Monday, December 28, 2009

How to do a French Christmas dinner

We came back to Paris for the holidays this winter to be with Elodies family, but more importantly it was time to gorge ourselves on the french christmas dinner. After living in the desert and eating nothing but reconstituted dried beans (hummous and fhool) and Papa Johns Pizza (our Nigerian American housemate LOVES that stuff) we were just DYING to come home to France and go the distance with their famous 5 course meals (7 courses if your really looking for punishment).

Normally Elodie's parents go overboard so we have to tell them to go LEGER (light) with the food, but this year we gave them the green light to give us a food coma. There is nothing ultra gastronomic about our family dinners in terms of technique. Its simple cooking with a use of quality ingredients. Whats more important is how its presented and staged to accent the food and your appetite at each stage.

The first stage of any important meal is your aperitif. An aperitif is a sweet or light drink that you begin with to open up your appetite. More importantly I find it ties in with the french philosophy that families should socialize and focus on spending time to talk to eachother. The children have juice or schweppes, and the adults have vermouth, porto, or champagne. In our case, we were served a very nice bottle of Charles Lafitte Champagne that Elodies dad had been saving.

After the bubbly is finished, we all sit ourselves around the table and move onto the next course, which is a plate full of giant slabs of foie gras. This is the homemade stuff y'all. We sit around a table in november and blend goose livers with all spice and cognac to make this divine artery clogging dish.

To start, you basically take a knife and you spread it on a fresh slice of bread while washing it down with a sweet wine. Traditionally with a Sautern wine but in our case we went with a more 'minerally' white Condrieu wine.

After all the oohs and ahhs from the foie gras, champagne, and Condrieu, at this point the Christmas dinner is going full steam and there is no stopping it. Everyone is completely focused on the food and what was once an immense plate of goose liver is now being scraped with a knife to catch those last remaining morsels.

By this time, the conversations are broken up around the dinner table to different sections. Elodie and her parents are engaged in catching up on her life in Jordan. I'm sitting next to the grandparents so they are talking about stuff that old people talk about.

The next stage moves onto something more substantial so we are treated to an excellent dish of sauteed scallops with apples, cinnamon and créme frâiche. The Condrieu is still working its magic at this point so we stick with it up to this point.

In Paris, you would be surprised as to how there is a butcher in every neighborhood. In America for example, you do have butchers. But you don't have one in walking distance from every neighborhood. I have one right below me and maybe 5 within walking distance. Sure, you can buy a cheaper roast at the supermarket, but the French seem to uphold a tradition that what you put in your body should be of the highest quality. Our friend Caroline even has 5 side by side next to her house!

In my opinion, to make something for the french dinner table you keep it simple with a high quality main ingredient and combine it with something seasonal. Maybe enhance it with some wine or a special spice to get a little fancy. Take the previous dish for example. You sauté a couple of fresh scallops with a seasonal fruit like apples. When they are close to being finished you add créme fraiche, fresh ground cinnamon, salt.. pair it with a nice wine, and BAM.... Bob's your uncle.

In my Korean home, when you have a big meal you just drop every main course on the table and about 15 side dishes to go along with it. Finding a place to put your chopsticks down can sometimes be a challenge!

With these dinners, it is quite possible to have a few entrees and a few main courses served out in stages. In this case, Elodies family wanted to take it up another level and serve something Antillais Caribbean. The French have former caribbean colonies within the Republic and there is a deep appreciation for their cuisine. Here we have a peculiar dish made with lamb, plantains, curry powder, onions and caribbean chile (similar to mexican jabaneros). Since this dish is quite strong, Elodies dad chose a bold Chambertin wine from the Burgundy region which was gladly welcome as we needed something strong to wash down the heat from the chile.

Normally if I had eaten this much food, I would have stopped at the scallops. But this is Christmas.. NO WAY!! GOTTA CHARGE ON FORWARD since we are only at the Halfway point... Thats right.. you heard me.. HALFWAY(!)

Now you might think that we are total pigs for moving on forward but the truth is that at this point, you take 'La Pause'.. which is basically a short break on the meal. Some folks get up to walk around the yard or play with the dog. Elodie's brothers both succumbed to food coma and flopped onto the couch. I'm still with the old guys who are talking about their medical conditions and I'm busy trying to finish off the rest of the Chambertin when no one is looking.

Once the table has been cleared, its time for the cheese. This plate of cheese is quite simple, but they can get real fancy at times. This is just family, so yes, believe it or not this is just a selection of supermarket cheese. You don't always have to go expensive to have a great french meal. I as a foreigner however, have to go for the stinkiest and moldiest of the cheeses to win their respect. I read in some stupid Polly Platt book about integrating with French..'always cut the cheese in a way to retain its shape and beauty..' I have NEVER seen a French person follow this rule.. They just cut the cheese in any which way and nobody gives a damn.

French food is funny in that with every bite of artery clogging cheese or foie gras, your heart is screaming for help. And then you wash it down with wine and its saying.. ahhhhh... now that's relief.

Here you see my moldy goats cheese... my favorite. Its sharp and creamy and always washes down well with red wine. Once again Elodie's dad went crazy and opened a 1998 bottle of Sarget de Gruaud -Larose (Bordeaux) for this time around. Its been sitting in his cellar collecting dust. The label looks all nasty, from sitting in a dark room under the house for the past decade. Naively, I got laughed at when I once tried to wipe a bottle clean. Evidently, the dirtier it is, the more prestigious the bottle. Dumb americans...

Time for dessert, or should i say dessert(S). You gotta have the 'healthy desert' (because its good for you) accompanied with the 'danger of becoming a diabetic' desert. The healthy desert is a simple bowl of preserved peaches and fruit, covered in an extra dose of sugar syrup (just to make sure it tastes good). Once we pat ourselves on the shoulder for being so health conscious, we attack the 'danger of becoming a diabetic' cake like a pack of blood thirsty sharks.

The cake in question is called a Carolo, a very local specialty from Elodie's hometown. Its a brittle meringue made with almonds and praline cream. Can anyone say sugar rush??? Man, keep this stuff away from this kids. Better yet, give them some and they will love you forever and you can avoid that whole teenage 'rebellion' stage altogether. Its a good thing we served it with candied chestnuts to balance out the sugar in the cake.

By this time, I normally feel guilty as hell but how can you say no? .. Its just SO DAMN GOOD! I mean, I have been eating for three FREAKING hours by this time and yet.. there is still space?!? Which brings me to another notion about the french meal. When you eat slow, and take your time... you can somehow manage yourself through a huge meal. At some meals, you'll get something that will help you digest and move to the next stage.. an example would be a 'Trou Normand' which is basically a shot of distilled apple liquor that helps you digest and get to the next meal. I've had a Danish guy serve peppermint schnapps. You get the picture.

Anyways, by this time we have all but decimated the plate where the Carolo once stood and we are ready to wash it down with something. Some people like to take at this stage, what is called the 'digestif' which is basically a strong alcohol that will burn that lump of food just sitting in your digestive track. Take a shot of cognac, whiskey, amaretto, rum... you name it. If it burns, then its just right for the job of clearing out those pipes.

None of us are the digestif type.. I still have a four year old bottle of whiskey at my house that never seems to get we move onto coffee. My friend Gerald Wu visited us in France for a year when he did his study abroad and he was pissed off as hell when he saw us drinking nescafe at the end of each meal. WTF??? In seattle (his homebase), you have all these francophile snobs that mock your instant coffee at home. They tell you that in France, they would never dream of doing such a thing because they believe in the ritual of good coffee and using a french press. Yet here we were, drinking nescafe out of grandmas 30 year old coffee chalices. I have YET to see anyone use a french press (except for that one time we went camping), and pretty much everyone drinks the powder stuff and everyone knows George Clooney the nespresso salesman. The end.

So there you have it folks. You can have a french christmas meal with all the french recipes and ingredients, but remember its as much about protocol as it is about the food. If you were to serve all the food at once, you wouldn't get to appreciate all the high notes of the food without the appropriate wines to match. Plus, you would probably burst in about 15 minutes.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Crushed noses at Al Pasha - $30

The middle east is famous for Hammams, but surprisingly Amman has only one. Al Pasha is a turkish style bath house that provides a steam, scrub down, hot bath, and a massage. If you are amongst the lucky ones (like me), you got a crushed nose thrown in for free.

My back had been aching for two weeks since my trip to London and I did everything I could to get the knot out. I even had Elodie drop WWF style smashing elbows on the offending spot to loosen it up but it didn't really get me anywhere. I finally threw in the towel and resigned to go to 'the Pasha' to get myself fixed up.

The place resembles some big Arabian tent filled with old collectibles picked up by an eccentric old man who likes to horde his treasures and twist his mustache all day while lying down on his side while being propped up by an elbow with his shisha pipe in his hand. It doesn't seem like a place for a hot bath, but who am I to criticize?

Next is the front desk. Every time you have to reserve a service or book a tennis court, there is that front deskman experience here. You have a guy who works there and is employed by the company. He's got 2-3 buddies there too. You however get the feeling that they don't work there. They are playing backgammon, eating, smoking shisha, or drinking tea. You announce your prompt arrival. They stop what they are doing and look rather annoyed at you for breaking their concentration. They then point you where to go and hand you off to someone else. Playing backgammon, eating, smoking shisha or drinking tea re-commences and your on your way.

The first step in a turkish bath is to take a hot shower. Yipeee.. unlimited hot shower. My shower at home requires me to heat the water boiler 30 minutes in advance in order to get a ten minute hot shower. Everytime the hot water goes out on me, you would swear you heard the blood curdling screams of a little ten year old girl emanating from the bathroom. So what if the water smelled like well water and the pile of hair on the floor indicated that some guy with a receding hairline got pissed off and decided to just pull it all out right then and there. It was unlimited hot water and I wouldn't let anything take that moment of joy away from me.

After about 15 minutes, I was escorted to the hot steam room. Passing through the curtains, you enter what seems to be a malfunctioning disneyland attraction. A dark room with kaleidoscope colored glass ceiling sets the tone for the staging room where only the brave can venture to the next level up the steps. A dark hissing from an overworked steam machine god seems to blow angrily at anyone who dares to approach. I was like the first guinea pig in Indiana Jones movies where they send some poor hapless native to check out a booby trap, only to get his head chopped off or stabbed by a hundred poison darts. Well, since I was the booby, I ventured into the second stage room where the ominous steam god rested. Suddenly lava hot water droplets from the ceiling crashed on my neck causing me to jump and stand up....and just like the poor hapless native guinea pig in Indian Jones movies, I got my head chopped off. A cloud of "fry you to death vapor" just floating 4 ft above the groundfloor burned the crapola out of my scalp and fried my ear like a deep fried wonton wrapper (this probably explains why there is hair all over the floor. Others before me probably ran back to the showers and it probably all just kind of fell out from there. I did not see ears on the floor so I will have to rethink this theory some more). OWCH. So like a hapless coward I retreat to the staging room and decide to sit there since it is well below the vapor cloud. By this time, the attendant brings me a tall glass of hibiscus juice with crushed ice and I'm thinking 'do I drink this or pour it over my head?'

OK. I get called out. Its time for a scrub. Finally, some action. There is something particular about the staff that works inside of the hammam. They are all this breed of stocky, burly, strong, hairy men. Super friendly, but I somehow I get the sense that they are hired to manhandle the customers and get them scrubbed and washed as efficiently and as quickly as possible.

I am escorted to a small room with a marble countertop built into the wall. One side of it is open to allow water to drain while the other three sides are sectioned off by a wall. The problem is that its not exactly flat and as manhandler #1 starts to rinse it off with warm water, I notice the water starts to pool up on my marble countertop. I am asked to jump on top and lie on my back in this small layer of water and mandhandler #1 begins to scrub the sh*t out of my skin with a wet rag. This is a process where they take the dead skin cells off in order to promote the growth of healthy new skin. Manhandler #1 then takes my hand, puts in on my chest and I feel something that feels like a large mass of rubber from pencil erasings. "Today's skin" he says to me as I am totally grossed out by the fact that he made me feel all my dead skin rolls. In true manhandler fashion, he just flips me over and takes off more of 'today's skin.' So I'm on my belly, looking down at this water film and I get to see this soup of all of my dead skin floating around me. Just as I am thoroughly grossed out he flips me over again and commences to wash me with a loofah pad and aromatic soap. Ok, much better I suppose, but I'm still grossed out.

I get a bucket of warm water dumped on me to rinse and I am promptly moved on next to Manhandler #2 for my massage. I tell him that I have a tightness in upper back and I would appreciate his help in getting the knots out. "No problem. I take very GOOD care of you." Manhandler #2 was even bigger... with a long mullet and hands that can crack a walnut.. He was really going to work on my tight muscles. Right around the time when i was on my back and he was massaging my THIGHS he asked me where I am from. I said "America..where are you from?"

"I am from Iraq" - followed by a short uncomfortable pause.

Did I mention he could crack a walnut with those hands?

The coup de grâce was my final back massage where he pressed and pinched and pounded all those nasty little knots in my back with the force of those huge arms of his. I lay face down in a towel and he moved to the front of the massage table next to my head to push downwards on my shoulder and shoulder blades. I forgot to mention that manhandler #2 also has a huge beer gut and while he was pushing down on my shoulders he was basically burying his belly fat into the back of my head, crushing my nose and cutting off my air supply.

At the end of it all, I got a hot shower, burnt scalp, skin soup, and a crushed nose.. all for $30. I think I got my moneys worth.