Basic Quiche

Quiche DrawingI make quiche at least once a week. Served hot or cold, this versatile dish can incorporate leftover vegetables and cheese and can be eaten at any time of day: breakfast, lunch, dinner, late-night snack… It can be made a day ahead of time, so feeding a crowd becomes a breeze. For a brunch, make one with bacon and another vegetarian, and spend your time making mimosas instead of slaving over the stove.

My standard filling is grilled mushrooms, onions, and shredded Emmental cheese. In France, it’s easy to find prepared crust dough (which tastes better to me than those already-in-a-pie-pan ones in the States). I use pâte brisée, you can click here for a recipe to make your own.

Basic Quiche Filling

Makes one quiche, which serves approximately 6 for breakfast or 4 for lunch/dinner.

What you need:
pâte brisée
1 onion, thinly sliced
1 tbsp butter
4 eggs
1 cup light cream or whole milk
1 cup shredded hard cheese (like swiss)

What to do:
Caramelize the onion in the butter by frying in a pan over medium heat for about 10-15 minutes (see nondescript photo below). While the onions are cooking, place the pâte brisée in a non-stick pie pan (no need to grease it) and pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees F. If you are using vegetables for the filling, add these to the frying pan after about 5 minutes. Putting fresh vegetables ?? especially mushrooms ?? in the quiche without pre-cooking will cause a watery mess. Also pre-cook any meats, such as bacon, since raw meat in the quiche will not become crispy and will end up chewy and unappetizing.

In a small bowl, mix the eggs with the light cream.

Put the filling into the crust in the following order (this is important, as cheese on the bottom will make the crust mushy):
meats (if using)
onion and vegetable mixture
egg mixture

Bake at 350 degrees for 40-45 minutes, until the top is golden brown and a toothpick poked in the middle comes out clean.

Serve with a simple green salad to put a healthy face on all that butter and cheese. Oh, and don’t forget a festive drink:

Mimosa Cocktail
1/2 oz triple sec
1 1/2 oz fresh orange juice
3 1/2 oz chilled Champagne
orange slice for garnish

Close-up of onion and mushroom filling: 

Quiche Filling

Peynet Drawings

Peynet WindowI do a lot of research in the microfilm room of the Bibliothèque Nationale. Reel after reel of newspaper pages sometimes have surprises that amuse or shock me, and make the time fly by. Sometimes I find sensational fin-de-siècle headlines about “vampires” (people with rabies), sad souls jumping from the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral, or the latest duel (a common way to resolve differences). But searching through Ici Paris, a later newspaper from the 1940s and 1950s, I found the sweetest drawings by a cartoonist named Raymond Peynet.

You may recognize his illustrations, which sometimes appears on post cards in Parisian paper shops. The theme is usually “les amoureux” with two lovers appearing in a variety of locations in a light-hearted scenarios, sometimes even akin to the floating style akin to Chagall.

Peynet (1908-1999) was born in Paris and became one of the most popular illustrators in France. He began his series of “Les amoureux” (the poet and his companion) in 1942, and later went on to draw over 6000 charming images in the series. The French singer/songwriter Georges Brassens even wrote a song inspired by the drawings, called “Les amoureux des banc publics” (“The Lovers of Public Benches”). There are two museums in France dedicated to the illustrator’s work. One in Brassac-les-Mines, and another in Antibes. The Picasso museum in Antibes (which I last visited in 2000) is closed for renovations until 2008, but the Peynet gives me a new reason to visit that Mediterranean town.

Below are some Peynet illustrations I found online, although I hope to photocopy and scan many of the ones I have found at the library. Note that, in the drawing of the gazebo, the woman is knitting! How can I not be one of the many “amoureux” of Peynet?

Peynet BenchPeynet BoatPeynet GazeboPeynet Harp

Belgian Highlights

Beer TraysStoempBrussels ArchBrussels Painted WallAtomiumNeuhausGhent BuildingsBelgian BeerGhent River

A weekend in Belgium was just enough time for us to taste a dozen different beers, visit two cities, climb through a giant iron molecule, and stroll around the juxtaposition of flemish and french buildings.

Sites: The Atomium in Brussels is an enlarged (165 billion times, I think) iron crystal molecule erected in 1958 for the International Exposition. Fallen into severe disrepair a few years ago, some city officials planned to tear it down, but public outcry kept it standing. Our favorite Brussels neighborhood was the Bourse (stock exchange) area. The pubs were welcoming and warm, with a lively atmosphere and a great meeting spot for friends of all ages.

A highlight of the trip was visiting the small Flemish city of Ghent. Church after church, square after square, I found it a lovely and relaxed place to stroll around and enjoy a beer on the second floor of a tavern overlooking the canal.

Food: Seth tried Stoemp, which is a traditional dish of sausage and thick-sliced bacon over a potato and vegetable mash. I shyed away from it, but opted for another hearty Belgian favorite: spaghetti bolognaise. The fries were delicious, especially accompanied by the special sauces you can only find in the world’s capitol of frites.

There are plenty of jokes about the grey Belgian weather, but we didn’t get caught in a downpour and actually did see some sunlight on a few occasions. March was a good time to visit despite the cold, and we didn’t regret spending St. Patrick’s in Brussels. This crossroads of Europe has a knack for welcoming and appropriating multiple cultures, while managing to maintain its singularity in such a small geographical area, which these two American expats living in Paris appreciated most!

Beckett Expo: A sneak peak

Beckett SignI caught a sneak peak last night of the Samuel Beckett exposition that opens today at the Centre Pompidou. It was difficult for me to imagine exactly how an art museum would present the work of a novelist, playwright, and poet, but with all of the audio and video pieces, as well as paintings influenced by or favored by Beckett, the show pulls it off and you can spend hours taking it all in.

I recently took on a small side project of creating a Samuel Beckett crossword, which forced me to research and rediscover the work of one of my favorite authors of the twentieth century. As Professor Tom Bishop discussed in a talk he gave last fall, Beckett criticism often focuses on pessimism, the failure of language, the human condition of blindly, senselessly marching towards inescapable death. Bishop points out, however, that no character in Beckett’s work ever commits suicide, and there is a strange sort of optimism that one can read once they put down the existentialist lens. Godot never arrives, but Bishop asks, would it necessarily be a good thing if he did? The waiting continues, the characters continue to be.

Rather than attempt to delve deeper into Beckettian criticism, I thought I’d list some of my favorite Beckett quotations here, as a primer for those new to his work.

“Il faut continuer, je ne peux pas continuer… Je vais continuer.”
“You must go on. I can’t go on. I will go on.”

“Tant quil ya de la vie, il y a de l’espoir.”
As long as there is life, there is hope.

“Rire ou pleurer c’est la même chose à la fin.”
“Laugh or cry, it all comes out the same in the end.”

“Mais à cet endroit, en ce moment, l’humanité c’est nous, que ça nous plaise ou non. Profitons-en, avant qu’il soit trop tard.”
“But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late!”

Beckett MouthBeckett PortraitBeckett Ticket

A Farm in Paris?

Salon d??agricultureThe Parisians are certainly connected to their rural roots. Sure, they have plenty of stereotypes about the provinces and countryfolk, but when it comes to food, even urbanites need to show off their agricultural savoir. Hence, the great success of the Salon d’Agriculture in Paris.

We went to the Salon on Friday for the special late-night opening hours (we closed the place down at 11pm). Several exposition buildings the size of a football field were filled with cows, pigs, goats, horses, dogs, and other animals of all varieties. If you didn’t find the smell discouraging to the appetite, you could also sample excellent cheeses, wines, and all sorts of regional specialties. One taste of confiture de lait (milk jam) and I had to buy two cans of the stuff. “Que du lait et du sucre” said the vendor: “only milk and sugar,” an interesting selling point.

I was sorry to have waited until the last minute to attend. International visitors may enter for free (passport is enough proof) and I would have enjoyed exploring more of the show, especially since there were many knit items in wool, alpaca, and mohair (displayed next to the goats and sheep, of course. Again, if you don’t mind the smell). Our wine tasting was a bit rushed as well, but I did find a pretty good bottle of dry (not sweet) rosé. The crowds were enormous, and I tried to imagine the Wisconsin State Fair taking place in Westchester County, New York, drawing crowds from Manhattan and clogging the subway for an hour. I couldn’t picture it. This was a uniquely French experience.

Baby CowsCharolaisgoatCuisine d??AntanSheepWine Tasting

A Woman’s World in 1902

1902 Almanac Cover
Look what I found! I picked up this 1902 almanac at an antique book fair this week. It is packed with the lovliest images of most everything a respected housewife would need to know in 1902: maps (both terrestrial and celestial), wheat varieties, bicycles, pipes, fashion, statues from Antiquity, furniture, jewelry, European rulers, theater seating charts… This reference for daily life is a window to another era, showing the past under a new light. I particularly love the kind of sources that unveil customs and habits ?? sources that simply answer the question, ‘what did regular people do back then?’

The section on health and remedies is particularly revealing. Sadly, we have not made any progress in curing the migraine headache (the recommended treatment is the same today: caffeine and staying far away from light). Nevertheless, modern medecine has proven that, contrary to the 1902 belief, smoking cigarettes (!) probably isn’t the best remedy for a cough or the flu.

The hair styles look complicated to do up every single day, but there was an easy solution to this time-consuming practice: in 1902, it was recommended that women wash their hair once a month (once a week for men). Women would probably leave their hairdo in.

The large calendar section was perhaps the most important for the reader’s role in the family: it was the wife’s job to keep track of the household budget, so each day she wrote down expenses and earnings. At the beginning of each month are ideas for family meals, which was a serious financial responsability. The yearly proportion of earnings that went to food in 1902 is significantly larger than it is today. Food was by far the biggest expenditure: 4 1/2 months of salary per year were spent on it, compared to 2 months of salary for rent, and just 10 days of salary spent on taxes. Other expenditures:
1 1/2 months for “la bonne” (the servant)
1 month for up-keep
1 month for savings
1 month for children’s education
15 days spent on heat
5 days devoted to “les plaisirs” (pleasures)

While I am focusing on the Fin-de-Siècle and Belle Epoque for my dissertation, I have worked extensively on the interwar period as well, which is characterized by a great concern with dropping birthrates. So much has been written about pronatalism in the 1920s and 1930s, I was somewhat suprised to note the same concern in the 1902 almanac (by the way, France pushed a pronatalist policy into the 1980s). I have included this page below, entitled “La Frace sans enfants.” Note the proverb at the bottom: “Household without children, vine without branch.” With all the homemaker had to keep up with in daily life, between theater visits, social calls, sewing, horse and dog shows, agricultural salons, and letter-writing (there is a whole section on that, including handwriting analysis), it is no wonder she couldn’t find time to produce a soccer team of children.

1902 Almanac Enfants1902 Almanac Hair1902 Almanac Inventions

Red Lentil Soup

Lentil SoupI love cooking with red lentils.  They are teeny tiny, so you can buy them dry, store them forever, and they will cook fast (you don’t have to pre-soak and plan 4 hours ahead like some dried legumes).  They turn a yellowish color once cooked, so do not be alarmed when they seem to disappear.

This recipe is a variation on a soup that my friend Robert made when we lived in Aix-en-Provence way back when.  I remember looking at his recipe card and it was called something like “Spicy Lentil Soup” and had  a hand-written note next to the name that said “‘spicy’ not hot.”  So rest assured, this will not burn your mouth at all, but it is quite flavorful!

Red Lentil Soup

Prep Time: 40 minutes
Serves: 6

What you need:
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
2 onions, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 leek, cut into rounds
2 medium carrots, cut into rounds
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 cup dry red lentils
1 small can corn, drained
salt to taste
1 wine bottle of water (750 cl)

What to do:
Over med-high heat, cook the oil in a soup pot and add the onions and garlic.  Cook about 5 minutes, or until onions are soft.  Add the spices, then the leek, and cook a further 5 minutes.  Add half the water and bring to a boil.  Once the water is boiling, add the carrots.  Cook 5 minutes.  Add the rest of the water and once boiling, add the lentils.  Cover and reduce heat to low and cook for 20 minutes or until lentils are soft.  Add the corn just before serving.

The Case of the Disappearing Cheese Course

FromageDrawingMy “Mamie” Simone gave us an elegant cheese platter for our wedding. Made of etched glass, it has a simple round design with a stainless steel loop in the middle for easy transporting and it even came with a matching cheese knife. It is an up-to-date, sleek version of the classic French cheese plate. French eating habits may be passing up this classic altogether, however, no matter how contemporary the platter.

Just a couple decades ago, most every French restaurant passed around a cheese cart after the main dish and before the dessert. There was a code of conduct as the cart came by: how many cheeses to sample (three to four, I believe, was standard), and in which order (weakest to strongest in flavor). In the dozen or so years that I have been coming to France, members of my family and friends of my parents’ generation would not think of having a meal without a cheese course.

My Parisian friends tell me they see this tradition less and less among our generation. As meals become more simplified and quickly prepared, the cheese course seems to be less of a staple. It appears that just as organic and whole grain foods become en vogue in the U.S., the “americanization” of French eating habits has taken hold here.

Nonetheless, our local fromagerie seems to do lots of business. This American has no other option but to be optimistic about the future of the cheese course, if for no other reason than the enjoyment I have from dinners with friends, aged gouda, dry chèvre, and passing around Mamie’s cheese plate.

Haute Couture

Fashion ShowLast night I went to a fashion show of the designer Sophia Kokosalaki, creatively held inside the Musée de l’Homme.  It was my first time going to such an event, and so a fashion-savy friend warned me that everything would probably be running  late, and that the actual runway walking would fly by.  The show started an hour late and lasted about 20 minutes.  But it was fun!  You can’t tell by the blurry picture I snuck, but the clothes were actually pretty ready to wear.  Lots of bubble skirts that I have the urge to try to make myself, if only I had my sewing machine here!

What was most exciting was simply watching the whole process surrounding the event.  I waltzed right in through the door and just followed a few photographers up the winding paths and staircases, a half dozen or so ushers greeting me along the way.  I must have looked like I knew what I was doing, because I went right through the doors of the not-quite-so-ready runway.  I quickly realized I was in the wrong place and found a nice window ledge to sit on outside the room, which just so happened to have the perfect view of the Eiffel Tower.

A friendly fashion student stood next to me; she had snuck in with someone else’s name and was hoping her friends would be able to do the same. The crowd seemed to be a mixture of the fashion curious and the fashion obsessed (I was expecting more of the latter).  There were buyers&blackberries, journalists, and many exaggerated versions of the fashionistas I see wandering around our Marais neighborhood.  My circa-January 2007 outfit was so extremely passé when compared to the boxy cut tops and short poofy skirts that I will be able to afford in 2009, when the tenth knock-off of such items are available at TJ Maxx.

Enough about the quirky crowd, however:  The models’ marching was the biggest surprise.   I do know that a runway show is really about the clothes, and I do appreciate designers’ work as a form of art. It is an expression of creativity that influences or can be influenced by the way we live and how we think about ourselves in our time. But the side view that I had of the models walking down the runway revealed the disturbing arched backs and jerky footsteps for which these women train for years.  At one point, I mistook a protruding hip bone for a poof in one of the skirts.  Without thinking about any sort of social implications or issues of body image, I just found it strange that this could possibly be the most effective way to show off the handiwork of a talented clothing designer.  It must look better in photographs… or perhaps I would like to think it would look great on someone “real” like me!

Musee de l??HommeTour EiffelFashion Show 2