Feeding Francophiles

/ Wednesday, March 26, 2008

If home is where the heart is, then where the world are you supposed to find your stomach? For some of us the answer is transatlantic, away from our normal meals, ingredients, even measurements. You never realize how much you savor certain foods until they're suddenly not available to you any more. 
Take for example: canned chicken stock. Chicken stock is like water in the States. It practically flows off of the market's shelves. Well, my first week in Paris was a bit slow starting off. I was homesick. All I wanted was some chili or soup, something to warms me up and bring my mind back to New York. At first I thought my inability to find chicken stock was just a matter of what food market I had chosen. "They probably just ran out of it". I tried Franpix, Monoprix, G2, Bio Coop, even L'Grand Epiceri at Bon Marche. Rien. Nothing! 
My last and final attempt was at the American import store Thanksgiving located in the 4th on Rue St. Paul. I felt confident going in that I'd not only find the chicken stock but also have a good laugh with the owner about how impossible it is to find such a simple ingredient in Paris. Basically I was met with disaster. The crusty old Parisian man gawked at my request...
"Canned chicken stock? Nous n'utilisons pas le "canned chicken stock" a Paris. Pourquoi vous voudriez le "canned chicken stock"? C'est stupid! Vous devriez utiliser le bouillon comme tout l'autres!" 

...I didn't want to buy overpriced American groceries from him anyway.
 It was later that even that my mother finally set me straight. She suggested making my own chicken stock, but without a cooking vessel large enough to hold two regular sized potatoes let a lone an entire chicken, I was out of luck. "Why don't you just use the bouillon cubes?", she questioned. "That's not the point!" I said, "I should be able to buy canned chicken stock here without being looked at like a crazy person. It's such a basic ingredient!"  There was no use arguing. Mothers always know best in the end. She calmly explained to me that she knew I was freaking out because I was in a new place and just looking for something familiar, but I needed to embrace my surrounds. So there's no chicken stock. So what! Improvise, make something different, try something different. Clearly the French know a thing or two about food, so work with the ingredients that they have. Cook like a local. Well as usual...her words worked like magic. 
For the past few months I've completely thrown my old style of cooking out of the window. Being in Paris has liberated my culinary mindset. Since it's nearly impossible to recreate my old standards exactly the same way as I would in the States, I've chosen to become entirely experimental with my recipes. Now my flavor combinations may not be as daring in relation to others but these meals are inventive and exciting to me nonetheless. For the first time in my life, I've started cooking without any recipes, navigating only by taste. I go to the market or the food store and just choose whatever looks fresh. I've bought spices at the market I've never even heard of before! (Maybe because they're in French) The point is, I've stopped playing by the rules and I love it!
My friends here in Paris are my taste testers. Thank goodness I was able to bond with a group of girls who love food just as much as I do. Inviting them over to dinner gives me the biggest rush! They're very honest about what they think of the dishes and for the most part I think they've enjoyed everything. When their friends visit town, instead of taking them out to dinner, they call me. "We're coming over...we want them to taste your food." Nothing could be more flattering or make me happier. The girls buy groceries and I go to work! 
The photos above are from our last dinner together. Seven girls in my tiny studio. I prepared a balsamic chicken breast with dried figs, garlic smashed red-skinned potatoes and sauteed string beads with a little bit of lemon. For dessert, I layered mini crepes with sweetened ricotta cheese and mixed berries. If you're interested in the recipes, I did write them down. 
Can't wait to share more culinary adventures with you in the coming weeks. Enjoy!

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