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Wednesday
Jun162010

Dear Local Strawberries


Fresh Strawberry Pie


Dear Local Strawberries,

Welcome. I know you've had a busy few months, filling mouths and jam jars and making appearances at countless local festivals on your annual (and no doubt tiring) trek north, but I want to thank you all the same for stopping here and spending some time with us in Germany. We had one hell of a winter, and not too nice of a spring either, so your little sweet scarlet orbs of sunshine are really just what the doctor ordered - or would be if doctors here were in the habit of prescribing fruit (which I actually think they should be, but that's a discussion for another time). If you want to know the truth, there were times when it was just the promise of your visit that got me out of bed in the morning, particularly when, day after day, the only things to be found in the markets were every bit as drab and colorless as the winter landscape. I know that some people got so desperate they even fell victim to the temptations of your early-season impostors, you know, your monstrous white-shouldered cousins that fly in before you each year from places like Spain and Morocco where they seemingly like to grow things without flavor. But not me; I knew it was worth waiting for you, and even when you failed to arrive on schedule a couple of weeks ago, I knew you'd come eventually. You always do.

Anyhow, since I'm so happy to see you and want to give you the welcome you deserve, here's what I propose. For as long as you decide to stay - which I'm hoping will be a while, particularly when you see what I have planned - I will put you into as many of these pies as I'm physically able to make, and we're physically able to eat. Sound good? It should, since this pie is just about the best thing to come along since sliced bread. On second thought, it's better, since I've never woken up in the middle of the night consumed by cravings for a well-cut loaf. This pie, on the other hand, I can scarcely stop thinking about, particularly when there's just one slice left in the fridge and I can't shake the nagging fear that someone else may finish it off before I do.

But let me tell you about this pie: it respects you. You know how so many desserts that feature you end up turning you into a cloyingly sweet heap of cellulose? Not this one. It keeps you fresh and intact, your exquisite flavor - and your dignity - preserved. The trick, it seems, is in not cooking you. In fact, you're not even warmed in the making of this pie - though to be fair your juices are, after being gently extracted and combined with just enough gelatin to give you a wobbly-soft cushion to relax on when you're spooned into the crunchy shortbread crust. And speaking of the crust, it's a marvel in itself, though don't worry about it stealing the limelight - it's only there to play backup. Really, this pie is all about you. For a change, you're not an accompaniment, you're not even a component (like you are when you hang out with your old pal shortcake): you are the dessert. I know it's a strange concept and probably one you're not too familiar with, but trust me, it works - and better than you can possibly imagine.

I can't really take the credit for this pie, though. For that you have to thank a certain lady at a sadly-defunct magazine. I did, however, refine her recipe somewhat in ways I thought would serve you better. I gave you a slightly sturdier crust, for one thing, so you'd have plenty of support when you were transported from pan to plate. More importantly, I tried to minimize the amount you'd be diluted, extracting juices from all of you rather than just a select few, and cutting you slightly larger so that you'd retain your integrity even despite having given up your lifeblood for the better good of the pie. I also made sure you'd never come in contact with anything warmer than room temperature, again so as to not threaten your delicate constitution. I think the fiddling worked: in this form you're not only the best strawberry pie I've ever eaten, you're one of the best fruit desserts of any type. And even my husband agrees you don't come much better than this, despite being a much more equal-opportunity strawberry-lover than me (he even likes you cooked! I know!).

So, my dear strawberries, there you have it. I may not be able to welcome you with the kind of trumpets and fanfare you encounter elsewhere around the globe, but I promise, once you step into this pie you'll be met with a rare and special kind of reverence. You'll no doubt win some new fans, and I daresay you'll even leave those cherries and plums awfully big shoes to fill when they arrogantly breeze through later in the summer. And if I could ask just one small thing in return, I mean apart from everything else you give so selflessly, it's this: would you consider scheduling us just a little bit earlier next spring? A year will be such an agonizingly long time to wait for another slice of this pie.

Gratefully and eternally yours,
Melissa


Fresh Strawberry Pie

I'm sure I don't need to tell you, but I will anyway: local strawberries are the only way to go for this pie. I don't even want to think about what it would be like with those tasteless trucked-for-days interlopers, but surely nothing like the sweet, tangy, essence-of-summer bombshell it should be. Even if the season has come and gone where you are (and I realize there are plenty of places further south where it has), just stick a bookmark here and come back next spring. As for the rest of you, what are you still doing reading this? Get pie-making!
p.s. Do note the lengthy chilling time for this pie. To serve it in the evening I'd start on it no later than late morning; if you want to serve it in the afternoon I'd whip it up the night before.
source: adapted from Gourmet
serves: 8

For crust:
8 oz (225g) shortbread or other crumbly butter cookies
2-3 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons (45g) cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
good pinch salt


For filling:
2 lb (1 scant kg) strawberries, hulled and quartered (or cut into eighths, if they're large)
3/4 cup (150g) sugar
1/3 cup (80ml) fresh lemon juice
1 envelope (2 1/4 tsp/9g) unflavored powdered gelatin

To serve:
whipped cream flavored with a little sugar and vanilla

Preheat your oven to 350°F/175°C. Pulse the cookies in a food processor to fine crumbs, then pulse in the sugar, butter and salt until combined. Press the crumb mixture evenly onto the bottom and sides of a 9-inch (23cm) pie dish. Bake until golden and fragrant, about 15-18 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool.

In a large bowl, toss the quartered strawberries with the sugar and lemon juice. Let stand, stirring occasionally, 45 minutes to an hour, until the berries have softened but before they start to turn mushy. Drain the berries in a sieve set over a large glass measuring cup. Add enough water to measure 2 cups (480ml). Taste the liquid: it should be lip-smackingly tart and sweet. If it needs either a little more sugar or lemon, add it now. Transfer the juice to a medium saucepan and return the berries to their bowl.

Sprinkle the gelatin over the strawberry juice and let soften for one minute. Bring to a bare simmer over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the gelatin has dissolved (don't boil or the gelatin's setting power will be compromised). Meanwhile, prepare an ice bath in a large bowl or the sink. Dip the bottom of the saucepan into the ice water, and stir until the juice has cooled to room temperature, 3-4 minutes. Stir cooled juice back into berries, then transfer the berry bowl to the ice bath. Stir the berries frequently (and gently) until the mixture thickens and begins to mound, 20 to 30 minutes. Alternatively, refrigerate for about 2 hours, stirring occasionally, until the same thing happens.

Spoon the filling into the crust (you may have a little more than will fit, in which case spoon into a bowl or ramekin and save for a cook's treat). Chill until the filling is set, at least 4 hours. The pie is at its peak as soon as it's firm, but it will stay in fine shape (in the fridge) for about 3 days, though the strawberries will soften progressively over time. Serve slices of the pie with plenty of vanilla-scented whipped cream.

Wednesday
May262010

7 Reasons You Should Go to Marseille

1. It's not as bad as you think

Let's be frank: Marseille has a whopper of a reputation. When I was 17 and traveling around Europe for the first time, my guidebook painted such a scary picture of Marseille (crime! drugs! immigrants!) that I even wondered if it was safe to change trains there. As it turned out I didn't have much choice, but I didn't spend a minute longer in either the station or the city than I had to. And in subsequent years, though I found myself in the south of France many times, I never even thought to give Marseille a second chance. That is, until one of our best friends took a job there last fall and couldn't stop raving about it. Turns out that was all the persuasion we needed to jump in the car and head south for a long-overdue acquaintance with the city.

There's no doubt, Marseille is a big, sprawling, rough-around-the-edges kind of metropolis. It's nowhere near as pretty as Paris or Lyon, and though it's the capital of Provence, it feels about a million miles from the storybook villages most of us associate with that region. It's obviously a poor city, and its once-grand addresses suffer from a palpable sense of decay. The streets are dirty, the buildings are crumbling, there's graffiti everywhere. But if you look beyond these superficial blemishes, what you find is a city bursting with character, quirks and energy. What I particularly loved is that it offers a glimpse of a Mediterranean firmly off the tourist trail, not the olive-terraces-and-sparkling-sea Mediterranean, but the multicultural, chaotic, down-at-the-heels kind of Mediterranean that has existed for far longer around these shores. It's the kind of place where, once you get over your initial worry about personal safety, you realize there's so much real life going on here you could spend a lifetime observing it and never get bored. And as for that personal safety, I do think most of the warnings are much ado about nothing. In eight days we suffered neither bodily nor property crime, nor did we ever feel in the least bit threatened, even wandering around the city at night. (By contrast, my dad and his wife were robbed on their first day in Barcelona last month, and nobody seems to think that's a particularly dangerous city!)

Most importantly, we found the people fantastic: gregarious, relaxed and far more curious about us than we've experienced elsewhere in France. And if I can give you a tip: whether you have to rent, borrow or steal one, bring a dog with you to Marseille. It will open more doors for you, literally and figuratively, than you'd think possible - the French are dog crazy. Our canine companion led to interactions in the unlikeliest of places. Heads would turn and conversations would stop as we walked past; every two steps someone would stop us to find out the particulars of her breed and temperament. She was welcomed in cafés, restaurants, bakeries and just about every shop we stepped into - usually by the entire staff dropping whatever they were doing to come fawn over her. The weirdest experience we had was when a police woman directing traffic left her post to come plant a kiss on our unsuspecting dog's backside. I think she was aiming for the head, but Lily was understandably spooked by the strange mouth coming towards her and tried to dart away, causing the kiss to land on her derrière instead. I don't know who was more stunned: us, the dog, or the dozen or so drivers that nearly plowed into each other at the unattended intersection.

2. Bouillabaisse

Bouillabaisse is not only Marseille's most iconic dish, it's one of those things tossed around in conversation as if everyone in the world were intimately familiar with it. How many times have you heard a fish soup from somewhere else described as '(insert-country-here)'s answer to bouillabaisse'? It's the standard-bearer, the fish soup that defines all Mediterranean fish soups. Strangely for something so famous, however, it is one of the most intensely local dishes ever created and cannot, most people agree, even be replicated outside of Marseille (or at the very least, the Mediterranean coast of France).

As it turns out, not many people in Marseille actually eat bouillabaisse anymore. In fact there's some debate as to whether anyone but the city's elite ever did. You've probably heard the popular bit of wisdom is that it evolved, like most Mediterranean fish stews, from the dregs of the catch. Julia Child - who lived in Marseille for a year - said, "you can make as dramatic a production as you want out of a bouillabaisse, but remember that it originated as a simple, Mediterranean fisherman's soup, made from the day's catch or its unsalable leftovers." Some believe this may be nothing more than wishful thinking, though; there's a convincing school of thought that says bouillabaisse, unlike its brethren around the Mediterranean, was a rich man's dish from the beginning. Supporters of this argument point out that bouillabaisse is not made with just any fish but with quite specific varieties, none of which were ever abundant enough to be cheap, and that things like saffron and butter, both essential ingredients, would have been impossible for fisherman to afford until quite recently. But whatever its real origins, there's no getting around the fact that today bouillabaisse is an expensive dish, and for a decent version you're going to have to splash out a minimum of about €50 per person. There are cheaper versions to be found around the tourist-saturated Vieux Port, but, well, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that you'll most likely get what you pay for.

Knowing which places to avoid, though, doesn't make it much easier to choose where to go for this all-important meal. A quick google will net you impassioned endorsements of a half-dozen hallowed halls of bouillabaisse: Miramar, Le Rhul, L'Epuisette, Chez Michel, Chez Fonfon... After poking around on French-language forums I found another option: Chez Aldo, a fish restaurant on the quaint, out-of-the-way Port de la Madrague. It turned out to be an excellent choice. They have a beautiful seaside location, a smart but not stuffy dining room (dogs, I should mention, are more than welcome), a boisterous local clientele, and a very good bowl of bouillabaisse for the reasonable price of €45. You do have to pre-order your soup at least 24 hours in advance, and they'll only make it for 2 or more people. It's worth jumping through the hoops, though. A copious and multi-course meal of rich, briny soup, toasted croutes with garlic cloves for rubbing and spicy saffron rouille for slathering, and (just when you're starting to regret not wearing something with an elastic waist) a pile of tender filleted rascasse, conger eel, monkfish and chapon large enough to feed a small army, bouillabaisse is as much about the setting and the ritual as the food itself. It may be expensive and ethically questionable to consume all those ever-scarcer fish, but there's a reason people wax so lyrical about this soup, and I believe you have to try it at the source to understand why.

3. Pizza

We all know about the bouillabaisse, but did you know that Marseille is also famous for pizza? Apparently Marseille has long had ties with Naples, and over the years flocks of immigrants from the Italian city bearing recipes for their favorite snack have set up shop. Everywhere you turn, there's a restaurant, take-out place or street-side truck advertising pizza 'au feu de bois', baked in a wood-fired oven. And it's excellent, without exception. We actually didn't get to taste the most famous of all Marseille pizza, that of Chez Étienne, since it was inexplicably closed on the day we tried to go. Judging from Rosa's report, that was definitely our loss. We also sadly couldn't track down the pizza truck 'Le Safari' so glowing recommended by AJ and Michelle. We did, however, have pizzas from a little restaurant in our neighborhood and from a truck manned by a bald guy named Daniel, and both were incredible, with thin bubbly crusts, restrained toppings and nice charring around the edges. So it seems for good pizza in Marseille you just have to follow your nose. And wherever you eat it, don't miss the two local pizza specialties: moitié-moitié, half anchovy and half cheese; and figatelli, a pungent smoked liver sausage from Corsica (both pictured above). And when they ask 'piment?' as they hand you your pizza, say oui: it's a little sachet of hot chile oil you can drizzle on top to kick things up a notch. Yum.

4. Pastis

Anise-flavored tipples are popular all around the Mediterranean: Greece has ouzo, Italy has sambuca, Turkey has raki, Lebanon has arak. Marseille does them all one-up with pastis, the sweetly complex, herbal liqueur that borders on national obsession. Pastis was first commercialized in Marseille in 1932 by Paul Ricard, no doubt as a replacement for the similarly-flavored Absinthe which had been banned several years earlier. Today there are dozens of brands, each with a closely-guarded recipe that features such things as licorice, star anise, peppercorns, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg and sage. For the largest selection in Marseille check out La Maison du Pastis on the Vieux Port; here you'll find close to a hundred different varieties along with a lesson in how to drink it (in an nutshell: pour it over ice, dilute with water to taste). Or visit any supermarket: the prices will be better and the selection only slightly less.

5. Couscous

Marseille has always been a cultural melting pot, but these days the largest minority group to call the city home hails from France's former colonies in North Africa. The integration of French and Maghreb cultures may have been (and still be) a bumpy ride, but a happy outcome of it is the copious amounts of delicious Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian food to be found nearly everywhere in Marseille. In fact, I had better couscous here than I had on our trip to Morocco three years ago. La Kahena, a short walk from the Vieux Port, is a blue-tiled Tunisian restaurant with a concise menu centered around brik (fried egg, meat or fish-filled pastries), salads, and a dozen or so varieties of couscous. The light, fluffy couscous comes out in large bowls topped with vegetables, chickpeas and your choice of meat; on the side you're given a bowl of rich, spiced broth to ladle over the top and a dish of pungent, garlicky harissa for that all important afterburn. Sadly it was so good I didn't save room for the overflowing platter of syrup-drenched sweets the waiter brought by at the end of the meal, but they looked every bit as incredible.

6. Marché des Capucins

The Marché des Capucins is not your genteel lavender- and olive-oil-doused Provençal market. It's a market by and for the sizable Arab community, and one of the most authentic North African markets you'll find outside of, well, North Africa. The crowded, narrow lanes recall a medieval souk, as do the pushy vendors selling everything from exotic fruits and vegetables, gory slabs of meat and North African pastries to dirt-cheap couscousières, cell phones, clock radios and clothing. Things here are cheaper than elsewhere in the city, but to get the best bargains, be prepared to bargain. You'll find this market centered around the Rue Longue des Capucins in the 1st, near the Noailles metro stop.

7. Location, Location, Location

Not many cities in the world can offer as many dazzling locations within as short a drive (or train ride) as Marseille. Forty-five minutes east takes you to the Côte d'Azur and all its glitz, glam and over-tanned inhabitants. A half-hour north lies Provence, and the picture-perfect cobblestoned towns of Aix, Avignon, Arles and Orange. For an even quicker escape, head 30km to the south to the well-heeled village of Cassis where you can shop, dine, swim, or hike out to the Calanques, the spectacular white-cliffed coves that shelter some of the most beautiful beaches on the Mediterranean.

Bonus: There's a lot more than this to keep you busy in Marseille. For instance, don't miss shopping for kitchenware at Maison Empereur, cooling down with an ice cream in flavors like rosemary and lavender at Maison de la Glace, dipping an orange blossom-scented navette (pictured above) in your morning coffee, munching on chocolate-basil and cassis macarons from Dîtes Moi Tout pâtisserie, and of course taking in the 360-degree view from Notre-Dame de la Garde...

Friday
May142010

What City is This?

The pictures say it all: sun, sea, and... soup!


Any ideas?
More to follow! :)