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Monthly Archives: May 2012

For uninteresting reasons I’ve been under a lot of stress for the past two weeks – lots to do, lots to do. Now it’s the last day of May and I’m wondering what happened to spring. Other than foraging for ramps, I haven’t had much of a chance to enjoy the season’s best produce – although there has been a good deal of asparagus. It’s a big thing here in Berlin – both the green and the white varieties.

Sometimes when I get preoccupied, I find myself going from point A to B without engaging, too busy stewing and dwelling on thoughts. This had been happening last week, so I made myself go grocery shopping first thing Saturday morning before I sat down at the computer. I picked up asparagus and some good potatoes at the market. Simple, great things to have around. It was going to be a long, sad weekend and there wouldn’t be much room for planning dinners (except: shout out to Alexis for drinking wine with me at the faux-American “dive bar” in Prenzlauer Berg on Sunday – that was fun).

One day, when I get sick of writing paragraphs about the role of architectural ornament in the history of art, I’m going to open a bar – not a restaurant – and serve some amazing cocktails based mostly on obscure Italian aperitifs. And I’m going to have a daily one-pot dish – gumbo, jambalaya, tamales, whatever. It’s going to be great.

Since it was memorial day weekend in the U.S., thought of one memorial day weekend three years ago in Chicago. This beginning-of-summer holiday always fell right before finals week for us on the quarter system, so I always spent it writing papers. But that year it was my very last quarter of coursework, ever, and I was more carefree. So I did a lot of wine-drinking with my roommates on Cleaver Street and some friends I had made in my new department that year. That summer ushered in one of the best years of graduate school – the time between coursework and exams when the idea of a dissertation wasn’t real, but you felt like you were moving on to a whole new phase.

Simple, great things (roasted):

Buy the best looking asparagus and potatoes you can find at the market. Buy small potatoes and thin stalks of asparagus. Wash and trim the asparagus, wash and half the potatoes. Preheat your oven to hot- I put mine here at 200 C. Then douse all of the vegetables in olive oil and shake them around in a pan with lots of salt and pepper. You should see evidence of both easily from afar. Roast until the potatoes are golden brown and the asparagus is wilted and caramelized. Serve with two fried eggs, and cold rosé wine.

Last week I finally got around to going to Paris.

I was excited to go but hadn’t really thought about it much about it before I went. I had heard so many people rave about the city and just as many complain about how it wasn’t all that great, and I didn’t know what to make of all the info and opinions. Paris, unlike Berlin, is so mythologized in the minds of Americans that you’re almost guaranteed to be let down in one way or another if you fixate on having a certain experience. So I decided to spend a mere afternoon [ reading a few blogs on the subject ], and limited the information flow to a few suggestions from friends. As it turns out, this was a good plan. I really liked Paris.

I loved the tiled and brightly-lit métro stations. I didn’t care for the cost and hassle of buying tickets (Berlin as a city is much cheaper and easier than Paris in many ways) but I found myself riding around more than I probably had too because it was just fun.

I also was impressed with the density of parks and monuments, and the supreme sense of order that pervaded these. I suppose Paris was a pioneer in the whole urban planning thing and it shows. I really was taken aback by the extent to which its parks were manicured, even more so than the garden squares and parks of London. I only went into one museum during my time there, since the city itself felt a bit like a museum.

I liked how, in front of the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, lines made of stone slabs radiated outward from a single point toward the city as if to envelop the whole thing in a net.

And, yes, there was food. I don’t have a great deal of cash and I wasn’t there for long, but I did make it a point to make the most of it. The first night I had the good fortune to overlap with a [ friend from Chicago ] who was on her way out. We went to a wine bar, had a planche de charcuterie and wines from the Languedoc and she told me amazing stories about her journeys through France. It was a great way to begin the trip.

Thanks to a handy set of recommendations from David Lebovitz’s blog, I also had [ a sort-list of places to try ] saved to my iPad. The two places that I tried (A la biche au bois and Breizh Café) were both recommended on his list, and were both winners.

I am not the right person to discuss Parisian cuisine, but I will share one memorable dinner that I had: A cold wine-based aperitif, which was delicious but whose name I forget. A salade perigourdine, served in this case with foie gras instead of the more traditional gesier de canard (confit of duck gizzards). Then there was roast duck with wild mushrooms followed by a cheese course and a chocolate mousse drenched in Grand Marnier. That night I drank Côtes du Rhône.

I didn’t do much food photography. I was eating alone most of the time and just thought it would be weird to whip out a camera. I did take a picture of the one felafel sandwich I had. I’ve got to say that I found it mediocre. The eggplant was oily and flavorless and the bread was tough. And it cost 5 euros.

So, I think I’ll be going back to Paris. Maybe with a friend or two instead of solo next time. I didn’t even see a fraction of the sights and there’s much more eating to be done I’m sure. I’ll budget a few more euros for the next trip and make sure that I don’t get Orly Sud mixed up with Orly Ouest, a mistake that almost made me miss my flight back to Berlin.

Finally, I have a drink recipe to post. There’s nothing particularly Parisian about it but I feel like the Parisians would enjoy it. It’s sophisticated and delicious and oh so easy to make. As will become clear on this blog, I have a “thing” for slightly-obscure Italian before- and after-dinner drinks. If I could afford it, I’d have the whole lot, from Aperol to vin santo, in my apartment at all times. Unfortunately, the current budget situation means that I have to limit myself to buying one new specialty liquor at a time and so I end up drinking a lot of the same thing for a couple of weeks. Fortunately, Averna (a type of amaro) is delicious and I haven’t gotten sick of mixing it with bitter lemon and a few ice cubes. It’s technically a digestif, but I drink it before dinner, in the late afternoon, with snacks.

Note: I usually make mine half the size of the following recipe, as my glassware is small. This makes for a nice, light drink.

Averna with Bitter Lemon

Ingredients (For one drink)

2 oz Averna

4 oz bitter lemon soda (I like Schwepps), or slightly more to taste

Lemon slice for garnish

Directions

Put 3-4 ice cubes in a highball glass (8-10 oz). Pour the Averna over the ice, then top off with bitter lemon. Garnish with the slice of lemon.

Serve with salty snacks, e.g. peanuts.

Last week Berlin experienced a brief “heatwave.” The temperatures went all the way to the upper 70s and the population hit the sidewalks and parks in numbers I haven’t seen since last summer. Joe, a friend of mine in Berlin, and I decided to escape to the deep suburbs to see some “nature” and avoid the crowds. Of course there was a culinary aim to this adventure as well – to procure wild ramps.

Thanks to some sage advice from [ Berlin Plants ], our mission was a total success. It took an hour to reach the [ Botanischer Volkspark Pankow ], requiring trains, buses, trams and Ersatzverkehr, but the payoff was huge. A few steps into the forest revealed entire patches of wild ramps ready for the picking.

Ramps like shady, wet environments, and we found them growing along the side of streams and at the roots of the large trees that dotted the forest. The ramps were easy to spot – apart from their distinctive garlicky smell (one way to tell them apart from poisonous lookalikes like lily of the valley), they were just beginning to flower. Ramp flowers are white and come in spray-like clusters.

If you are going to forage for ramps, just make sure you do your own research first and bring plenty of pictures so that you don’t pick up the wrong plants. There are [lots of helpful sites] out there regarding wild edible plants.

Around here ramps are called Bärlauch, which means something like “bear’s garlic.” Cute, no? Ramps seem to have been “rediscovered” in American kitchens as a [ new, trendy ingredient ] a couple of years ago. To judge from menus at restaurants in Neukölln and Kreuzberg, ramp-mania has also hit Berlin. Bärlauch is not new to German cooking, however. Popular ways to use it include making it into a pesto or simply chopping the leaves and mixing them into butter to spread on hunks of bread.

Passing craze or not, ramps do have a delicious flavor – garlicky and oniony at the same time and a perfect match for other savory ingredients like eggs and bacon. Since I’m a huge fan of omelets at any time of day, a bag full of fresh ramps provided an excellent excuse to do breakfast for dinner that night. We bought a salty, triple-cream style cheese at Winterfeldmarkt, which worked well with the savory taste of the ramps. Served with an aperitif, this was the prefect way to end a successful day of foraging.

Speaking of aperitifs and omelets, as I compose this post I am sitting in a hostel lobby in Paris. I’m only here for a short time, but intend to do as much eating as I can, so next week I’ll be back with culinary reports. It’s my first time in France, so I’m hoping to have much to tell.

Omelet with Ramps, Bacon and Triple-Cream Cheese

Ingredients (for 1 omelet)

3 eggs

A handful of ramps (15-20 leaves)

3-4 strips of bacon

A piece (c. 50 grams) of soft, salty cheese (e.g. Délice de Bourgogne)

Salt and black pepper to taste

Directions

Prepare the ramps by thoroughly washing the leaves and stems and trimming off the bulbs if you have them. Save the bulbs for another dish like flavoring soups. Coarsely chop the leaves and set aside.

Fry the bacon in a medium-sized pan over low heat. If necessary add a drop of olive oil to the pan to keep the bacon from sticking.

Meanwhile, Beat the eggs with a few drops of water in a bowl. Add salt and pepper to taste.

When the bacon is done, turn off the heat, remove it from the pan and chop. Pour off all but a tablespoon of the grease, supplementing with olive oil if necessary and then saute the ramp leaves in the grease over medium heat for a couple of minutes until wilted and fragrant.

Add the chopped bacon and then the beaten eggs, turning the pan so that the whole of the bottom is coated with the egg mixture. Over low heat, cook until the sides begin to firm. I like to use a rubber spatula to lift up the edges while tilting the pan so that the runny beaten egg in the middle disperses to the sides and cooks evenly.

When the bottom is firm, add the cheese and fold one half of the omelet over so that the edges meet. Over very low heat continue to cook just until the cheese melts, flipping the omelet over once or twice so that the outsides don’t burn.

Serve immediately with a salad or roasted potatoes.