Sunday, December 26, 2010

Movie Review: Paris

Arctic air is blowing, the sun is setting much too early, and the DC weather forecast is threatening snow.  It's the perfect time of year to catch up on my movie-watching.  After one of my good friends (and fellow-Francophile) suggested I might enjoy Paris, a film by the director of L'Auberge Espagnole, I promptly borrowed her copy and settled in to watch it with a comfort food dinner and a glass of vin rouge. 

Paris reminded me a lot of Paris, je t'aime.  Both films follow the lives of numerous Parisians in order to offer a glimpse of life in the city from multiple perspectives.  However, in Paris, je t'aime we see very distinct and separated vignettes, whereas in Paris the lives of all of the characters flow together, their paths crossing through a variety of encounters and happenstances.

The film spends most of its time on the story of Pierre, who needs a heart transplant, and his sister Élise (played by one of my favorites: Juliette Binoche), who is a single mother and social worker.  But I found all of the stories compelling.  It was a French film to be sure - offering not so much a happy ending as a question mark regarding the future.  Yet, somehow this dark thoughtfulness seemed fitting for the dark winter season.  And I never get tired of seeing familiar places in Paris flash across the screen.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Scams in Paris

I just saw a report that French police have broken up a major crime ring operating in the Paris Métro.  You can read the story in the Winnipeg Free Press, but the short version is that the bad guys are accused of forcing young people from Eastern Europe to beg and steal on the Métro and Parisian tourist attractions.  The ring supposedly took in 1.3 million euro (1.7 million dollars) last year.

Petty theft and dishonest begging is an unfortunate aspect of life in many large cities, and I've personally experienced a couple of scams while in Paris.  There is the scam where a young women come up to you abruptly in a train station or on a busy sidewalk and ask, "Do you speak English?"  I don't exactly know what happens next, but I assume that if you say yes, you'll be swindled out of something. 

I've witnessed a second scam along the Seine.  A man or woman bends down to supposedly pick something up off the ground and - lo and behold! - it's a gold ring.  They ask if it's yours, you say no, they enlist you in helping find the owner and then you likely get pick-pocketed by their accomplice.

What kinds of scams have you experienced in Paris or elsewhere while traveling?

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Herbes de Thanksgiving

A blog entry from earlier this month suggested using Herbes de Provence as a seasoning for your Thanksgiving turkey.  This Thursday I followed my own advice and turned our holiday turkey into a French-inspired main dish accompanied by the very American sides of stuffing, cranberries, and pumpkin pie.  All of the above turned out quite well, and the Herbes de Provence made for a pretty and tasty turkey.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

3 Alternatives to Champagne

This holiday season, you might want to celebrate by popping a bottle (or deux) of Champagne.  And who could blame you?  There's just something about the bubbly French drink that brings instant glamour and fun to any occasion.  But the price of most Champagnes - generally $50 or more for a bottle - is not always budget friendly.  When you want the sparkling with out the sticker shock, try one of these glamour-adding alternatives. 

1. Cava
This sparkling wine from Spain is very drinkable and often very reasonably priced.  You can easily find bottles for less that $20, and sometimes even closer to $10.  Keep an eye out for Cava on a bar or restaurant's wines by the glass list as well.  I often see it there next to much more expensive glasses of Champagne. 

2.  Crémant de Loire
If you prefer to buy your bubbly from somewhere inside l'Héxagone, look no further than the Loire Valley.  Vineyards there make Crémant, a sprarkling wine whose production methods and aging process are controlled by French appellation law.  Crémants are produced in many regions of France, and even in Luxembourg, but the Loire Valley is France's second-largest producer of sparkling wine outside of Champagne. Like Cava, there are bottles to be had for around $20 or less. 

3.  American Sparkling Wine

If you're an American, why not support homegrown vineyards this year by finding a domestic option for your bubbly toasts?  If you're not an American, why not try a wine you might not have previously considered?  You just might be surprised at the quality of sparklings to be found stateside.  This Thanksgiving, I'll be celebrating with a delicious $30 bottle of Scintilla, a Brut sparkling wine from Veritas Vineyard and Winery, located near Charlottesville, Virginia. 

À votre santé!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

What Is Beaujolais Nouveau?

It's that time of year again: The time for cries of "le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé!" and heavily marketed tasting parties.  You hear about it every year as the third Thursday of November rolls around, but how much do you know about this vin de primeur?  It's ok; I don't know much about Beaujolais Nouveau either.  So here are a few resources to help you brush up on your BN trivia before you attend that heavily marketed tasting party:

1.  Wine Weekly gives us some "Beaujolais Nouveau Answers" -

2.  Wikipedia is an obvious go-to source -

3.  If it's not Wikipedia it has to be -

4. offers suggestions on how to throw a BN party -

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The State of Francophilia in the U.S.

What exactly is an "Old-School Francophile?"  Was Sarkozy really drunk at that G8 Summit press conference?  And what are the three things French people like?    Hint: One of them is food.

Find the answers to these questions and more on a recent episode of Wisconsin Public Radio's program, "Here on Earth: Radio Without Borders."  The episode in question is called "Francophilia Revisited," and it goes well with an afternoon of crêpe-making.

To listen to the discussion on the state of Francophilia in the U.S., head over to Wisconsin Public Radio:


Tuesday, November 9, 2010

5 Uses for Herbes de Provence

Herbes de Provence - that aromatic mixture of thyme, fennel, savory, basil, rosemary (and often others) - is a powerhouse in my kitchen.  This sunny seasoning compliments so many dishes and conjures up so many memories of the times I spent in the South of France that I make sure to always have an ample supply on hand.  You should too.  Here are five of my favorite uses for Herbes de Provence:

1.  Pizza Seasoning

I like to make my own pizzas using just-add-water crust, canned tomato sauce, shredded mozzarella and cheddar, and a rotating combination of toppings.  I sprinkle a generous amount of Herbes de Provence in the sauce to take the flavor up a notch.

2.  Roasted Potatoes
The cooler weather has me craving hearty foods like thick soups, red meat, and potatoes.  Especially potatoes.  Chop Golden Russets into medium-sized cubes, douse in olive oil, mix with Herbes de Provence,  bake at 425 Fahrenheit for 30 minutes and get ready for some serious comfort food.

3. Household Decorations
You want to eat Herbes de Provence, but you should also think about decorating with them. Make your kitchen Provençal by putting the herbs into little glass spice jars and using them to decorate open shelves or a window sill.  Spread them around trinkets on a decorative plate, or pour them into small, clear vases for a rustic touch.

4. Salad Dressing
Whisk together extra virgin olive oil, freshly squeezed lemon juice, and Herbes de Provence. Add lettuce. 

5. Thanksgiving Turkey
It sounds gross and it feels gross, but lifting up the skin of an uncooked Turkey so you can stuff that space with butter and Herbes de Provence is a good idea.  Pop in into the oven, et voilà!  Thanksgiving with a French flair.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Delaplane Cellars

I recently took a day trip to Virginia's Sky Meadows State Park, whose strong points include ample picnicking space, sweeping hillside views, and proximity to wineries.  After an evening meal of cheese, charcuterie, and fried chicken and biscuits (we're in the south, after all) our group headed to Delaplane Cellars, a relative newcomer on the bustling Virginia wine scene.  Delaplane's strong points include a spacious tasting room, live music on the patio, and an eclectic selection of vino.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Seen at the Rally to Restore Sanity

I generally avoid large-scale events in Washington, DC.  Marathons, rallies, and festivals turn Metro into an even bigger mess than normal, and crowds make me nervous.  So, normally I'm more than happy to stay close to home and enjoy a little peace and quiet when a big show comes to town.  I made an exception for the day before Inauguration Day concert in 2009 (Bono, Bruce, and Beyoncé, oh my!), and I made another exception today for the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.  Metro was a mess, and the crowd made me nervous, but it was all worth it for the chance to see clever rally signs. 

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Cupcakes à la Citrouille

One of the best things about not living overseas is getting to fully celebrate uniquely American holidays.  Thanksgiving, Independence Day, and Halloween (celebrated elsewhere, yes, but we really do it up) are all more fun for me when I'm in the U.S.  Last year this time I was in Brussels, so this year I'm especially interested in making the most of the autumn holiday season.  One way to do that?  Bake pumpkin cupcakes.

I got my pumpkin cupcake recipe from a British cookbook that was written by a man who took multiple trips to the U.S., fell in love with our desserts, and decided to open a bakery in London that specializes in American goodies like pecan pie, brownies, and cupcakes.  He named his store The Hummingbird Bakery, and there are now multiple locations around the city.  I picked up his cookbook, The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook, while on an October 2009 visit to London.  It's a true homage to all sweet things American, and it uses cute British phrases like "bicarbonate of soda," and "tinned pumpkin purée."

The cupcakes were a success.  My friend (the fabulous cupcake blogger) and I worried they would be too moist, and we broke an electric mixer while trying to make the cream cheese frosting, but in the end they turned out delicious and adorable and were quickly gobbled up by co-workers when I brought a batch into the office the following day.  If you'd like to try them yourself (and if you're an American you'll probably eat anything that's pumpkin flavored this time of year), I found the recipe blessedly converted into U.S. measurements on  Enjoy!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Wine, Delivered

Life in Arlington, Virginia is good.  I live in a safe, walkable neighborhood filled with shops and restaurants. I have easy access to multiple forms of public transportation, plenty of green spaces, and all the excitement of our nation's capitol.  Oh, and I have representation in Congress.

Despite all that, I occasionally find myself wishing I lived in Washington, DC proper.  Discovering a DC wine shop that delivers - in the District only - is one of those times.

It's true: will now fulfill your order of beer, wine, or spirits by bringing your purchases to you.  Simply order online, select a delivery window, and remember to be home so you can sign for the delivery.  There are a few hitches - $50 minimum, no deliveries on Sunday - but really, there's little to complain about when the Bordeaux you've been craving magically appears at your doorstep. 

Unless, of course, you live on the other side of the Potomac.  

Sunday, October 17, 2010

How to Make Gratin Dauphinois

Thursday was the perfect day for making and eating Gratin Dauphinois: Rainy, cold, miserable.  On days like that, when all you want to do is stay under the covers reading a good book, few things are as comforting as a warm bowl of cheesy, creamy potatoes.

Gratin Dauphinois is a French specialty that originated in the southern part of the French Alps.  I've read conflicting things about the area of its origin, but what I can cobble together is that it used to be known as the Dauphine region (Grenoble was its main city), and is now roughly encompassed by the departments of Hautes-Alpes, Isère, and Drôme.   The dish is a frequent accompaniment to meats, and you might see it offered as a side with the plat du jour next time you're in France.  In fact, the best gratin I ever had was served alongside a half roast chicken at an otherwise unremarkable brasserie in Burgundy.  I like my homemade version as well, which I've adapted from the cookbook At Home with the French Classics.

The good news is that Gratin Dauphinois is easy to make and sinfully delicious.  The bad news is that this dish doesn’t do well as leftovers.  I’ve found that reheating makes the potatoes too mushy and turns the cream into an unrecognizable oily substance.  Beurk.  But the other good news is that Gratin Dauphinois is so sinfully delicious you won’t have to worry about leftovers.

To make your own Gratin Dauphinois you'll need:
4 pounds large potatoes (about 8), cut into 1/8-inch-thick slices
1 garlic clove, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 cup milk
1 cup heavy cream
Grated cheese to sprinkle on top.  The cookbook recommends Gruyère or Emmenthaler.  I've had luck with Parmesan.

1.  Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.  Butter a large baking dish.
2.  Layer the sliced potatoes in the baking dish and sprinkle with the garlic, salt, and pepper.
3.  In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine the milk and cream and bring to a boil.  Pour over the layered potatoes.
4.  Sprinkle grated Parmesan on top.
5.  Bake in the middle of the over until the potatoes are brown and tender, 35 to 40 minutes.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Red Wing, Minnesota

October weather in Minnesota is simply not predictable. It can be cool, cold, sunny, rainy, cloudy, windy, or even blizzardy (see, 1991) all within the span of a few hours. What is generally isn’t, is warm. So, when I set out to pack my suitcase for a Columbus Day weekend trip home I was sure to include plenty of sweaters, socks, and long-sleeve T-shirts. Then I checked the weather forecast – 80s and sunny! Into the bag went tank tops and flip flops. Cue an I-love-warm-weather happy dance.

I spent Saturday and Sunday visiting Red Wing, Minnesota, which is a small town on the Mississippi River known for its durable shoes and pottery. It’s the perfect place for a day trip from the Twin Cities (about one hour's drive south), or for an overnight in the historic St. James Hotel. We opted for the much less expensive casino hotel nearby, whose penny slots made for a fun late night after a fun full day of boutique browsing and photo ops with brightly changing leaves.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Are You a Niqabitch?

Two anonymous female university students in France protested the country's newly passed "burqa ban" by wandering the streets of Paris wearing a face-covering veil...and hot pants.  They call themselves Niqabitch (an obvious play on the word "niqab"), and they got quite a bit of attention during their ban-mocking stroll.

Here's the video.  I think it's genius. 

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

French Culture vs. Gym Culture

It's official: The French do not like using gyms to stay fit.  Recent news reports have highlighted lagging gym membership numbers in France despite the best efforts of large companies like Club Med Gym and Fitness First. 

Am I surprised?  Non.  Running on a treadmill or lifting weights or partaking in a group pilates class are simply not activities I associate with the French.  But I love going to the gym, and was constantly frustrated by the lack of modern, affordable facilities in France.  Working up a sweat helps me reduce stress, stay healthy, and sleep better at night. 

Then again, so does a glass of red wine. 

Sunday, October 3, 2010

My Grandparents Visit Paris

A lot of the travel advice out there is aimed at the young.  We hear that should travel when we're young because that's when we have enough energy, when we don’t yet have responsibilities, when we're still in good health.  It won't be the same when you're older, they say.  Tell that to my 70-something grandparents.

I met up with Grams and Gramps recently when they were passing through the DC area after a trip to Paris.  They told me about getting caught up in French protests, learning the Métro by heart, day trips to Normandy and Versailles, and their conversations with retired French soldiers using the only common language they had: gesturing.  When they visited the Arc de Triomphe, a man asked “Madame” if she would like to use the elevator to get to the top.  Non, merci!  They climbed the arc's nearly 300 steps instead.

As I wrap up a decade of traveling in my 20s, I hope I’ll still be going strong in my 70s.  Welcome back, Grandma and Grandpa!  Where are you off to next?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Eau Potable

Free sparkling water, anyone?  That's what you'll now find flowing out of a public drinking fountain in Paris' Jardin de Reuilly.  Eau de Paris, the city's water company installed a machine that takes regular eau from the tap, makes it "gazeuse," and then dispenses it to the bubbly-loving public.  It's just the most recent in a long line of attempts to get Parisians to give up their cherished bottled water and start reaching for the tap instead.  Bottoms up!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Paris in Florida

I just got back from a long weekend in Orlando, Florida where I spent two days gleefully running around Walt Disney World.   It was my sister’s idea, which she got from the numerous happy family vacations we took to WDW starting when she and I were just two and five years old, respectively.  She reserved a cabin at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort, I booked a surprisingly cheap flight from Washington, DC, two others joined us, and we set out to discover what it’s like to visit Disney as adults.  Answer:  Just as much fun as when you’re a kid, except with alcohol.

One of our must-sees at the resort is Epcot's World Showcase.  Here you can visit 11 countries in the time it takes you to walk around the small lake each themed pavilion surrounds. In just a few short hours you can eat bratwurst in "Germany," watch belly dancers perform in "Morocco," and relax amongst ponds and bamboo groves in "China."  Disney even hires foreigners from each of the countries represented to work for them, which I took full advantage of by chatting up some of the Frenchmen and Frenchwomen in “France.”  Ahhh, it felt so good to order my glass of rosé en français…

Here is a photo of Disney's faux Paris.  What do you think?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The New York Baguette Search: Results

I had high hopes for my New York City baguette search.  Armed with Internet research and recommendations from seasoned New Yorkers I hoped to test a solid half-dozen or so loaves in an attempt to find an acceptable stateside version of France's daily bread.  But as so often happens when I move to a new city, I thought I had all the time in the world to explore everything, only to remember, much too late, that time flies.  Especially when you’re having fun.  Before I knew it, moving had begun and my exploring had come to an end.  I did, however, manage to sneak in a taste-test of two baguettes.

Baguette # 1 - The Greenmarket Baguette

Who says France has all the best outdoor markets?  New York City’s Greenmarket organization has put together an impressive multi-borough schedule of farm fresh produce, humanely-raised meat, and all manner of locally-sourced/crafted/raised products.  The best Greenmarket of all is at Union Square, where the Saturday morning selection (and crowd) is impressive.  One stand promised “French-style baguettes,” so I swung by to make a purchase. But the minute I felt that dense-yet-soft stick of bread I knew they were imposters.  Sure enough, a tasting back at home revealed a total lack of flavor, an overly chewy interior, and absolutely none of that satisfying crunch you find with a true French baguette.  I didn’t eat more than a couple of bites before tossing this faux French bread into the trash where it belonged.  Beurk!

Baguette #2 - The Murray's Cheese Shop Baguette

Murray’s Cheese Shop is a swanky fromagerie located in the heart of the West Village.  I headed over there after work one evening with a mad craving for a simple dinner of charcuterie and cheese on a baguette.  It didn’t disappoint: The salami and Cremeux de Bourgogne were expensive but delicious.  The baguette?  It was good.  Not airy-and-light good, but rather airy-and-heavy (yes, that’s possible) good.  In fact, I wouldn’t call this “baguette” a baguette at all. It’s more like a “tradition,” which is one of the many varieties of long sticks of bread one finds in a French boulangerie.  A “ficelle” is another example.  When I lived in Paris I used to order “une tradi” on a regular basis to go with dinner, so I enjoyed sampling a version of this bread in New York City.  But I wasn’t able to find a true French baguette in the Big Apple.  Any suggestions for next time?

If you go:

Union Square Greenmarket
Runs Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday
Union Square West, New York City
Subway: Union Square 14th Street

Murray’s Cheese
254 Bleecker St., second location at 43rd and Lexington
Blissfully un-French in that it's open seven days a week!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Sharing Bikes in Minneapolis

Vélib-style biking has come to the City of Lakes!  It's called Nice Ride (a play on "Minnesota Nice?") and it will get you from Uptown to Downtown to Dinkytown for the price of a $5 day pass or a $60 annual pass.  This bike share is seasonal, operating from April to November, so don't expect to be able to bike around town in a blizzard.  Then again, we're talking about Minnesota, where snowstorms can strike at any time (The epic Halloween blizzard of '91 comes to mind).  In other words, don't leave home without your scarf...and boots, and hat, and hand-warmers, and...

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Pommes Frites

I recently blogged about Belgian waffles.  Today I'm blogging about Belgian fried potatoes, otherwise known as pommes frites and/or a Flemish name I can't remember.  More specifically, it's about a tiny take-out joint in New York City called Pommes Frites that sells nothing but pommes frites.  In short, heaven.

Or so I thought.

First, a little background:  Six months of living in Brussels taught me that Belgian food (and drink) is good.  The waffles!  The chocolate!  The beer!  But for my money the best of all were the frites.  The hot, crispy, served-in-a-cone, dipped-in-a-sauce frites.  I've always been a fan of salty food, especially fries, and the Belgians take this delicious treat to a whole new level.  I went to Brussels' famous Maison Antoine more times than I care to admit.

Needless to say, I was beyond excited to try New York City's own frites shop, conveniently located one block from my former apartment.  I ordered a regular sized cone with ketchup and Irish curry sauce for dipping, and tucked in for what I hoped would be a delicious afternoon snack.  Instead, I got "blah."  The frites didn't taste Belgian at all.  They were too dense, too large, and not nearly crispy enough.  I would call them "steak fries," which can be tasty, but are most definitely not what you find at a Belgian friterie. 

Three months of living in New York City taught me that Belgian food abroad is hit and miss.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Crêpes at the Fair

Last week's road from New York City to Washington, DC traveled through Minnesota and included a stop at the Minnesota State Fair.  All of my favorite fair foods were there: Corn dogs, cheese curds, french fries, and...crêpes?

Yes, crêpes.  The Great Minnesota Get-Together has been home to a crêpe stand for 16 years, but I've never paid it much attention.  It's not that I don't like crêpes - I do! -  it's just that I was never interested in eating them at a Midwestern state fair.  This year, however, I finally paid a visit to La Crêperie.  All the classic toppings are available, which you can enjoy wrapped up in a piping hot crêpe while lounging on the establishment's sizable patio listening to live music and sipping wine from their wine bar.  Vive l'été! 

Friday, August 27, 2010

Au Revoir, New York City

Surprise! I’m moving. If you’ve been following along you’ll know this is my fifth move in little more than a year (DC to Brussels, Brussels to DC, DC to Brooklyn, Brooklyn to Manhattan, Manhattan to DC), and no, it doesn’t get any easier. I have a pretty good system in place - I know how to pack light and to avoid sentimentality when purging my possessions – but the process still inspires both physical and mental stress.

I’ll miss New York. We’ve had our ups and our downs, but overall I’m leaving with a positive feeling about this city, my experiences here, and any future opportunities I might have to return. What can you say about the Big Apple? There really is nothing else like it. New Yorkers like to boast that they live in the greatest city in the world, and I’m now inclined to believe them.

The journey to DC begins today, detours in Minnesota, and ends with a flight to Reagan National Airport on September 1st. As I try to reorganize my life in the apartment I’ve rented for four years but lived in for less than two, I’m indulging in a short, end-of-summer break from blogging. After all, what self-respecting French blog doesn’t take its congés payés in August?

See you after Labor Day!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Belgian Food Truck: Wafels & Dinges

It's been tempting me for weeks: That bright, canary yellow food truck promising "Good Things Belgian" and appearing in places around the city where I'm sure to get a whiff of its wares. I had to try it before leaving New York, so when a quick Thursday call to their Waffle Hotline told me the truck was in the environs of my office building (Midtown) and that if I gave the truck operators the stink eye I could get a discount on my order, I made a beeline for Wafels & Dinges. Or, in English, Waffles & Thingamajigs.

Torn between the "brussels wafel" (light and crispy) and the "liège wafel" (soft and chewy) I opted instead for the special "throwdown wafel." A winner from the Food Network's "Throwdown with Bobby Flay," the throwdown wafel is a liège topped with speculoos spread and whipped cream.  Merci beaucoup.  With my $1 stink eye discount, that tray of sweet Belgian deliciousness was mine for only $5. And, sorry Belgium, it was better than any waffle I ever ate in Brussels.

If you go:

Wafel & Dinges
Everywhere, New York City
Truck Location Hotline: 1-866-429-7329
Twitter: @waffletruck

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Top of the Rock

One of my favorite things to do while traveling is to get a bird's eye view of my surroundings.  I've climbed monuments, cathedrals, and endless flights of escalators in Paris' now-shuttered Samaritaine shopping center, all in the name of gaining a new perspective.  There's just something about taking in a city from above that always gives me a thrill.  I got that thrill today at the Top of the Rock observation deck, which is located on Rockefeller Center's soaring GE Building

Top of the Rock is sort of like the Arc de Triomphe in that both are overshadowed by other nearby climbable landmarks.  But what good is it to climb the Eiffel Tower only to take panoramic pictures of Paris that don't include it's most famous structure?  The same could be said for climbing the Empire State Building. It's iconic, but wouldn't you rather have it behind you in a photo than under your feet?  I would.  Here are a few shots from today's climb...including a fleur de lis!