Elizabeth came to Paris almost a decade ago and never really left. While she was studying abroad, she fell in love with a Frenchman, eventually married him, and slowly learned how to make a life in the city of lights. Her story is told in her new book Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes which includes dozens of recipes that marked special moments during her transition. These include recipes for seduction, meals to warm you up when your apartment doesn’t have central heat, and slimming summer recipes for the bikini days of French vacation.
I talked to Elizabeth about her book and particularly about what anyone can do to make their kitchen more “Frenchie.” You can catch up with her on the Lunch in Paris Facebook fan page.
Q: One of the most obvious traits of French cooking that I noticed in your book was the tendency to buy fresh fruits, vegetables and meat at markets. Is it easier to find open air markets in France than in America? And how does cooking with fresh ingredients affect the quality of the final meal?
I think the most important thing I’ve learned while shopping and cooking in Paris is that if you start with good things – you don’t need to do much to them to make them taste great. A little olive oil, a hot frying pan and an open bottle of white wine and you’re good to go.
Outdoor markets are everywhere in France – it’s a tradition that has really endured, and it has become my favorite form of “window shopping”. I feel like farmer’s markets are becoming easier to find in US – sometime they cost a bit more, but I’d rather buy less, and use quality ingredients. One of the great things about the markets is I’ll often buy a fruit or veggie or type of fish that I’ve never seen before. Browsing encourages my sense of adventure and experimentation.
Q: In the book, you mention how much you like sea salt, which is different than the salt most Americans probably use that comes in a cardboard cylinder with a spout. What is sea salt and what qualities make you prefer it?
Sea salt is simply the leftovers from evaporated sea water. Regular table salt is often from underground sources that have been mined and chemically treated – which strips the mineral content. I prefer sea salt because I find it has a less chemical taste to it. I love the coarse sea salt (as opposed to fine grained), because taking a pinch from a jar gives you more control than shaking or grinding. It’s also beautiful stuff – the tiny crystals make me feel like I’m sprinkling my food with tiny diamonds.
If you are using table salt in a recipe, you should start with a smaller amount. Because table salt has very fine grains – there’s a lot more in terms of volume than you get with coarse sea salt. Here’s a good link that explains some of the differences.
Q: The selection of vegetables at the market seemed to vary from what we have available in America. For instance, you had great trouble locating parsnips, but leeks and celery root seemed to be plentiful. What was it like learning to chop and cook new vegetables and to make do without some old favorites?
Discovering new foods is probably my favorite thing about living in France. Celery root – which looks like a brain – is a particularly smug Paris discovery. Peeled, boiled and mashed with a few potatoes and a bit of milk and butter, it’s the best mashed potato dish I’ve ever tasted.
Sometimes homesickness kicks in – and I feel like I want to make something EXACTLY like my mom used to make in the US – that impulse usually ends in tears – and a big pot of something simple and French, like onion soup with melted Swiss cheese.
Q: When it comes to meat and fish, the French seem to prefer cooking with the whole animal. In the book you talk about buying fish who still have glassy eyes staring back at you, and in one chapter your friend cooks a wild boar. Some American cooks might be intimidated by this. How difficult is it to learn how to cook and debone a fish or cook with a whole animal?
I too grew up with my meat and fish under saran wrap at the local Shoprite – so going to the butcher and fishmonger was a real revelation for me. I like food that I’m a bit afraid of – I love to try new things. There’s usually no need to do what I did – getting fish guts all over your hands – any respectable fish place will do it for you. With fish, cooking the whole animal actually makes your life easier – as the skin protects the delicate flesh from drying out. It makes quick methods like broiling a real option. One weekday meal we eat all the time at home is whole sea bass (head, eyes and everything) – drizzled with a bit of oil olive and a pinch of sea salt – 5 minutes on each side under the broiler and it’s done. I call it French “fast food”. (If there’s no whole fish at your supermarket – try an Asian supermarket – they often have several varieties.)
With meat, I think the key thing is not to be scared to point and stare – and ask questions. Treat a trip to a butcher like a field trip – it’s so sexy to watch them wield those huge knives. They will take care of the deboning, and usually the guy behind the counter will have some great suggestions about how to cook what you buy.
Q: When I was in Paris, I remember seeing rows of street vendors not far from Montmartre who all had huge jars of Nutella on their carts. You mention that your step-father, Paul, became a big fan of the chocolate-hazelnut Nutella. Why is Nutella so popular in France?
The French don’t eat much “on the run” – and a crepe filled with chocolately Nutella is one of the great exceptions. Maybe it’s like peanut butter and jelly or smores – a childhood taste that you never quite outgrow. I grew up studying for my final exams with a jar of Pillsbury vanilla frosting and a plastic spoon – I feel like the Nutella habit could become I bit like that. Thank god, I don’t love hazelnuts, or I’d be in real trouble.
Q: I was horrified to learn that the French don’t bake Christmas cookies. Are cookies unpopular in general in France? If so, what do you eat in their place?
Yup – they’re weird that way. The first time my husband saw the blue icing on the Christmas cookies, he got a bit freaked out – his comment was: “Why would anyone want to eat blue food?” That said, the French have their own wonderful Christmas traditions. They often serve a Bûche de Noël – a cake made in the form of a Yule log – it can be made with mousse or ice-cream or custard – very yummy. Every Christmas morning my husband makes a big stack of crepes – which we eat with jam, yogurt, Nutella, or sweet chestnut puree. My favorite is a plain crepe (warm!) sprinkled with sugar and a squeeze of lemon.
Q: Were there any recipes you had to leave out of the book? Was it hard to decide what to include?
I tried to include things that I make a lot, and that hold nice memories for me. The recipes in the book are the meals that really helped me discover France culture. For example, I never liked mayonnaise until I tasted a homemade version in my mother-in-law’s kitchen. The tagines (North African stews), which I learned from my husband’s godfather, are what I often make for a party. They are definite crowd pleasers – and taste even better made a bit in advance. There are also a few family recipes from the USA. My grandmother passed away last year, and I’m so glad I finally got down a reliable recipe for her wonderful spaghetti sauce with pork ribs – it just feels like home to me.
Q: Are there any plans for another cookbook in the future?
I have a six month old son, and at some point I’d love to write a children’s cookbook with him as my little sous-chef and taster. I’m always amazed sitting down at family meals in France – French kids eat everything – anchovies and smelly cheeses and such – there’s no hiding the spinach in a brownie!
Today we talked food – tomorrow is romance. Elizabeth’s blog tour takes a sexier turn tomorrow – an interview with the Yolanda Shoshana, the Luscious Lifestyle Diva!