butter, sugar, and salt. Bring just to a boil. Remove from heat and add the flour while stirring continuously until the flour is incorporated and the dough comes away from the sides of the pan. Add two of the eggs and stir wildly until incorporated. Then quickly add the other two remaining eggs and stir until the entire batter is smooth.
Using two teaspoons to create an oval shape, dole out batter onto baking sheets. You should end up with 24 puffs, 12 on each sheet. Sprinkle with powdered sugar. (I used a sifter and just sifted over the entire pan not bothering with the sugar that missed the batter. It didn’t make a difference) Bake one sheet at a time for 12 minutes at 425°F then turn down oven to 400°F and bake for another 10-12 minutes with oven door cracked open using a wooden spoon or metal utensil to hold door slightly ajar. Puffs should be highly-colored and they should sound hollow when you tap them.
Remove pastries to wire rack to cool completely in open air before filling.
Okay, this stuff is so delicious that you’ll have to defend it with weapons to keep people from eating it before you have a chance to use it as a filling. Also, you have to pay absolute attention every moment while you’re making it or you’ll end up with sweet scrambled eggs. If this does happen, all is not lost. I’ve been able to save it from scrambled egghood by immediately removing it from the heat and beating it frantically with a whisk and then putting it through a sieve. Good luck. Your efforts will be rewarded.
- 2 cups whole milk (you can use anything from 2% to half-and-half)
- 1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
- 6 egg yolks
- 2/3 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup sifted cornstarch
- 1 tablespoon cold unsalted butter
In a medium saucepan, heat the milk and vanilla bean to a boil over medium heat. Immediately turn off the heat and set aside to infuse for 15 minutes. After the 15 minutes, pick out the vanilla bean husk.
In a mixing bowl fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the egg yolks and sugar on medium-high speed for 4 minutes, or until very thick. Reduce the speed and add the cornstarch. Increase speed to medium-high and mix until no lumps remain.
Reduce mixer speed to low and pour in ¼ cup of the hot milk mixture until incorporated. Pour in the remaining hot milk mixture and mix on medium speed until completely mixed, reserving the saucepan. Pour the mixture through a strainer back into the saucepan. Cook over medium-high heat, whisking constantly, until thickened and slowly boiling. Remove from the heat and stir in the butter. Let cool slightly. Cover with plastic wrap, slightly pressing the plastic against the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Chill at least 2 hours or until ready to serve. The custard can be made up to 24 hours in advance.
½ cup heavy cream
- 8 ounces dark chocolate, diced (I like 70% Green and Black)
Heat milk over double boiler and add chocolate until melted, smooth and shiny.
Putting the Chocolate Eclairs together
Cut open choux puffs with a sharp knife, spoon in the cold filling, spoon the ganache over the top, serve on a platter. Stand back and keep your hands out of the way lest you get hurt. My daughter, her husband, my husband, and I ate all 24 éclairs in one sitting they were that good.
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