Fleur de Courgette and Other Food Gifts

Fleur de Courgette

Oh gifts, gifts, gifts! Is there anything sweeter in life than having your friends go out and find something just for you, something that they think you will like and enjoy, something that will surprise and delight you? And when you do and it does, when the idea is fabulous and the gift exactly to your taste, when it is something that you really wanted or something you would have wanted had you known it existed, when it is custom-made for you and even better than what you would have chosen for yourself, you are entitled to feeling lucky and grateful and loved and happy — yes, simultaneously.

For my 26th birthday I was literally showered with joy-inducing perfect gifts, and I thought I would share with you the ones that are food and cooking related:

– My friend and cooking heroine Louisa went to Le Potager du Roi in Versailles, where Louis XIV’s vegetable gardens are kept intact and operational. From the boutique she got me the picture-perfect zucchini flower that you see above, as well as eight little white peaches, delicious and juicy: in Chinese culture, as she explained to me, peaches symbolize a long life and the number eight good fortune…

– My parents bought me a superb enameled cast-iron cocotte by Staub. We picked it out together last week in Alsace, as we were driving by Turckheim where the Staub headquarters are, complete with a huge factory outlet in which my mother and I spent an unreasonable amount of time. I chose a beautiful grey oval 6-quart cocotte, which unfortunately still lives in my parents’ house in the Vosges as we speak, for it was much too heavy to be lugged on the train home with me. Just a couple more weeks and they’ll bring it back and we will never be apart again I promise.

– My friend and ex-coworker Sophie got me three kinds of Fleurs de sucre — lavender, rose and blueberry. Fleurs de sucre are crystallized flower petals or berries, beautifully packaged up in tall glass tubes. They can be used to bejewel a dessert, or you can sprinkle some to decorate a table, serve them with tea or coffee, or drop them in a glass of champagne. Can’t wait to try them!

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Wild Strawberries from the Garden

Fraises des bois du jardin

High up on my life list is to one day have a garden, a vegetable patch and an orchard.

In the meantime, I have to settle for windowsills and tiny balconies on which Maxence, who is The Official Gardener around here, plants and pampers a lush jungle, making the absolute most of every square inch of space and railing. I have little patience for that sort of thing, but I am certainly grateful for his efforts and happy to enjoy the benefits — green, green, green through every window, flowers and herbs and, most recently, fruit.

I insisted, because when you buy a plant or a little bag of seeds, what you really buy is the dream, the possibility of it growing and blossoming and making you proud.

Last spring on the Quai de la Mégisserie where gardening and pet stores abound, I was the one who insisted we buy a small pot of fraises des bois, those teeny strawberries that grow mostly in the wild and which the observant little girl (if properly trained by her mother) can spot and feast on in the mountain underbrush.

To be truthful, I didn’t think ours would ever bear fruit. Not because I doubted Maxence’s skills, but simply because I couldn’t imagine it actually happening. Still I insisted, because when you buy a plant or a little bag of seeds, what you really buy is the dream, the possibility of it growing and blossoming and making you proud.

Despite my doubts, the plant we bought developed into a healthy-looking little shrub on our bathroom windowsill; delicate flowers soon started to bloom.

And do you know how this works? When the petals fall from strawberry flowers, their heart keeps swelling and then droop under the weight of their elongated shape. It takes them just a few more days to blush and blush until bright red, at which point Maxence harvests them and comes to share the minuscule bounty with me — usually one or two strawberries at a time, each of them softly sweet, uniquely acidulated and astonishingly flavorful for a thing so tiny.

Strawberry flower

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The Cook Next Door: a Meme

As my trusted friend the Webster tells us, a meme is “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture”. In the blogosphere, a meme can be a questionnaire about a particular theme — your tastes in music or books, 100 things about you, etc. — that you reply to on your blog and pass along. Nicky started such a meme just a few weeks ago called the cook next door, giving us all a chance to talk about the hows and the whys behind our food obsessions. The added bonus (made possible by her and Oliver’s impressive web design skills) is that she follows the meme’s progression, thus mapping out our ever-growing food blog neighborhood.

What is your first memory of baking/cooking on your own?
I believe my first cooking adventure was mastering the art of the microwaved oeuf cocotte when I was nine. The first thing I baked on my own was the Gâteau au Chocolat de Csaba when I was about twelve, a classic family recipe given to us by a friend who’s originally from Hungary. My rendition was somewhat undercooked in the center and my friends would only eat the outer rims. In retrospect, I like to think it was a molten chocolate cake and I was simply a misunderstood visionary. Ahem.

Who had the most influence on your cooking?
In order of appearance: 1- my mother, 2- the Internet. My mother is a superb cook and baker, and the countless hours I spent with her in the kitchen — watching, helping, licking the bowls — have undoubtedly laid the foundations for my own cooking. The rest of what I know has been gleaned not so much in books or cooking magazines, but rather on websites, forums and of course, blogs.

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Le Ticket Resto

Le Ticket Resto

And today, I thought I would share with you a small and mundane element from the everyday French office life. A food-related element, that goes without saying.

In France, the set of laws that governs the work environment, le code du travail, forbids you to eat in the rooms where you work (ahem — no, I don’t know how those crumbs got into my keyboard, did they maybe chip off from the ceiling?). But if enough employees wish to eat in their workplace, the employer must provide a way for them to do so under safe and healthy conditions. He can either furnish a room with chairs, tables, a fridge and a microwave, or he can give them access to a cafeteria (usually operated by large catering companies), or he can give them lunch vouchers to use in nearby restaurants.

Such vouchers are called chèques-repas, chèques-déjeuner or titres-restaurant, but are most often referred to as tickets resto. You get a little checkbook at the beginning of the month, with one voucher for each day that you will work. Their value is co-financed by you and your employer, usually on a 50/50 basis, which means that if your ticket resto has a 6€ face value, it costs you 3€ (deducted from your paycheck) while your boss pays for the other 3€. The incentive is that the whole thing is tax-deductible for the employer as for the employee. Of course, the higher the face value of your tickets restos, the bigger the perk, and it’s one of many ways to judge how well a company treats its employees.

Most restaurants in France will display a little sticker on their door to indicate that they accept those vouchers, provided they are open for lunch and are interested in catering to the office crowd. If you’re not sure you can just go ahead and ask — “Vous prenez les tickets resto?” — but be warned that some mid- or upscale restaurants will look at you with contempt and scoff: “On n’est pas chez Flunch“*, as I was once told at a restaurant where they thought good food could make up for obnoxious service.

* Flunch is a French chain of cafeterias, often found in malls.

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La Baguette et les Tartines

La Baguette et les Tartines

Consider the baguette.

Or rather, consider the tartine de baguette, a popular breakfast item in which a piece of baguette — preferably fresh and bought moments before, still warm, from the corner boulangerie, but if nobody really feels up to going out before breakfast day-old baguette will do fine, “freshened up” on top of the toaster — is sliced in two, each half spread with your choice of butter and/or jam and/or honey (the combination of butter and jam and honey is unheard of but might be worth a try).

Now, let me stress the important part of that last paragraph: sliced in two. Therein lies my problem. See, the two sides of the baguette were not created equal.

On the top side we have the crust, goldie blond (not for nothing do the French say blond comme les blés, blond as wheat), optionally dusted with flour, ravishing to the tastebuds and texturally diverse, with crunchy peaks and soft creases. In one word: delectable.

On the underside, we have the lesser twin, the one that’s always been less bright and less attractive, the one the parents have always sworn they loved just the same, with just a little too much insistence. That side of the baguette is flat, and it draws its colors in shades of beige and grey. It is drier and harder — if you’re not careful it will scrape the roof of your mouth — and if the bread is a bit too cooked (even though you asked for une baguette pas trop cuite), it will have a slightly charred taste.

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