Monday, April 26, 2010

Tasting Morocco (and Paris again)

And more than a month later. . . here I am again with the longest post ever. I've got a pile of recipes and photos to share with you all, but I've gotta start with tidbits from my trip to Morocco and Paris, which were full of succulent treats.

Although I did pass by the Ladurée stand at CDG on my way to Morocco, I saved my Parisian macaron experience for the days in Paris that followed the week in Morocco.

Like Ladurée's selection of macarons, the food in Morocco was vibrantly colorful and diversely spiced; I find that the mix of 42 spices that I brought home from Fez characterizes an approach to Moroccan food that creatively melds a whole variety of flavors (cinnamon, fruits, and savory together, etc.).

The most common food we encountered on the trip was the tagine (or tajine), which can best be described as a stew - really any mix of cooked food, whether veggie, meat, fruit, nuts, or any combination thereof. While most of our travel group grew weary of tagines, one can't help but admire the diversity of offerings: lamb with prunes and almonds, chicken with preserved lemons and olives, vegetables (carrots, squash, etc., with a ton of butter!), and kefta (beef meatballs with an egg cooked in it and lots of chili powder).

We were also lucky enough to have a few meals prepared for us at a center where we were volunteering; they went out of their way to make a delicious couscous for us (even though couscous is traditionally eaten only on Fridays for the Muslim holy day), as well as a lovely chicken with preserved lemon. The bread that accompanied the meals was a yeasted flatbread, called khobz in Arabic, that was meant to be used to scoop up the food - although they provided us with forks.

A few of the Moroccan ladies showed me how to eat couscous by using this technique of taking a handful of it, and forming it into a ball with one hand by sort of rolling the ball in a motion back and forth, almost like one's hand is a whiffle ball catcher. They then threw the balls into their mouths - not something I was able to accomplish, but fascinating!

Yeah, I went to McDonald's once in Morocco - I am always curious to see what they do differently in different countries. Here it was the McArabia, a sandwich on flatbread spiced with cumin and coriander; not bad, after all.

Paris brought me to beautiful things of a more familiar, but still lovely, nature. Like my last trip to France, it was a few days of bakery bliss, with a couple gorgeous meals to even out the sweets. I may have OD'd a tad on sugar, since I've been uncharacteristically avoiding it since my return, but everything I had was amazing.

I had to visit the specialty baking store G. Detou after reading rave reviews of it on Chocolate and Zucchini and David Lebovitz's blog; I have to admit that I spent more money there than anywhere in Paris in order to buy all the chocolates I wanted my family to try. Because it was the week before Easter, they had some fabulous chocolate eggs filled with almond paste, plus their normal selection of high quality chocolates.

The savory star of my Paris time was this gorgeous, gorgeous trout. I'm not even that much of a fish person, but this was quite tender and, well, soaked in browned butter. I've been reminded since my trip that one of the first meals Julia Child eats in Julie and Julia is a fish cooked in butter, and if it was anything like this one, it absolutely deserved the raptures that Julia went into over it. I sopped up every drop of that butter with the fish and cleaned that plate dry. Yes, that is the butter all over the plate.

The fish was followed by a huge crème brûlée - I couldn't even finish it since I was so full of the fish (and butter).

On top of the deliciousness of the trout, the meal was a treat because I got to eat it at the oldest café in Paris, Le Procope. Perhaps Voltaire or Benjamin Franklin enjoyed this same fish dish years ago? I highly recommend a meal here - for a nice sit-down lunch, it's a good deal for the afternoon formula menu.

I was reminded on this trip that the Left Bank is really my favorite area in the city; this may have something to do with the fact that the whole district is full of amazing bakeries and bookshops, two of my favorite things. I love the pedestrian bridge that crosses over from the Louvre to L'Institut de France on the Left Bank; it's Le Pont des Beaux Arts (the Fine Arts Bridge), so there's always something interesting going on there, like these random locks.

The Left Bank is also home to my still-preferred baker/bakery, Pierre Hermé. His were the first macarons to pass my lips, and they are still the best two years later, even after I have tried them at other shops in Paris, all over L.A. and San Francisco, and made them myself. On this trip I remembered that one must still be picky about bakeries even in Paris, since I picked up a very mediocre macaron at a beautiful and fragrant bakery called Gérard Mulot in St. Germain. Both their macaron and dark chocolate tart were disappointing.

On the other hand, Pierre Hermés' mille feuilles infiniment caramel (infinitely caramel Napoleon pastry) made my day. Wonderful caramel flavor all throughout the cream, and between the pastry layers, and on top. Yum. I also bought the macarons pictured with the Eiffel Tower above at PH, and they were as tender, lightly chewy, and well-flavored as I remembered.

Also on the Left Bank, next door to artisanal bread bakery Poilâne, is Cuisine de Bar, a restaurant that makes tartines (open-faced sandwiches) with Poilâne bread. On David Lebovitz's recommendation, I ordered the tartine with garlic mayonnaise (very heavy, as you can see!), roasted chicken, capers, chives, and sardines. While I could have done without the fishiness of the sardines, the tartine was very good, as was the simple salad it came with. To finish the meal I ordered a coffee, which was accompanied by a little edible shortbread spoon to be nibbled upon after stirring in the sugar and dipping in the coffee. The service was great, so if you're looking for a teeny little restaurant to have lunch in alone without being too conspicuous, this is a good choice.

My final fave on the Left Bank was the Rodin Museum, which was another good memory I confirmed on this trip. I have always enjoyed museums that feature one primary artist, since they are smaller and more approachable than places like the Louvre. Rodin's (and Camille Claudel's, also featured here) works of the human body always strike me as beautiful and full of feeling, whether they be in bronze or marble, so this was an aesthetically worthwhile stop.

On the other end of town, in the 11th arrondissement, I took my final meal in Paris at West Country Girl, another Dave Leb recommendation. The name of the crêperie refers to its Breton-style crêpes and galettes (from the west of France). Everything was made fresh there, including the amazing caramel sauce. This was another good lunch deal - 9 Euros for a savory crêpe (I got the crêpe du jour with ham, goat cheese, and chives), a sweet crêpe (salted butter caramel sauce!), and some light cider.

West Country Girl is not that far from the Père Lachaise cemetery, which I visited for the first time. I made the obligatory stop at Oscar Wilde's lipstick-littered grave, and otherwise enjoyed the unique vistas of the cemetery as I searched for other famous people (mostly to no avail).

A completely wonderful trip to Morocco and Paris - and the people I spent time with were absolutely the crème de la crème! I hope you feel inspired by this little stroll through my travels.

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