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April in Paris


The magic started right away, on the RER train to Paris from the airport, when two men carrying huge bunches of lilacs got on and sat next to us, their fingernails rough and grimy, chapped hands clutching the ragged ends of the lilac branches. They let us smell the flowers, us lilac-deprived New Yorkers, groggy from the flight.


It continued when we got to our hotel on the rue de Verneuil, just steps from where I used to live, and it turned out that the hôtel particulier across the street used to be Serge Gainsbourg's. The wall encircling the private garden was covered with graffiti and stencils of Serge, Jane, Charlotte, and others. I had to rub my eyes.


I finally saw rascasses in the flesh, on ice, at a little market just behind the Place de la Madeleine. You can't find them in the United States, but I always read about them in recipes for bouillabaisse, that spicy, rusty fish soup from Marseille. The market also sold olives so pungent I smelled them from four stands away, great big rounds of brie de Meaux, faintly pocked, handfuls of bright yellow ranunculus for just three euros, and roasted beets, cooled and waiting in their jackets for shoppers to take them home.


Everywhere we went, I saw people holding small bouquets of lilies-of-the-valley, just in time for the sudden advent of spring, or May Day, I suppose. They were even affixed under a plaque of a police station in the sixième. An efficient little police bike stood under the bouquet at attention, while sharply-dressed policemen milled about inside the station, cooling their heels.


Oh Paris, with your darling streets named after grammarians and revolutionaries and mathematicians. I spent the entire first day agog, head turned upwards in wonder, mouth agape. I lived there for a year; I mean, I know that city, and still it left me speechless.


We had hot chocolate at Angelina, and watched little girls and boys stand in front of the pastry case in wonder. The chocolate came in a sweet little jug along with a pot of thick cream to dollop on top. We had to split it four ways, of course. It was too rich otherwise. But it was delicious.


If you don't already know about the cheese course at Astier, in the 11th, consider this your nudge. When you're in Paris, have dinner there. Skip the desserts, they're nothing special. But whatever you do, don't skip the cheese. The waiter, winking, will bring you this straw platter covered with...can you count how many cheeses? With a few knives and a nub or two of bread, settle in until he comes by again, cluck-clucking, to take the cheese away and bring it to another deserving table.


We were lucky with the weather: a few of those perfectly moody Parisian days, in which the sky is a soft shade of gray, like old kid gloves, and the light falls just so and it never quite rains, so that each street and corner you discover feels like a gift and a temporary reprieve; and then a few days of bright, brilliant sky, where the sunlight illuminated the creamy colors of the buildings and I practically got tears in my eyes from all the beauty around us.


The magic infused every bit of this perfect little trip. It was something that filled up our souls and made us promise to do it again next year and the year after that. It may have even made me feel like I reclaimed Paris from my ghosts of the past. Now it's all about the future, our next trips, the ones we daydreamed we might take one day with our children: a bunch of women and their kids in a rented apartment somewhere, going to Angelina for hot chocolate and the Place des Vosges for soccer and the Jardin du Luxembourg for a puppet theater. It's just a dream for now, but if the magic makes it happen, I think it's a tradition I'm going to love.


More photos here.

Francis Lam's Baked Rice

It may have to do with the fact that in just over 24 hours I'll be on an airplane to Paris with my girlfriends, for my first trip there since my mother and I met up in the Marais for a weekend four years ago, but I can't seem to focus on any kind of proper recipe at all right now. Instead, I'm thinking about being in Paris.

It's funny, how each time there gets sorted under a different rubric. For a long time, I associated Paris with my father, who took me there a few times in college, and who has his own ongoing love affair with the city. I lived there for a year myself, working and struggling, because despite the glorious city around me and the interesting work I had, it felt like a struggle to this then-21 year old, to be seen, to feel connected, to find a way - any way - to feel a little less alone there. I had to take a break from Paris when I left, had to banish it from my thoughts, because my experience had turned into something quite painful, a lost love haunting every memory I had of the place. But I've slowly been finding my way back, through blogs and stories and the soft passage of time. And now I'm so excited I can't sit still, can't wait to be back for a new experience this time: Paris with my girls. It's a whole new thing.

I'll be back next week with photos and stories for you, but before I go, I have to tell you about something that seriously made my week (already): Francis Lam's method for cooking rice. Embedded deep within an article he wrote for were just a few short sentences that me both smile and sit up straight:

"Warm up a heavy saucepan with a tight-fitting lid over medium-high heat. Give it a few nice glugs of olive oil. Don’t be stingy. Now throw in your rice and stir it around...until...maybe half the rice has turned opaque. Pour in your water; it will probably boil immediately. If not, make it boil. Then cover it and drop it in the oven. Pull it out 13 minutes later. If you’re one of those freaky people who can cook rice perfectly on the stove, do whatever it is that you do. Weirdo."

Freaky, indeed! Who, exactly, can cook rice perfectly on the stove? Not even my 12-grade boyfriend's Iranian mother and she had, like, 5,000 years of culinary perfection in her DNA. I use Martha Stewart's method and not even that is foolproof. So, clutching my computer and feeling determined, I marched straight into the kitchen and turned the oven on.

I had an inkling about those lines of Francis's, you know, that they would somehow change my life. Some of you might scoff, but the others know what I mean, right? Yeasted doughs, homemade pasta, soufflés, caramel, the supposedly difficult achievements in the kitchen that make you feel so proud when you master them, those achievements all fall away after being confronted by yet another pot of overcooked or undercooked, slightly chewy or frustratingly soft rice. So simple in theory, yet so difficult to master.

But my inkling was right, my life changed: perfect rice, suddenly within reach. Plus, so easy, so stress-free. The oven did all the work and all I had to do was show up when the timer screeched. It was quite the mid-week surprise. We scooped out our nice grains of rice, cooked with just the right amount of moisture, and munched happily away, with plenty left over for fried rice the next night.

(The fried rice, you ask: I used Mark Bittman's recipe, which was okay, but next time I'll try something that looks more like this, or like this. Or maybe one of you has a fried rice recipe that you think I can't live without? Pretty please!)


Life-Changing Baked Rice
Serves at least 4

1 tablespoon olive oil or butter
2 cups basmati or long-grain white rice
3 cups (or 2 3/4 cups, if you like dryer grains) water
1/2 teaspoon salt

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Pour the olive oil or place the butter in a heavy saucepan with a tight-fitting lid (I used my Le Creuset soup pot) and set the pan over medium-high heat. Throw in the rice and stir it until the oil or butter coats all the grain. Cook, stirring, for a few minutes. The rice will look glassy and smell toasty.

2. Pour in the water, add the salt, and bring to a boil. Stir the rice once, then cover the pot and place in the oven. Set the timer for 13 minutes.

3. After 13 minutes, remove the pot from the oven. Do not remove the lid from the pot and let the rice rest for five minutes. After resting, fork through the rice to fluff it and serve.

Pietro Gangemi's Torta di Carciofi


Readers, forgive me. I first told you about the wonderful torta di carciofi my uncle made over New Year's in January, promising you the recipe soon, and, well - uh - it's Tax Day. Okay, so consider this my Tax Day present to you! Or a belated Easter gift! I finally converted his recipe from metric to Imperial (and from scribbled down on a piece of paper while watching his every move to an actual, usable recipe) and I'm so happy to present it to you.

Eagle-eyed readers will notice that my torta doesn't quite look like his torta. I think this may have something to do with the difference in store-bought puff pastry - his Belgian pastry came already rolled out into a large, thin circle, while mine was in thickish rectangles and had to be patchworked together. His tart tin was bigger than mine, too, so his torta is flatter. And, lastly, my uncle - as I think I've mentioned before - is an artichoke whisperer. He closes himself into the kitchen with a sharp paring knife and a bowl of acidulated water and, and meditates or something, goes into a fugue state, cleaning big mountains of thorny little artichokes, transforming them into silky, delicious dishes that make me want to park myself with a fork at his table and never, ever leave.

Me, I'm not so gifted. Also, there are no baby artichokes available here right now. So I made do with frozen. (Stop screaming! They're not so bad, in a pinch. Yes, this torta will taste even better with fresh artichokes, it's true. But it's darn tasty with frozen, too.)


What you do is cook the frozen artichoke quarters in olive oil, plain, no garlic, no nothing, until they get browned in places and the kitchen smells delicious. If you're my uncle, you cut the cleaned artichokes into little slivers before cooking them in olive oil. Let them get nice and brown, even browner than in this photo. That means high-ish heat, and monitoring. If things start to stick to the bottom of your pan, you can always deglaze with a little water and keep going. Brown bits stuck to the pan are a good thing! They mean flavor.

When you're almost done with the artichokes, you season them and sprinkle with parsley, then let them cool chopping them up. You add them, fragrant as can be, to creamy, nutmeg-scented ricotta, season this a bit more and then pile the filling into a puff-pastry lined cake tin.


If you're cooking in America, store-bought puff pastry  comes in rectangles, so you've got to do a little craft work. It's okay if your resulting lined tin doesn't look very pretty - this is rustic and rustic is good. I used a combination of pinching, a water-dipped finger, fork-work, and plain old-fashioned cursing to get the puff pastry bits to stick to each other in the tin. If you happen to live elsewhere, your store-bought puff pastry might come already rolled out into a lovely circle. Lucky you! You should make two of these, just for kicks.

Right, so pour in the filling, fold down the pastry over the filling, brush with an egg wash which will make the torta look so pretty and burnished and bake it in a hot oven until the pastry browns and rises and the filling is set and your house smells amazing and the people coming for lunch trip over themselves to peek into the oven and hang about your kitchen, getting in the way like the adorably hungry people they are. I mean, do you blame them? You shouldn't.


This torta is simply delicious. The pastry is light and crackly, the artichokes are nice and savory, but with that haunting, sweet top note, and there's something very pure and clean about the taste of it, not mucked up with strange herbs or too much garlic or whatever else makes vegetable pies a sometimes dubious presence on a lunch buffet.

Pietro says you can use different vegetables in the filling, it doesn't always have to be artichokes. He recommends trying broccoli with sundried tomatoes (use only the broccoli florets, not the stalks, and boil them before sautéing in olive oil - and chop the tomatoes up nicely), or, of course, zucchini. I haven't tried those yet, but you probably all know by now that if Pietro recommends something, it's going to be good.

Now forget about the fact that it took me four months to get this to you and go shopping! Start working on your artichoke-cleaning skills! Or be a lazy bum like me and buy frozen! Whatever you do, don't wait as long as I did to make this. Buon appetito!

Torta di Carciofi (Artichoke Torta)
Serves 10 to 12

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 9-ounce box frozen artichoke hearts OR 10 to 13 fresh baby artichokes (cleaned and cut into slivers)
3/4 teaspoon salt, divided
1/2 cup parsley leaves, minced
2 large eggs
1 pound ricotta (about 500 grams)
20 strokes freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano
Freshly ground black pepper
1 package prepared puff pastry

1. Heat the olive oil in a 12-inch skillet until hot but not smoking. Add the artichokes and cook over medium-high heat for about 20 to 25 minutes, stirring occasionally and constantly monitoring the heat. You want the artichokes to brown but not burn, to sauté but not steam. You can periodically deglaze the pan with a spoonful or two of water, scraping up the browned bits at the bottom of the pan. When the artichokes have taken on color and are fully cooked, add 1/2 teaspoon salt and the minced parsley and mix well. Remove from heat and let cool until you're able to transfer the artichokes to a cutting board, scraping the pan well. Using a large knife, roughly cut the cooked artichokes into small pieces.

2. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a 10- or 12-inch cake tin (or springform pan or pizza pan) with parchment paper and then with puff pastry, making sure that the pastry lines the sides of the pan with plenty of hang-over.

3. In a mixing bowl, combine 1 egg, the ricotta, the nutmeg, Parmigiano, the remaining salt, and pepper to taste. Add the chopped artichokes and mix well. (If you're secure about your egg quality, taste the filling at this point and adjust if it needs more salt.) Pour the filling into the prepared pastry. Fold the pastry that hangs over the sides of the pan over the filling and press down gently where the dough overlaps. Beat the remaining egg in a small bowl and brush the beaten egg over the pastry (not the filling).

4. Put the torta into the oven and bake for 50 to 60 minutes. The pastry will brown and the filling will set. Remove from the oven and cool on a rack before using the parchment paper to remove the torta from the tin. Set it on a serving plate, cut into slices, and serve. Tastes best cooled but not cold.

Mark Bittman's Egg Noodles with Soy Broth


I may have been raised by a Roman in an extended family of Italo-Saxon gourmands, but I will have you know that I periodically, in high school, did indulge in an after school snack comprised of two slices of German Schwarzbrot sandwiching an oozy crimson layer of ketchup. Yes! It's true. I used to eat ketchup sandwiches. But, get this, that's not even the worst of it! Just to mix things up a bit - adventures of a latch-key kid, oh my - I sometimes boiled up a handful of pasta and sauced it with, you guessed it, that sauce of all sauces, ketchup.

Will horrors never cease? You probably think I should have my food professional license revoked.

But you need to know this to understand why, when I read this Minimalist column two weeks ago, my ears pricked up and my eyes widened. Who cares about authenticity? Noodles in a soy broth made with ketchup sounded like my kind of dinner - a throwback to my days on Bambergerstraße after school, gussied up just a wee bit with rice vinegar and toasted sesame oil.