27 July 2009

Embassy odyssey

I had lost my wallet awhile ago, and looking at the PennDOT website, the only way to get a replacement driver’s license was to fill out a specific form which could be mailed in or brought in, in person. But the hitch- regardless, the signature has to be notarized.

Website searches and talks with ex-pat American lawyers revealed that the typical American notary public doesn’t really exist here. Apparently the French aren’t impressed with signatures that have seals next to them- maybe too royalist? There is something called a Notaire, but that is really something more like a Master- a lay judge who has a completely different set of functions.

However, acknowledging the American fascination with notarization, there is some obscure federal law which requires all US Embassies around the world to offer notarization services.

To get this service, you need to make an appointment. But of course when I tried to do that the web link was dead. An email to the embassy in Paris got a response- Washington runs that server, and they’re working on it. A few days later I was able to really make an appointment, for about a week later. An appointment letter, a US passport, and $30 were all I needed. Note that the website also says something to the effect of: Yes, we love all Americans. But please don’t come and bother us if you can possibly avoid it.

We had gone to the French Embassy in Washington, DC to get the long stay visas. But the American Embassy in Paris- wow, those French guys were amateurs.

I took the Metro to Concorde, about a block from the Embassy (although you have to walk about 3 blocks underground to get to the exit.) When you get to the Embassy there’s the expected police presence (French) and bicycle barriers, and you had to cross the street, walk a half block down, and then walk through a maze of barriers back across the street again to get to the first check point at the Consulate.

The first guys (who were still French police) looked at your letter, your passport, checked it against a pre-printed list, and let you go about 5 feet to the next waiting spot. Then you waited in line to be allowed into the building where you went through airport security. There was a huge trash bin full of water bottles (what- this isn’t really an airport??) The website had warned you not to bring *any* electronic devices. I left my cell phone in my office at work, I didn’t bring my iPod on the Metro, but rather some work to do. When I was finally in that building, the next French policeman searched my purse. They didn’t like my chapstick, my tiny bottle of Advil, but finally put those back in. But they really really didn’t like the security device on my keychain (a PIN randomizer to get into the VPN at work). It had never occurred to me that this was a suspect electronic device- it doesn’t send/receive anything, can’t take pictures… but was suspicious enough that it got checked into a plastic bag which would await me, in exchange for the ticket on a neckchain that I got instead. After the manual search, I went through a metal detector, and the purse now went through the x-ray machine. I waited on the other side, and the police man kept wondering why I wouldn’t leave. Uh, mon sac… (my purse). Finally he gave it to me. So now I get to walk out of this building, and over to the real building.

At the entrance here, you got your number, like at the bakery. They were in different series; D was the notary line. (I was D07). Then you got to go into the waiting room. It was standing room only, with about 100 seats, and 20 different windows. Most people were there for other services, like getting visas for visitation. My appointment was at 1:30, I had originally arrived at 1 pm, and it was about 1:20 when I got into this room. The windows dedicated to notary services were all shuttered. Finally after 1:30 the first opened, and called D01. After no one went to the window, they called D02. After about 5 minutes they called D03, who actually went to the window. It wasn’t like there was anywhere you could go- you certainly didn’t have the opportunity to sightsee in the Embassy. Finally around 2 pm my number came up, but when I walked to the window there was a woman already there with a huge stack of papers. The clerk told me “you’ll have to wait- she had an earlier number”. Ok, I have to wait because she couldn’t figure out when her number was called earlier? After about 10 minutes the late woman got sent to the cashier, and I finally got my turn. I explained to the clerk that all I needed was my signature notarized on this already completed form. She took my passport, looked at the form, and complained that there wasn’t enough room for the notary stamps. She stamped a generic “US Embassy, Paris” print below the notary block, but sadly, she was not the real notary, just completing step one. She then gave me an invoice form filled out for $0. Apparently since this request was for a government agency, you didn’t have to pay. But you did have to go to the cashier and not pay. The cashier’s booth (window 20) had been empty the whole time I was waiting for my number to be called, but now there were 4 people in line, the first of whom was the woman with the big stack of papers. I'm stuck behind this lady twice?! The couple in front of me asked me questions in French about filling their application out. They were apparently Vietnamese, with US green cards, but the guy had lost his. He worked in France for a number of years, and did not speak English. Ok, whatever. His question was the difference between a commuting and non-commuting resident. In my halting French I tried to explain the work in one country and live in another concept, none of which was really related to his working and living in a 3rd country- not his native land, not his adopted land, but a different one yet. We all decided he was non-commuting, and he got his turn to pay. They didn’t take too long, I got up to the window, gave my slip to the guy who said thanks, you’re done, wait and they’ll call you again.

Now I had to go sit down again, to wait for the real notary to appear. After another 20 minutes, I got called up to the third window, where the notary quizzed me about what was going on, gave me my passport back, had me sign, then signed and did her sealing thing. All of which took about 30 seconds, about as long as this whole episode should have taken.

So, I’m not sure what PennDOT will make of an application notarized at the US Embassy in Paris, but as long as I can now get a new driver’s license, it’s ok.

15 July 2009


It's July 15th. The summer solstice was almost a month ago. Memorial Day was nearly a month before that. Our first (and thankfully only, so far) real heat wave here in Paris was 2 weeks ago. We've been eating insanely luscious cantaloupe for 3 weeks. Summer vacances here started in earnest for many here about July 6, and Bastille Day yesterday is when a good number of the hold-outs will have pulled the rip-cord.

But summer on av Henri Martin didn't start until this evening, with the year's first bowls of ripe heirloom tomato pasta. Over the past half decade or so, this has been our go-to summer dinner, the combination of real tomatoes, a little garlic, peppery olive oil and fresh herbs, all uncooked and tossed with hot just-drained pasta and eaten voraciously, never getting old. Sometimes we add a little parmesan, or toasted pine nuts, or black olives, or fresh fish or even canned tuna. Tonight it was just 1 red, 1 orange, and 1 green tomato, 1 clove of garlic, a glug of olive oil, and a generous batch of basil from our balcony. Oh, and some wonderfully minty/menthol-y ground pepper. Yea, summer.

Summer in a bowl.

We've had some gorgeous days here, lately. The view off the balcony in the evening, with the strongly directional light, can be arresting. Hard to believe we really live here, sometimes.

Summer out the window.

Speaking of Bastille Day, or locally just the 14th of July, we joined the throngs of humanity near the Arc de Triomphe for the much-anticipated air show in the morning at 10:35, which preceded the military parade. The air show was about 8 groups of planes, starting with fighter jets streaming red, white, and bleu, then an AWACS aircraft, then progressively older planes including WWII-era bombers and early prop fighter planes. Pretty cool aircraft, and it would have been really interesting if you got to see them for more than 4 seconds. We kept waiting for them to make a turn and come back around for another viewing, to do some maneuvers, or, frankly, anything. But no-- that was it. For all we know they've made it to Tokyo by now.

The parade was pre-assembled in the space surrounding the Arc, the roads choked with military vehicles ready to roll. It kind of looked like Paris was occupied, even if it was just by the French, themselves. I haven't ever been to a 4th of July celebration in Washington DC, but I don't generally think of the parades as being military affairs. This seemed more like something one would expect in a May Day celebration than what I assumed a July 14th parade would be like. My recollection of French history is that they stormed the prison at Bastille that day in revolt, eventually getting around to beheading their king, destroying a bunch of churches, silencing bells, and otherwise trying to remodel French society before changing their minds and reinstalling another king. It's not like it was a big military operation. Maybe the military parade is a demonstration that no such shenanigans will be tolerated in the near future?

Like any good celebration, the evening included fireworks, the major set going off around the Eiffel Tower, 120 years old this year. We had a great view from our balcony, and they did a really great job of making use of La Tour itself as a scaffold for some of the charges, shooting them off the top and from the sides. Halfway through the 30-min show, we heard competing booming from the opposite direction, coming from another set of fireworks in the west, maybe in the Bois de Boulogne, or from one of the near suburbs, like Neuilly. We spent the rest of the show watching back and forth, heads pivoting like spectators at a tennis match. Great seats for a very good show.

The Eiffel Tower amid fireworks.

The mystery fireworks.

But my favorite part of the whole thing is the French word for firework, which I learned just yesterday: feu d'artifice (fake fire). How cool is that?

12 July 2009

Gobelins and Ghouls

When we first arrived in Paris, I often made a point of doing my chores in far-flung parts of town as an excuse to explore and walk the various neighborhoods. With time, though, one finds one's preferred shops and shopkeepers, and with more of my days being spent on the bike (before the knee problems) and in the kitchen, efficiency had become more important than exploring. So much so, in fact, that I'd gotten into something of a rut.

Thank goodness, then, that I ran out of chestnut honey a few weeks ago. I'd seen that there's a shop specializing in all things honeybee in the 13e, a short walk from the Manufacture des Gobelins, which I've been meaning to visit for awhile. Including stops at BHV for some odds and ends, a boulangerie I'd heard good things about, and a source for mustard on tap (can't live in France without mustard in your refrigerator), I had a 5-h walk through 6 arrondissements on a beautiful Spring afternoon.

Sweet spot: Les Abeilles in the 13e.

When a French colleague at work asked where we'd be living, he pulled a disapproving face at the response, saying those neighborhoods are very bourgeoise, where people go to have children. It turns out that it suits our needs just fine: it's a nice neighborhood, with good access to La Défense so Karen doesn't have a long commute, good access to Bois de Boulogne so we can get our early morning rides in quickly, and good access to high quality markets and food shops. That said, we'd certainly look at other options if were to stay in Paris indefinitely, mostly because there are a lot of really neat places to live here. Neighborhoods range from staid monumental places to chaotic and energetic places full of recent immigrants, to quiet but charming and intimate locations.

The neighborhood where the bee place is, Butte aux Cailles, definitely falls into the last category. Mostly full of 2 and 3 story buildings, lined with small cafes and shops, it feels a little like the Fitler's square area of Philadelphia. Very homey and unpretentious.

Houses like this aren't common everywhere in Paris.

Like jams and preservers, honey is a popular condiment in France. Supermarkets carry varieties produced by bees that preferentially visit a number of flowering plants. So it's not really for lack of options that I needed to visit Les Abeilles, but it offered even more. Eucalyptus, pine, lemon, thyme, acacia, chestnut, and many more. Bee buzz soundtrack playing quietly in the background, a gentle older man helped me, giving me tastes of several honeys. I bought mild acacia for cooking and pungent dark pine for eating. While paying, I realized that the buzzing was live, not Memorex-- there was a bucket of bees on a shelf near the rear of the shop. One of them searched my hair for pollen for a few seconds but thankfully found none and moved on.

Yes, these are both really honey.

And so did I. Honey secured, I stopped in at the nearby Manufacture des Gobelins workshops to watch them make their famous tapestries. Established in the 1600s, and named for a family of dyers who produced a particularly pleasing red color, they eventually became the workshops for the King. Three different techniques are used to make tapestries there, all requiring what seems like infinite patience: a tapestry often takes several years for 2 or 3 workers to complete. Subject matter can be ancient (repair and reproduction of ancient tapestries is performed) or modern (there is a jury that chooses artwork to be interpreted in tapestry), but either way you can't buy them. Tapestries are produced only for the State, which hangs them in its embassies or uses them as diplomatic gifts. The workshops seem to be maintained mostly to keep the art of this type of tapestry making alive, which is kinda neat.

Even the drunks in in the 5e have nice places to hang out.

St Nicolas du Gewürztraminer... er... Chardonnet in the 5e

Vienna had its gold-painted Mozart performers, this busker had a Kurt Cobain marionette that was "performing" blaring Nirvana on Pont l'Archevèche.

The rump of Notre Dame is at least as impressive as her face.

Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation on Île St Louis

I then walked from Manufacture des Gobelins over to the right bank, past the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation on Île St Louis (closed for the day; will have to go back later), to get mustard from the tap at Maille on Place de la Madeleine, and then bread in the 2e. By then, I'd gotten tired and decided to take the metro back home. Distracted while thinking about the other chores I needed to take care of before dinner, I got on the train going the wrong direction. Realizing my mistake the minute the doors closed, I got off at the next stop to change directions and on the stairs down to the connector was met by RATP control, checking metro tickets and passes. No problem. Unlike the hordes of people I see every day jumping the turnstiles in plain view of the ticket vendors, or pushing through behind paying customers, I buy a monthly pass. I handed the pass to the control, a humorless woman probably in her 50s, and she ran it in her hand-held machine, which said it was valid. Great-- can I go now? But we weren't done. She pulled me out of the line of other controllers and said there was a problem: my pass didn't have my picture on it.

Well, yeah, there is that. I'd been meaning to put one on there, but the extra pictures I have from the dozens needed for visa and other purposes are a little too big, and I just couldn't swallow paying even more money for pictures for documents. Besides, this is a subway pass-- how big a deal can it be?

The Arts et Metiers metro station. It used to be my favorite...

A 25-euro fine, that's how big. On a 52-euro-a-month pass. I told her I was really sorry, that I didn't realize it was obligatory, and that I'd get one that afternoon, hoping she'd show the slightest bit of flexibility, but she wanted her 25 euros right there. I understand I'd not completely followed the rules, but I've gone out of my way to make sure I'm paying for my tickets on the metro and on the RER (where, depending on the stations you go between, validating your ticket is on the honor system). 5 euros, OK, but 25? I bet riding without a ticket is less than that. I was steamed. It's a good thing I don't know any vulgar French, because I would have used it, for sure. But since I didn't, I'll also avoid vulgarity in English and just say, the ghoul. Oh well, it's France. So I paid her, and she gave me a receipt good until the next morning, in case I was controlled a 2nd time that day.

That night I cut down one of my document photos and stuck it in there. I thought of using this one,

but I figured that would be a 100-euro fine: 50 for an invalid picture, and another 50 for being a smart-alec.

Three Little Pigs

We skipped our normal Saturday market yesterday in order to ride, so we needed to market today.

Usually if we market on Sunday, we head over to the other side of town for Bastille, which is a big bustling market with lots of choice, including the best olive vendor we've found so far. Last Sunday, we checked out the market on av Versailles in the 16e for the first time. It was a surprisingly big market, and though not terribly varied, the permanent shops on av Versailles offered a nice complement to the open-air stands. It's also considerably closer to the apartment and within walking distance of our favorite boulangerie, making it a good choice when we need the basics and want to market and have breakfast all in one trip.

Today we got on the metro to head over the Bastille but decided at the last minute to walk first to Blé Sucré, a good patisserie just a few blocks east of the market, for breakfast. We had an astonishingly good baguette (so good that after we polished it off, we bought another to have with lunch and dinner) and good croissants in the little park across the street, watching a friendly table tennis match being played on one of the permanent metal tables. And since we were already a little bit east of the market, we decided to check out the Marché d'Aligre/Marché Beauvau, a combination indoor-outdoor market in this decidedly north African neighborhood (there are several very good Algerian pastry shops nearby). I'd been there twice before on weekdays, but both times just after the outdoor market had closed down and during the mid-day closure of the indoor market.

Each market has its own character, and by and large our markets in the 16e are fairly staid affairs. Impeccably dressed women buying expensive (and exquisite) produce, and at one of our normal produce vendors, chefs stuffing their cars with bursting boxes of produce for the restaurants.

In contrast, I'd say the Marché d'Aligre was full of characters. The first difference we noticed from our local markets was the presence of hot peppers at almost every produce stand. The French palate in general is not tuned to spicy food, so this was a happy discovery, and we bought a basket of what look like habeñeros to celebrate. The market was also more chaotic and noisy than our markets, lots of hawking, guys in accented French cutting mango, pineapple, and tomatoes and stuffing them into the mouths of passers by (if you've got the ripe produce, flaunt it!). We came home with 3 succulent mangoes, at least one of which will become, with some of the chiles, a "BBQ" sauce for some thick pork chops we bought in the indoor part of the market. It was also notable that there was considerably more self-service/choose your own on offer than in our local markets, where many vendors place "do not touch the fruit" signs on their wares. With lots of permanent shops bordering the market, selling lavash, unfrozen phyllo dough, preserved lemons and other north african staples, it's definitely a place we'll return.

Returning home with a rotisserie chicken has become a fairly standard part of our Sunday marketing experience. I don't think I've ever been to market in Paris that didn't have at least one butcher with a rotisserie loaded with chickens, small potatoes roasting in the chicken fat at the bottom, all caramelized and creamy. At most markets, there are several rotisseries to choose from. The rotisserie birds at the permanent butcher shops on our local rue commerçant are so good that the locals will actually line up properly to get them-- even in the rain! The chickens are relatively inexpensive and uniformly delicious. With some arugula fresh from the market, a half-chicken with potatoes, with maybe a glass of chilled rosé, make a perfect lunch.

Gasp-- an orderly line!

The butchers at today's market were in permanent shops or in the indoor market. In contrast to the high-energy and friendly market outside, the indoor market was a little dreary and sad, and just one of the butchers had a rotisserie. Though there were just a few measly chickens turning, the chicken's roasting companions made visit inside well worth the trip: 2 whole suckling pigs. Judging from the head on the back counter starting up at the ceiling, there had been a 3rd earlier in the morning.

And then there was one...

As we waited in line to order our pork chops, a woman ahead of us asked for some of the rotisserie piglet, and the butcher came out, pulled a spit out of the rotisserie, slid the pig off the spit, and -- whack!-- there were 2 heads looking at the ceiling. Whack-whack-whack-- the pig had been chopped roughly into quarters. We wanted in on that action and came home with a front leg and shoulder, juicy flavorful meat and crispy brown skin just perfect as sandwiches on our baguette, with some thinly sliced cornichons to add a little acid and crunch. The bones (and hoof) went into the stock pot along with saved bones from the last few weeks for some meat stock.

11 July 2009

And on the theme of good convenience food...

A couple of weeks ago, I made some artichoke agnolotti and put them in the freezer for a time-crunched meal to be named later. That meal turned out to be today's lunch. We got up late and had a leisurely and delicious breakfast of a baguette and pastries from our favorite boulangerie before heading out for a longish ride in the Chevreuse Valley. Since we didn't get home until 3:30, and the last 50 km of le Tour were on TV, the agnolotti seemed the perfect easy and fast meal to tide us over until dinner.

So I made a sauce out of what I had on hand: sauteed some leeks with a little pancetta until they just started to brown, tossed in a big clove of minced garlic and let everything brown lightly before adding a handful of frozen peas. While the agnolotti cooked, added just a little bit of chicken stock (the elixir from the pot au feet the other day) and about a Tbsp of butter. Finally added the agnolotti, plated, and grated a little of the hard goat cheese over the top.

And voilá-- a very tasty light lunch with minimal effort.

10 July 2009

Independence Day Eve-eve-eve-eve

The 4th of July came and went without so much as a notice on our part this year. Well, except for the Fillipino independence day parade that marched down our street Sunday morning, complete with little cars blaring "Anchors Away" fore and aft, and moved from the official observance day of June 12 to July 5 due to a scheduling conflict with the stadium in the Bois de Boulogne, where they have their picnic and festival. One of the things we love about Paris is the random stuff one encounters almost every day (a bunch of naked people at Trocadero protesting omnivorism, a giant karaoke gathering last week, a chamber orchestra concert outside the Louvre one evening, the michael jackson moonwalk, etc...).

Beauty queens on parade.

But Tuesday is Bastille Day, and that won't pass without significant observation, most notably a big parade on the Champs and fireworks Tuesday evening to be watched from our balcony. Karen has Mon and Tues off next week, and to get maximum bang for her holiday euro, she took today off, as well.

So we went for a bike ride in the briskly cool morning, me testing a new set of insoles to see if that helps reduce the pain in my knee when I ride (jury's still out). It's been almost early autumn-like here the last week after a week-long heat-wave, which I seem to be the only person in town enjoying.

Le Bélisaire, in a residential section of the 15e, has been on my list of restaurants for awhile and seemed well-suited to lunch. Today turned out to be a great day, since the exodus from the city started in earnest yesterday, already, and aside from just 4 other tables of 2, we were the only people in the place. Although the woman who took my reservation over the phone couldn't have been more put out to answer the phone, our waiter was charming and amiable. We had a really nice meal: an avacado tartare topped with mussels, and seared iberian pork belly on lentils as starters; steamed filet of dorade on a risotto of baby vegetables, and a pan-roasted scorpion fish on "tagine" vegetables in a saffron broth for mains; and a molten chocolate cake with raspberry sorbet, and a sablé breton with fresh berries and just enough pastry cream to hold everything together for dessert. Washed down with a chilled rosé from Languedoc, it was both a great lunch and a very good value at 20 euros apiece for all 3 courses. For the 2nd time this week (dinner Wed night with friends at Le Gorille Blanc in the 7e: mushroom terrine with garlic cream, marinated raw salmon for starters; veal stew with mushrooms and fricaseed rabbit with onions and raisins for mains; and a hazelnut créme brûlée for dessert), we'd visited someplace I'd eat again.

Around the corner from Le Bélisaire, cool frieze.

We knew we wouldn't want much dinner after that lunch, and so we took the opportunity to explore the neighborhood and check out some on-the-list food places. We bought bread (a decent baguette and an excellent walnut mini-loaf) and then stopped at Gilles Vérot, a stunning charcuterie near the 15e-7e border.

A pig-eater's paradise: the window of Gilles Vérot.

We wanted some of everything: terrines of rabbit, duck, pork, pintade, and other delectables, cured sausages of all sizes, and excellent hams free of all preservatives. But we settled for a slice of terrine of smoked chicken and asparagus in aspic, a gorgeously geometrical terrine of hure (pork tongue) with pistachios, some sliced home-made chorizo, and some slices of air-dried beef with paprika. No question we'll be back-- the fellow who helped us was really nice, and everything was stunningly beautiful.

Next stop was a cheese shop I've been wanting to visit since we got here, but have never been in the neighborhood when we needed cheese. In a city that takes cheese very seriously, Quatrehomme has a reputation for exquisite cheeses, aging every cheese themselves in their own caves and selling only what's perfectly ripe. Again, no shortage of things to try, but today we came home with all goat cheeses, including a hard cheese very much in the style of a basque sheep cheese, a soft but pungent cheese coated in herbs, and a gentle but flavorful luxurious soft cheese with the vague hint of thyme. I have no idea what any of them were called-- hopefully I'll recognize them when confronted again.

Put them all together with a beautiful Sancerre, taughtly dry but still somehow lush, and some cornichons and good green olives, and it made an exquisite no-cook meal. You can keep your Picard Surgelés: this is convenience food in France.

Dinner. Just add water.

A great start to the independence day weekend.

09 July 2009

Le Tour en France

Despite being in France this year at Tour-time, I wasn't much looking forward to it. I'd rather be exploring France by bike myself, frankly. But despite invites to go ride the great mountain passes with a friend each week through the summer, I'm stuck here in Paris with tendonitis around my knee and riding the local hamster wheel, instead. And so, to get my fix, I've been watching the Tour on TV.

And, surprisingly, it's been a real barn-burner. The opening TT was long enough to create some real gaps, and Fabian Cancellara crushed the field with what looks like a return to his normal form after a tough spring. Then we had a split in the crosswinds in stage 3, reportedly an on-the-fly decision made by the Columbia-HTC team, put out that the other sprinters' teams wouldn't come to the front and help catch the break. Strategies born of anger are rarely good strategies, bike racing or not, but the split in the peloton they created happened to separate Lance Armstrong (in the front group) from his teammate and potential rival Alberto Contador (in the 2nd group), and so made for great television and fueled a press feeding frenzy, especially when Armstrong and his 2 teammates in the front groups started contributing to the split's success. Never mind that Columbia and their general classification leader, Michael Rogers, would give back as much as much time in the team time trial to the Astana boys as they took the day before.

Then the team time trial, for sure another marketing and TV spectacle, where the powerful Astana team took 40 seconds out of Cancellara (and technically his team, although the big Swiss seemed more hampered than helped by his 8 teammates). Cancellara went into the TTT 40 seconds up on Armstrong in the general classification, so the calculations for the leader's yellow jersey went to the tenths of a second, with Cancellara holding on to his jersey for at least a little longer. It seems to this observer that this might have been Mr. Armstrong's only real chance at the yellow jersey in this tour: while impressively fit after several years out of racing and just a couple of months after a broken collarbone, he doesn't seem to have the horsepower to out-climb, or even time-trial, Contador, or his other teammates Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloden, for that matter. Armstrong appeared content with his team's performance, which was impressively well-drilled on an extremely technical and challenging course and a day where crashes dominated the TV screen. But he'll have to be disappointed to come so close to yellow if he doesn't get it the rest of the Tour.

Contador, who has been prickly about the incessant questions about his leadership on the powerful Astana squad, seemed genuinely sorry Armstrong didn't take yellow in the TTT (and Contador could be seen pushing the pace in the closing kms, so it didn't seem like false regret). Without the yellow jersey on Armstrong's shoulders tomorrow, when the Tour hits the Pyrenees and has its first mountain-top finish, Contador has more room to maneuver and attack as the leader of his team, if he chooses or needs. His disappointment seemed a little patronizing (paraphrasing: "it means a lot to Armstrong"), but maybe he was disappointed for Armstrong because he wouldn't have the honor of ripping the jersey from Armstrong's shoulders? One senses there isn't a lot of love lost between those two.

Through the tour, Eurosport continues their amusing Planet Armstrong spots, still best for their silly animations. For all of their promotion of the spots on TV, however, Eurosport does a horrendous job of making the short videos easily accessible on their website. But if you understand French, you can find the translated versions here. Heaven help you if you try to find them in their original English format.

And in case you think Armstrong's got an easy ride with his celebrity, check out the chaos in the background of this interview. Is there a single second where somebody isn't yelling in the background to get his attention?

That's exactly why I've never bothered to ride the Tour...

Just another day in the 16e

02 July 2009

Les Temps Modernes

We've not done a lot of what most people would consider culture since being in Paris. We're more likely to get on the bikes or spend our time cooking and eating than attending concerts, but I was jonesing for some music, and I'd seen in one of the event listings that there was going to be a chamber concert nearby at the Scots Kirk in the 8e. And not just any chamber concert, but a free chamber concert, with piano, violin, and clarinet. Now I'm no expert, but I'm guessing the piano, violin, and clarinet literature can't be that extensive, so that seemed good enough reason to check it out.

We almost walked right past the place on the way over, looking for a church, but it's housed in a nondescript 20th century apartment building, next to a Thai restaurant. We got there early and sat down in a small chapel/largish conference room in the basement. The church holds weekly musical events, and many of the people who came in seemed to know each other, lots of 2-cheek kissing going on. The range of people in attendance was remarkable, from elderly sophisticates to young hipsters, and plenty of hippies to go around, young and old, and no obvious Scots to be seen-- this was a French crowd. By 20.35, 5 min after the advertised 20.30 start time, all but maybe 10 of the 100 chairs were occupied. When he sat down, I told Karen that the guy behind us was going to be a talker through the whole performance. I was right, of course.

But I hadn't predicted that when it got to be about 20:40, still early in French time, The Talker started yelling in a big booming, self-impressed and insistent voice (that reminded me of nothing so much as the honking on our street below our apartment) to start the show, already, that it's time, and this is France (huh? maybe a shot at the non-present Scots?), so the show should start on time, French time. Yup, we're in Paris! Everybody turned around to stare, of course, with looks split about equally between amusement and scorn. Notably absent in the faces I saw, though, was the look of surprise. Was Old Yeller a regular? Or is there just an Old Yeller in every crowd?

The fellow setting up the official video camera in the center aisle, who looked like he might have been around the block as many times as Keith Richards, looked at Old Yeller for a few moments after the tirade and calmly replied that the show didn't, in fact, run on French time, but in musical time. Quite a civilized retort to an uncivilized outburst, and maybe even a little double meaning there, Keith? Nice. Old Yeller's wife/sister/nurse got up and started to insist that they leave, but he prevailed, and they unfortunately stayed for the whole show. Didn't they shoot Old Yeller in the movie? I guess even that was at the end of the movie, though.

The musicians entered about 10 min later, and after a seemingly endless introduction from the violinist, they started with the Khachaturian trio. It was a nice enough piece, at times derivative enough of Gershwin that I saw images of United Airlines commercials in my head, but well played. Old Yeller talked through most of it, of course, which annoyed Karen's neighbor enough that she thought he might actually going to turn around and punch him. As soon as the piece ended, Old Yeller boomed, "Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!" And as our eyes watered in the alcohol vapor cloud that washed over us, we realized that he was drunk. Later at the intermission, when he lit up a cigarette outside, we thought he might actually go up in flames. No such luck.

More interesting musically was the Stravinsky Soldier's Tale, written just a year before Stravinsky moved to Paris. The piece was new to me, and there was plenty of what I like best of Stravinksy, so angular, quirky and crisp, yet still driving and somehow open at the same time. The Bartok, officially commissioned by Benny Goodman, was considerably more dense and dissonant and less tethered, and it made for more challenging, but no less enjoyable, listening. In a first for me, the violinist came out with what seemed to be a "pit" violin. A pit bike in cyclocross racing is a spare that gets swapped out mid-race if the primary bike has mechanical problems or gets bogged down with mud. Wow, was it going to be that physical? Or muddy? Or maybe she was going to finally put Old Yeller out of our collective misery? Turns out the last movement just required a violin with the bottom 2 strings retuned by a semitone. Though unusual, it was the least interesting of the possibilities.

No matter, though. It's always fun to hear pieces for the first time, even if the "modern" in the program title referred to music written nearly a century ago, and there's no substitute for good live performances. And just like the dissonance and harmony in the music, we got to experience a high and low of Paris all at the same time.

01 July 2009

HTS: High-Throughput Stuffing

Although I don't generally like stuffed meats, I love stuffed pastas for the sheer variety of flavors and textures they offer. I've made ravioli, tortelloni, and even casconcelli, but my current favorite is agnolotti.

Agnolotti differ from most stuffed pastas in that they're produced by folding a single piece of pasta on itself, rather than joining 2 sheets. Stuffed with chopped up leftover meats or vegetables, this folding isn't such a big time saver, since you still have to fill and fold each one individually. But filled with something smooth, you can use a method Thomas Keller includes in his French Laundry Cookbook, which allows you to bang out a hundred agnolotti in no time. High throughput, the number of data points an assay can generate per unit of time, is highly valued in the pharma industry. No reason it can't be appreciated in the kitchen at home.

Today I made artichoke agnolotti. Artichokes have been available here since mid-March, and since we eat them nearly every week, I've had plenty of opportunity to run through my own and other people's repertoire of cooking methods by now. About the only thing I haven't done with them is to puree them. Now I have.

High-Throughput Agnolotti

First, you need a filling. For this method, you want something you can pipe using a pastry bag and regular round tip, or just a plastic bag with a corner cut off. Something with the texture roughly of mousse (which is a more appealing comparator than baby food). Lighter than toothpaste, heavier than whipped cream.

Besides artichokes, I've made fillings out of almonds, chestnuts, peas, fava beans, asparagus, beets, squash, sweet potatoes, and regular potatoes. I've not yet made anything with meat, but I've got chicken mousse with wild mushrooms and fish mousse queued up, and I'm trying to figure out how to make a ham mousse-- any ideas, send 'em. If using a vegetable, first cook the vegetable however it's most flavorful (roast sweet potatoes, eg, or blanche asparagus in salted boiling water and then shock in ice water to set the color; braise artichokes), then puree/mash. Resist the temptation to add liquid while blending. If anything, you might need to let the puree sit in a fine strainer for a few hours to let some of the liquid out. Along with your chosen featured food, mixing just a little ricotta (drained first), mascarpone, thick creme fresh (if you're lucky enough to have it), thoroughly cooked arborio rice (blended in a food processor while hot), fine bread crumbs, etc will help stabilize the texture and carry (but not dilute) flavor. I don't use egg or egg white, because I find it makes the stuffing too wet when filling the pasta and too set when they're cooked. Generally, keep the filling in the fridge until your pasta is ready.

You'll need fresh pasta, of course, but for heaven's sake don't let this deter you! It takes maybe 20 min to make a ball of fresh pasta dough, and the rolling takes another 20. You've got lots of options: use Restaurant pasta, made with buckets of egg yolks that give the pasta a silky texture and rich, luxurious taste, or regular old egg pasta (1 extra-large egg for about every 2/3 cup flour), or heck, don't use eggs at all-- use water and a Tbsp of olive oil and/or milk, or even just white wine as your liquid. The texture without eggs will be tougher, country style. Whatever you use for liquid, knead it well and then let it rest an hour or more, and your dough will be a lot more cooperative.

Roll out a useable portion of your pasta of choice to the 2nd-to-last setting on your pasta roller. Don't have a machine? Roll it with a rolling pin, or a wine bottle. You're looking for something you can read headlines through, but not the fine print.

Say "ahhhhhhh....". About a quarter of the pasta dough rolled to the desired thickness.

OK, now comes the fast part. Pipe the filling onto the pasta, leaving about 1/2 inch on the sides and the bottom. You can make these guys fat and plump or lean by adjusting the piping speed and the tip diameter. When using pasta that doesn't take a dozen egg yolks, I always make plenty of pasta. It doesn't take any longer to make a lot than a little, and it's a shame to have to excess filling, since that's what takes the most time.

A caterpillar of artichokey goodness.

Now pick up the lower edge of the pasta and carefully fold it over the filling. Press down on the overlap along the whole length of the pasta sheet. Depending on the type and thickness of your pasta, it may or may not tolerate having a finger dragged along its length. You now have a tube.

The caterpillar in its cocoon...

Roll the covered filling toward the top edge about a quarter turn, so the tube sits on the joined edge you just made...

... and pinch the pasta with your thumb and a finger to make pillows within the roll. This step is why you can't have any solid pieces of substantial size. With little bits of finely diced artichoke (or pancetta, or whatever you might be compelled to leave in for texture), some of those pieces will get caught in the flat sections, and they just need to be small enough that they don't prevent the pasta from sticking together. The pinches have to be secure over a wide enough area so that when you cut them, they stay together.

Oh nooo... smushed caterpillar!

Now using a pizza cutter, or a zig-zag pasta cutter, or even a knife, cut between the pillows, moving the cutter from the side without the flap toward the flat (in the pic above, from left to right). This pushes the pillows down onto the flap and seals it to the sides.

Cut, ready to transfer.

Separate, and voila-- you've got agnolotti. That flap makes a great little pocket for holding sauce, but depending on your tastes, you can make it extend past the top as much or as little as you want.

Standing up.

Set the separated agnolotti in a single layer on towel-lined baking sheets without touching, and store in the fridge until you cook them. Or, and here's the best part, do what I did today and stick the baking sheets right in the freezer, and once they're hard, dump them in a ziploc bag. It takes little enough more time to make 100 than 50 that it's easy to make a big batch and have something great on hand for when you get home from a training ride or race and need good food fast. Cook them fresh or frozen in salted boiling water until they float (they made need a little TLC early on-- keep them moving in the water so they don't stick to the bottom), and remove them with a slotted spoon, rather than dumping the water through a colander-- they're delicate enough that they'll rip. Some melted butter with garlic or herbs, a couple of chopped canned tomatoes sauteed with some fresh herbs for a minute or two, a little pancetta and shallot and herb, or a little cream sauce... no shortage of serving options.