Thursday, September 07, 2006
Fish Out of Water
The days here are beginning to show signs of cooling...and then warming...and then a bit of fog to cool the morning...and then warming again in the afternoon. I am squeezing the last bit of bright sunshine out of the lavender skies of Provence before flying headlong into winter...or at least that is the experience of this California Girl! But back in July...well, let me tell you…we were doing some serious roasting - and not of the delicious sort! Fortunate soul that I am, the first week of July found me in Paris, hoping for a bit of a reprieve…but no – it was perhaps the hottest stretch of the summer for that city as well. Paris was included in our warm weather from the south.
I had arrived in the City of Light (Clothing) via the high-speed TGV. The plan was to do some serious museum viewing, café sitting and photo shooting with a friend who had
arrived from Canada. The oppressive heat, a surprise to all, had us spending our first day searching for a hotel with “climatisée”. Francophiles, yes, but still cursed with our North American conditioning…in this case ‘air conditioning’!
Sweaty shoulder to sweaty shoulder, we pressed in with other travelers on stifling metro cars, and then baked in the convection oven of the Paris streets, leaving us drenched and dragging by 11 each morning. (To be honest, I get kind of ‘cranky’ when the weather gets hot. Those who know me know this not-so-charming little fact about me...and now M. knows this about me, too!) Thinking we had reached our “permanent wilt points” by late afternoon, we managed to perk up as the temperatures dropped a bit in the evenings. (Admittedly, helped along by the lovely “climatisée”.)
Sweltering heat aside, the highlights of the brief stay in that wonderful city included the Picasso Museum, watching the semi-final match between France and Portugal for the World Cup at a little brasserie in the Marais (followed by the amazing celebration as people poured into the streets and climbed onto the Bastille monument, flags waving wildly), a brilliant and moving performance in the gardens of the National Archives by the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater (now there is an experience to make an American in Paris proud!) and a bistro dinner that will be remembered for a very long time as we joined forces one evening with M.’s friend, A.
A., another brave, new ex-pat, (Paris from Toronto) had made dinner reservations for us based on a recommendation from some of her new friends in city.
From our meeting place at l’Opera Bastille, we strolled our way to Le Repaire de Cartouche, a bistro in the 11th arrondissement that sits squarely between boulevard des Filles-du-Calvaire and rue Amelot. The milder temperatures made room for appreciation of the evening light – but really, what’s not to appreciate about the summer streets of Paris being washed in a lovely blush of golden-apricot light…then again, perhaps we simply thought everything looked rosier because of the ability to breathe with less effort in the lower temps.
Not being “locals from the ‘hood” and given the enthusiastic recommendation that we were following, imagine our surprise when we walked in the door to an empty restaurant! The wall of silence stopped us from taking another step and revealed the "fish out of water" that we were in that moment. We looked around, looked at one another and stepped back out the door to regroup with a bit of a ‘conference’ before going forward. The elegant menu posted in a glass case near the door seemed to be fitting of the recommendation for the place so we ventured in once again, justifying the emptiness to one another in muffled tones: “Maybe we’re just ‘early’,” came the suggestion, “Or maybe there’s a garden if we keep heading to the back,” prompted another of us, reassuringly. “Maybe the ‘local clientele’ that makes this such a popular place has already left town for the summer,” said the new Local Girl. We tentatively wandered to the back of the room as if we were accompanying Dorothy to the Wizard’s chamber. (These are the kinds of typical behaviors exhibited by some of us ex-pats who are otherwise very capable individuals, known to regularly handle a smorgasbord of social situations with grace and aplomb. Confidence and certainty get a bit scratched up when one is navigating a new country and must pay attention to which familiar social mores can be downloaded into the new life. Some clues will be offered by new friends – each one collected being a small victory in the ongoing “scavenger hunt” that is an immigrant’s assimilation process. Others must simply be learned by direct experience. The cultural knowledge and standard expectations that grease our way in our country of origin become mysteries to be cracked in another.) We followed a narrow staircase that led us into the belly of the beast, a dining room filled with tables of lively earlier arrivals. Settling into our table for the evening (and back into our skins), within 20 minutes the entire place was filled. Wine was ordered, menus were reviewed and we fell into the relaxed and lovely pace of a long dinner - something the French know how to do quite well.
The wine, each meal, (my dessert!) – it was all memorable. And there, in the refuge of the air conditioned dining room, three creative and courageous women, shared life stories, challenges, laughs and hopes reflecting a particular perspective of life in this hexagon that I suspect can only be shared by other “fish-out-of-water.” This is not, by nature, a bad thing...it just serves to remind me of my place in the scheme of it all.
Weeks have passed since that trip to Paris and so has the “canicule” (heat wave) that descended upon us this summer. But with evenings still warm enough for dinner al fresco and numerous scheduled commitments not allowing for much time to play in the kitchen recently, my happy memories of that lovely evening in Paris came to life again with the following meal.
A lover of seared ahi for years (California Girls call it ahi...the French call it thon...let's just say it's an "incomplete transition" and humor the new girl in town), I usually serve this particular “fish-out-of-water” with a dipping sauce of Thai chili paste and lots of fresh lime juice. (A curtsy to one of my favorite California foodie friends for that one.) Accompanied by a glass of champagne, seared ahi on its own makes an elegant appetizer. In this case, inspired by Le Repaire de Cartouche, the tuna, dusted with a spicy rub before it briefly hits the grill, is served along with the cool and lemony zucchini salad. Just the thing for one of the Indian Summer days ahead…or when a packed schedule leaves you very little time for cooking.
Note 1: It's always good to have a wine expert at hand and my friend Jean-Marc Espinasse, of French-Wine-A-Day, has made some lovely suggestions for wine. You'll find them listed at the end of the recipes below.
Note 2: I usually use a rub of New Mexico chili powder but had a mélange of spices on hand from a recipe I had made earlier in the week so gave that a try…same principle, just a ‘twist’ in the flavors…a little deeper, kind of quirky.
Note 3: (to self: Bring the industrial strength mandolin back to France from your US ‘stash’ next trip…but maybe not in your carry-on luggage!)
Note 4: The food, wine selection and service at Le Repaire de Cartouche were excellent. It is definitely on my list for a return visit the next chance I have to be in Paris. If you find yourself in the ‘hood, make sure to make a reservation!
Le Repaire de Cartouche
8, boulevard des Filles-du-Calvaire
tel: 01 47 00 25 86
Metro: Saint-Sébastien Froissart
Seared Ahi with Salad of Marinated Zucchini
4 (6-oounce) fresh tuna fillets
1-3 T. of New Mexico chili powder* (this is what I usually use when I prepare seared tuna, but you can see the previously mentioned ‘mélange’ option below.)
Vegetable oil for pan or grill
1. Heat large skillet, grill pan or grill on high heat.
2. Brush just enough oil onto the cooking surface to prevent sticking.
3. Season the fish fillets top and bottom with the ‘rub’. When the cooking surface is sufficiently hot, sear the tuna for 30 to 45 seconds per side (making one 90º turn mid-way on each side for grill marks.)
4. Remove from heat and slice for serving
This certainly stands alone as an appetizer (with champagne!) or as a light meal when served with the following salad: (If you are feeling brave, add one of these piments langues d'oiseaux or bird’s-tongue peppers for a little added “kick”.)
Salad of Marinated Zucchini
1 lb. zucchini, thinly sliced (preferable to use a mandolin for paper thin slices)
1 large lemon (more or less to taste)
2 garlic cloves, quartered lengthwise
1-2 T. good quality olive oil
Sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
1. Gently toss sliced zucchini and garlic in lemon juice and olive oil. (Note: use non-reactive bowl when marinating with lemon juice.)
2. Allow zucchini to remain in marinade for 2-6 hours, stirring occasionally.
3. When serving, remove garlic (and bird’s-tongue pepper, if used)
4. Salt and pepper to taste
5. Serve at room temperature
*Melange Spice Blend (for alternate rub):
1 tablespoons coriander seeds
1 tablespoons fennel seeds
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
Mix coriander, fennel and peppercorns in heavy small skillet. Toast together on medium-high heat until they release their fragrances and darken slightly…about 2 minutes. Transfer to spice grinder and process into a fine grind. Rub or dust (to your taste) the tuna fillets with a teaspoon of the rub. Grill as directed above.
Wine Suggestions: (Merci bien, Jean-Marc!)
And with a little more spice: