Monday, April 26, 2010

Georgetown French Market

This past Sunday, the Georgetown Business Improvement District hosted what they called the Georgetown French Market. Promising a "café, crêpes and croissants," "quaint shops, galleries and boutiques," the market was mostly a chance for businesses between P Street and Reservoir Road to sell goods at discounted prices. To be fair, the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., does have a rather European feel to it, even on days without French markets. The proximity of the French Embassy and the inexplicable way the area seems to draw Francophones from across the city ups its la France quotient, but the market itself wasn't much to write home about. That said, they did have café and crêpes (plus the usual Georgetown weekend crowds), and I did have fun spotting French things and taking pictures of them. Here's what I found:

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Paris and the Volcano

Newly added to the list of Nightmare Scenarios for Travelers: “Stranded for days due to Icelandic volcano eruption.”

And I thought my holiday train woes back in December were bad. Turns out they were nothing compared to the recent (and in many cases, on-going) experience of thousands of travelers who have been stuck in place ever since Eyjafjallajökull decided to spew ash over much of Europe. The cost, stress, and disappointment of canceled plans that resulted from this volcanic activity are enough to make any traveler – even one not currently stuck on the road – weep.

Is there a silver lining in all of this airspace mayhem? I liked how New York Times Op-Ed Contributor Seth Stevenson heralded an "Escape From the Jet Age," by reveling in the scenery we can enjoy and the people we come across when not cruising at 30,000 feet. And when I heard that even President Obama’s all-mighty Air Force One couldn’t fly to Poland due to the ash, I thought it was a nice reminder that no matter who we are, no matter how much access, power, or money we have, we are all at the mercy of Mother Nature.

Of course, it’s easy to look for a silver lining from the comfort of your own unaffected-by-ash home. It would be more interesting to know what (if any) silver linings stranded travelers themselves have been able to find. In any case, I hope if you went to Paris for vacation, and now find yourself stuck there because of the volcano, that you'll quickly head to the nearest café, order a carafe of French wine, and reflect on those who are less fortunate than yourself. Think about those who are stuck trying to get to the French capital, and have, unlike yourself, been denied the perfectly divine pleasure of enjoying Paris on a beautiful Spring day.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Making Gâteau au Chocolat

Flourless chocolate cake. How many among us would turn down a slice of this dense, decadent nearing-perfection dessert? Even if I've just stuffed myself on multiple courses of the most buttery and creamy French food you can imagine, I would still find room for a slice of rich gâteau au chocolat. I used to buy some every now and then at one of my favorite Parisian pâtisseries, savor every last bite, and wash it all down with a (very un-French) glass of cold milk. Bliss.

Not satisfied with simply purchasing already-baked cake, I set out to learn how to make my own gâteau at home. As expected, there are very few ingredients in flourless chocolate cake. It's simply chocolate, butter, sugar, eggs, and, despite its name in English, a wee bit of flour. But while the ingredients are simple, the process is anything but. Many times I've made a cake that didn't quite turn out right, and twice I've flat out ruined it.

The first tale of ruination involved the mistreatment of eggs. I apparently didn't incorporate them well enough into the batter, so the cake came out of the oven with chunks of cooked egg in every slice. An omelette au chocolat, if you you will. The second time I used 100% cocoa dark chocolate, making the cake incredibly bitter. Some palates might like that taste, but to me it was inedible.

If you use the right chocolate, mix the eggs well, and don't over-bake the batter (it should come out of the oven with a little liquidity left in the center), the following recipe will yield you a most delicious treat. You'll be tempted to eat it immediately, but try to resist. Flourless chocolate cake should rest for at least a few hours, overnight if possible. In fact, this cake is actually at its best on approximately day three of its existence. I dare you to make it last that long.

Gâteau au Chocolat

I took this recipe from a French cookbook I had when I lived in Paris. I've converted the amounts in grams and other measurements to their equivalents for an American kitchen, except for the chocolate, bars of which are measured in grams even in the U.S.

200 grams of dark chocolate, preferably 60% cocoa
200 grams of butter (14 tablespoons)
250 grams of sugar (1.1 cups, just do your best to find the .1, I've found it's ok if it's not exact)
5 eggs
1 cuillere à soupe of flour (one tablespoon)

Preheat the over to 190 Celsius (375 Fahrenheit)

Melt the butter and chocolate together in a pot over low heat.
Once the butter and chocolate are melted, remove from heat, mix in the sugar.
Let the mixture cool for about 15 minutes.
Once cool, add the eggs one by one, making sure each has been fully incorporated before adding the next.
Lastly, mix in the flour.
Pour the mixture into a 9 inch round pan that has been buttered and floured.
Bake the cake for 22 minutes, remove from the oven to cool for about 10 minutes, and then flip the cake over onto a serving platter (for best results, hold the platter flat against the top of the cake pan when you do this)
Sprinkle the cake with powdered sugar if desired.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Mango Languages: Guest Post

Beverly from Mango Languages recently tweeted a call for guest bloggers. So, I tweeted back: "Hey, would you like something about French?" "Would love a post on French," came the reply. Chouette!

You can check out my guest post on Mango Languages blog, Slice of Mango, in which I bemoan the trickiness of trying to learn a language that looks oddly familiar to you, and offer up a few pronunciation study tips. Watch out for my big headshot. It kinda scared me the first time I saw it, and it's my own head. Goodness knows what it will do to perfect strangers.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Review: Virgin America

You know you’re a traveler when…you get excited at the prospect of trying a new airline. After booking my IAD-LAX flight with previously unfamiliar-to-me Virgin America, I started preparing for the trip by conducting some light research on the company, signing up for their frequent flier program, and asking experienced VA patrons what to expect. I had heard good things about this iteration of the Richard Branson empire – their cabins have mood lighting! – and wondered if the real experience could live up to the hype. After all, airlines seem lately to be doing everything in their power short of equipping flight attendants with fanny packs to make flying as annoying and uncool of an experience as is humanly possible. But nearly 11 hours of round trip Virgin America travel later, I was sold.

For starters, the cabins really do have mood lighting, and it’s actually pretty awesome. Their soft, purplish look is so much better than the harsh, industrial feel of most aircraft. And the lighting is just one feature among many that make VA feel rather, well, youthful. There’s wifi with Gogo Inflight (albeit at an extra cost of $12.95 for the flight – ouch!), a touch screen entertainment center at each seat (you can watch TV or chat with other passengers, for example), and a clever pre-flight video that pokes fun at people who don’t already know how to buckle an airplane seat belt. I had more legroom than on my transatlantic flight from Brussels to DC (take that, United), and was thrilled to discover I could order a fresh, healthy snack from my convenience of my seat by simply swiping my card through the built-in reader on the entertainment center. I had the Mediterranean Tapas Tray for $8. Veggies and hummus in, mystery meat and greasy sauce out.

I love to travel, but I’ve never been a fan of flying. An unfortunate incident with a barf bag at the tender age of five sealed my fate as a fearful, nauseated, eternally uncomfortable flier. Thankfully, VA is taking a stab at making flying fun and easy again. They can’t make the TSA security line less dignity-stripping, and VA still charges for checked baggage ($20), but my overall experience with them was positive, which is definitely more than I can say for some airlines.

Have you flown with Virgin America or Virgin Atlantic? What was your experience?

Friday, April 9, 2010

How to Make Your Kitchen a French Kitchen

One of the things I inevitably miss about France the minute I leave is French food. When I'm home in the United States, I try to stock my kitchen with the tools and ingredients that help me evoke or recreate all the delicious appetizers, main courses, desserts, and snacks I discovered while living in Paris, Cannes, and that tiny little village just outside of St. Tropez.

Looking to bring a little bit of La Belle France into your own cuisine? Here are a few simple items to help get you started:

I've mentioned on this blog before that I love At Home with the French Classics, by Richard Grausman, and Barefoot in Paris, by Ina Garten. You can also go for the old standby, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and if you want to focus on desserts (and who doesn't?), a quick search of "French dessert cookbook," turned up plenty of options on I also try to come home with at least one cookbook whenever I go to France. Just watch out for that pesky metric system, which they of course use for their recipes.

A Crêpe Pan
Sure, you can try to make crêpes using a standard, non-stick frying pan, but why? A flat, French crêpe pan, like the one I have from T-Fal, works so much better and looks cool in your kitchen. Once you taste the first crêpe au Nutella that glides so easily onto your plate you'll be sold.

Cast Iron Cookery
If you get any other piece of cookware for your French kitchen after (or before) the crêpe pan, make it a large cast iron pot. Le Creuset is the obvious choice here, but also probably the most expensive. I've seen this brand on sale at stores like Marshall's,and even Macy's, or you could go with a comparable brand like Martha Stewart (what doesn't she make for your kitchen?). A lot of French dishes, such as the famous boeuf bourguignon, call for such cookery, and you can even use it to melt and serve fondue.

Olive Oil
If you're going to engage in French cooking, you're going to need olive oil, plain and simple. I use it for everything from making my own vinaigrette to prepping rice for a risotto. You always hear that quality makes a difference here, and while I agree with that, I've also been very happy with my Whole Foods 365 brand. If you're lucky enough to be traveling through the south of France, try to find a local producer who will ship some back home for you. When I was there, I couldn't get enough of the huile d'olive from Domaine de Souviou. Definitely better than 365.

Herbes de Provence
Another ubiquitous French ingredient. You can add this mix of dried herbs (generally some combination of thyme, rosemary, marjoram, tarragon, basil, lavender, savory, and/or others) to just about anything. It's the perfect seasoning for poultry, fish, salads, and pasta, but my favorite use is as a seasoning in the sauce of my homemade pizzas.

Bottles of French Wine
You'll use these for cooking and for drinking. Need I say more?

A Raclette Grill
This contraption, which features a heat source and little dishes used for melting cheese, will help you throw fabulous French-themed dinner parties. Guests have fun melting their own cheese and pouring it over such accompaniments as cooked potatoes, ham, and small pickles, and all you have to do is plug it in.

What would you add to this list of French kitchen necessities?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Protecting the French Language

Worried about the ever-increasing use of certain English words among, in particular, the youth of France, the French government recently launched a contest to find appropriate "Frenchified" replacements. Words on the chopping block included such dastardly culprits as "chat," "buzz," and "talk." Entrants in the "Francomot" contest submitted their suggested replacements, and the winners were announced this week ("eblabla," "ramdam," and "debat," for the aforementioned). Now, all that's left to do is to wait and see if the French actually start using them. It's apparently been done before, - "walkman" replaced by "baladeur," for example - a fact that could give hope to concerned language purists everywhere who are wondering if it will happen again.

But the bigger question I have is, why do the French care so much about this stuff? Forget that English takes roughly 1/3 of its words from French, and that it regularly and easily incorporates foreign words into its lexicon without making such a fuss. Forget that French has a lot of other foreign words in usage they don't seem as keen to get rid of as the English ones (hammam, anyone?). You can even forget that they're pretty much fighting a losing battle, as languages hardly ever stay the same over long periods of time (Icelandic is often cited as a nice exception), and we can probably presume a word contest isn't going to change that anytime soon. Considering all that, where does the obsession with so-called protection of the language come from?

You may have noticed that I'm a fairly enthusiastic fan of all things French, including the French language, so I'm open to understanding this issue better than I currently do. If you have thoughts on why we need to save French from total annihaliation by a language that is largely made up of French words, I'd love to hear them!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Cherry Blossoms

It's not really spring in Washington, D.C. until the cherry blossoms are in bloom. Last Thursday a friend and I braved the crowds that flock to the National Cherry Blossom Festival and attempted to leisurely stroll around the tidal basin to see this year's crop of delicate, pinkish-white flowers. We also got kicked off the steps of the Jefferson Memorial by a park ranger for attempting to reward our tired feet and hungry stomachs with a light picnic. But I digress.

If you're camera-happy like I am, the gorgeous scenes of monuments framed by what looks like snow covered trees is a great chance to go crazy taking photos. It's also a great way to welcome spring and get excited about better weather ahead. I recommend setting out early in the day or late in the afternoon for the best photo lighting and to avoid the worst of the tourist hordes. Be sure to walk around the entirety of the tidal basin so you can see all sides of the blossoming trees. Just don't try to whip out a meal of crackers and goat cheese in front of a Founding Father.

Here are my favorites shots from this year:

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Best of France in Washington, D.C.

If you're a Francophile like me, you probably seek out French things - restaurants, shops, activities - wherever you go. For example, the L.A. Farmer's Market is a feast for anyone's eyes, but my Francophile eyes were especially drawn to a shop called Monsieur Marcel, which carried all manner of French-themed goodies. I couldn't resist a visit to the cheese counter or the olive barrels, happily passing up the Korean BBQ stand and the old fashioned ice cream shop for yet another French fix.

Back in the nation's capital, I'm still looking to get that French fix on a regular basis. Luckily, Washington City Paper is here to help. This free, all-about-D.C. weekly just came out with its Best of D.C. 2010 issue, which is chock full of the eateries, activities, and personalities that make The District grand...including those that are French, French-themed, and yes, Belgian. Winners (which, not surprisingly, are all food and drink related) are as follows:

Best European Restaurant

Winner: Bistrot du Coin - The see-and-be-seen French restaurant in Dupont Circle.
Runners-up: Belga Cafe and Brasserie Beck - Both Belgian!

Best Macaron
Winner: Patisserie Poupon - Located in Georgetown, a chic neighborhood where you're more likely to bump into a Parisian than an American.

Best Cheese Plate
Winner: Cheesetique - Enjoy your Roquefort on their patio!

Best Wine List
Winner: Michel Richard Citronelle - Your credit limit will not get out of here alive.

Best Wine by the Glass
Tallula - Just enough French selections to make me happy.

Best Mussels

Winner: Granville Moore's - Another Belgian. I've never been, and I don't like mussels.
Runners-up: Brasserie Beck and Bistro du Coin - Belgian and French, respectively

Best Place for Beer and Frites

Winner: Brasserie Beck - You knew a Belgian would win this one, but they can't possibly be better than Maison Antoine in Brussels.