This weekend, I decided it was time I learned how to cook.
I know what you’re thinking: Sara, stop being so dramatic. You must know how to cook.
You’d think so, right? Especially considering I’m 36 years old and I have a mother who could compete on any Bravo or Food Network reality show—and win—but vraiment, Je suis mal dans la cuisine. I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve always lived in apartments with such small kitchens. Or with my Mom (and Dad, but he’s the sometimes cleaner-upper and weekend Bullseye-maker). Or am just lazy. Or more interested in getting the food in my belly as opposed to making the food to get in my belly. But c’est la verite.
My claim to fame in the kitchen is a toss-up between “Eggplant Stacks”—a Weight Watcher-friendly recipe my friend Amy gave me, which only involves stacking cooked eggplant with tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese and sticking them in the oven again to bake at 350; a three-cheese quesadilla with all the toppings; and a “Fauxnish”, my newly coined term for half an English muffin topped with ricotta cheese and fresh blueberries broiled in the oven so the berries burst and—voila!—you have a fake Danish.
My book club may beg to differ about my lack of kitchen skills, however. When it’s my time to host, I always cobble something together that’s a big hit. And by “cobble” and “something” I mean a soup. Possibly because I always host in winter, and possibly because in my small apartment, the easiest thing for people to eat on their lap is something they need one (or no) utensils for.
That said, my intention in learning how to cook here in Paris is to push myself beyond my comfort zone and outside my regular routine. I’ve done eggplant stacks three times already and while I was surprised to find that my local supermarché actually has a “Mexican” section—and by section, I mean two shelves—I can’t tell you how embarrassing it is to stand in front of it debating “soft” or “hard” tacos when it’s pretty clear the whole lot of it is meant to remain untouched.
Then I came down with a cold this past week, and when you’re cooking for one, a soup is really the best thing to make. Plus, you can freeze it for a later date. (Just like Grandma Shirley. You should see her freezer!) Also, to be fair, even the shopping is outside my comfort zone so I thought maybe I should start in somewhat familiar territory. Furthermore, while my kitchen appears to be stocked with the basic utensils, some are noticeably missing. Like, for example, a toaster oven, microwave, measuring cups or any sort of tin or Pyrex to cook, say, Coq au vin. I’ve been reheating things on a cooking sheet covered in really thin tin foil, which did nothing for the creamy mashed potatoes I brought home the other day.
So, soup it was! I had a pot, after all.
I chose a recipe for Soup au Pistou, aka vegetable soup with basil puree, from My Paris Kitchen by David Lebovitz, who was a pastry chef at Chez Panisse in California before he up and moved to Paris over 10 years ago to begin anew. He started a blog about his exploits; mostly about cooking in his tiny Paris kitchen. Soon enough, he became sort of a foodie superstar around town. I started following his blog when I arrived, and soon learned he’d be signing copies of the aforementioned new cookbook at a bookstore in the 2eme. I made the signing my activity du jour and bought a copy for my Mom (because I don’t cook). I also picked up his previously published memoir, The Sweet Life in Paris, which I had him sign for me (because I do write memoirs).
Originally, I was going to send the cookbook home with my sister (who’s coming for New Year’s Eve—hurrah!) to give to my mom for her birthday in February. Then I thought it’d be so fun to shop for and cook a recipe with my mom when she eventually comes to visit. Then I thought maybe I should cook a recipe from it myself before then because, well while it looks real nice on my coffee table, eggplant stacks are getting boring. Plus, I want to make her proud and show her I can maybe-sorta-almost-possibly get through a recipe without calling her for something I could probably just Google. (Spoiler alert: That did not occur this time.)
Now, my other main motivation in this whole “learning how to cook” adventure is the fact that I’m surrounded by insanely fresh, local and delicious ingredients at every turn. Sure, we’ve got the Union Square Greenmarket in New York, and Breads Bakery around the corner from it where they make the most insane chocolate babka ever, but this is just different. What can I say other than, “It’s Paris!”
One of the most notorious places for Parisians to shop for produce is the Marché d’Aligre in the 12th arrondissement. I hadn’t been yet, which is part of the reason why I chose such a legume-based dish, so after snoozing for a good hour on Sunday, I left the house by 10:45 with my “sac” in tow.
Per a tip from Paris by Mouth, the local food blog everyone in Paris has bookmarked, I stopped at the nearby viennoisserie Blé Sucré for a croissant and some madeleines, which many (including the aforementioned Mr. Leibovitz) claim are the best in Paris. Since I didn’t eat breakfast, I got them both emporter (to go). In real life (aka New York), I would’ve just eaten a banana en route or had a bowl of cereal before leaving to hold me over until I got home and could make something more hearty. But this is Paris. There is no eating breakfast or a banana—or anything, for that matter—en route. A croissant or a baguette are the only things one is permitted to eat while walking. Maybe a sandwich—but only if it’s on a baguette. So, I ate my croissant and walked into the market. (By the way, I had a croissant the day before, too. I am turning into a cartoon version of myself. The One Who Moves to Paris and Eats a Croissant a Day. God Help Me.)
The market itself was incroyable; a real feast for the senses. The dark-hued purple of the aubergines (eggplants) and uniquely lime-colored courgettes (zucchini), and the smell of the fresh basilic (different from basil, which is something else entirely) and the le menthe (mint); The sound of all the vendors hawking their fruits and legumes in French, offering a taste of the clementines and grapes. I was there only 10 minutes when I declared it the best part of my day, and the best day of my week.
Most of the stands carry a lot of the same items, so I just walked through the market, choosing to cross something off my ingredient list when an item I needed caught my eye. Say, a bunch of carrots that were a bright and shiny orange or radishes whose blush pink stubs were too cute not to want to nibble on as if I were down in Fraggle Rock.
When you’re ready to commit to an item, you glide up to the stand and wait for the vendor to say something to you in French, which you won’t really understand. I usually hear, “Bonjour madamoiselle….” and then the rest gets garbled. They’ll either hold open a plastic bag waiting for you to tell them (or point at, in my case) what you want, or tell you to start filling a bag yourself. Then, they’ll weigh it, you pay, and off you go. The whole thing is a great lesson in “Look, don’t touch!” which the French are very fond of. It’s also great way for me to practice counting (and adding) in French, which I’m not very fond of.
I got a few things that weren’t on my list because they looked and smelled so damn good: pamplemousse—quite possibly my favorite word en Francais, which means grapefruit—and fresh thyme. Plus, the aforementioned radishes and some miel (honey) as I’m pretty sure that’s what cured my cold in four short days.
Soon enough, my bag was full and getting heavy. I checked my list and still needed to get beans, peas (fresh or frozen) and cheese. I ducked into what looked like a dry goods market and Googled “Borlotti” and “Great Northern” as these were the kind of beans David suggested and I could not decipher or understand the names of what was on the shelf. I figured Google Image would help and, alas, it came to the rescue. (I am fully aware of the fact that I could have bought pre-cooked “Borlotti,” but then that would defeat the purpose of this whole learning thing, wouldn’t it?)
The last thing I needed was the dreaded, (but dearly beloved) cheese. I’m still terrified of the fromagerie because I still don’t know how to order in French because it involves a) knowing your Chevre from your Gruyere and b) knowing how to convert kilograms to pounds, which is hard enough en Anglais. There’s also often a long line, and I fluster under pressure. Unfortunately, batting my eyelashes at an old woman in an apron does not get one very far. Again, I know I could’ve picked up some pre-made pistou, but this was part of the recipe and it called for fresh cheese—Parmesan for the puree and maybe a Gruyere to sprinkle on top. I was determined to do this properly.
I got back up to my arrondissement just before all the speciality shops close on Sunday and went into one of the fromageries. I remembered that I had Parmesan back at home (from the eggplant stacks!) so I’d just get a Gruyere. Luckily, I saw a small little sign that said, “Gruyere,” so when the guy was ready for me I said, “S’il vous plait, Je prends celui-la” and pointed. (Essentially, that means, “I’ll take that one, please.”) He then said something in French—I assume the dreaded, “How much do you want?”—to which I could only muster “un peu” (a little). He huffed and puffed something under his breathe that I could only gather was, “Oy.” He then went to cut it and while doing so, presumably asked me to tell him where to slice. I motioned for less than he was suggesting, which caused him to huff and puff again.
But I’m only one person! I wanted to say. How much cheese do I need?
Well, I soon realized more than I had him cut. It wasn’t so much about needing a bigger piece to consume, but to shred. That bad boy is super soft, so doing so with such a small piece was tres difficile. I really hope I don’t have mice because I surely left a bunch of crumbles for them to find.
I got home to my apartment ready to cook up a storm, only to realize that the recipe calls for letting the beans sit in cold water OVERNIGHT. What’s more, I barely had any Parmesan cheese left for the pistou. Since the shops were now closed, and it was about 1p.m. and my stomach was growling, I decided I’d use my last two eggs and the newly purchased Gruyere to make another one of David’s recipes: Omelette aux fines herbes.
Now, you’d think cooking an omelette is easy. Who needs a recipe for one? I do. I can never get them quite right; quite fluffy enough or even just whole enough. Try as I may, an omelette often turns into scrambled eggs when I’m at the stovetop. That reminds me! I’m also really good at frittatas because essentially they’re just baked scrambled eggs—aka a messed up omelette—cooked in the oven with cheese sprinkled on top.
Thankfully, I had almost all the ingredients. (If I didn’t, I’d really be in trouble, right Mom?)
David’s recipe calls for fresh herbs, and thyme happened to be one of the few things I picked up at Aligre, but didn’t need for the soup. It also calls for milk or heavy cream, but my Grand-lait would have to do.
I coated the pan in beurre (butter), mixed two eggs with the milk, salt, pepper and herbs and tossed it into the pan.
Now, the thing about omelettes is that there’s not a whole lot of time to mess them up. And yet…
I sort of want to blame it on the stove, which is electric and a bit testy. Also, I should’ve used a smaller pan and one where the non-stick is actually non-stick. But regardless, while it was a little browner than I like, the fresh thyme and grated Gruyere were a perfect combo and added a nice (and easy) solution to a boring old egg recipe. Of course, by the time I finished plating the salad it was a tad froid. But at least it wasn’t scrambled!
I know you’re just dying to know how the soup came out, but I’d be impressed if you got this far. So check back in a few days. In the meantime, here are some pics from the market.