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Eating in the City of Lights via ‘My Paris Kitchen’

Paris. The city’s name alone sparks visions of crusty baguettes, delicate pastries and cafés along the Seine. But, what of the French obsession with mustard, fears of “too much flavor” — ça alors! — or the refined way to eat Paris’ rendition of Texas-style ribs (with a fork).

David Lebovitz, former pastry chef at Alice Water’s Chez Panisse and author of several decadent dessert cookbooks, shares in My Kitchen in Paris: Recipes and Stories from his travels and life in France. Photos chronicle Lebovitz shopping and cooking from his postage stamp-sized kitchen, where meals inspired by traditional French fare as well as flavors brought by other cultures blossom into delicious snacks and dinner parties.

Lebovitz’s introduction to Indian food came via Paris, and this spirit of melding other cuisines with French runs through My Paris Kitchen. This is not at the expense of giving due attention to well-loved French dishes like croque-monsieur, (counterfeit) duck confit and sweet madeleines.

Valentine’s Day falls on this coming weekend, and I’m drawn to the romance of Paris and the deliberately lengthy meals of the French dining style. Wine, several courses then salad, cheese, dessert and more wine make the perfect Valentine meal. We’re left with plenty of time to muse, flirt, argue over wine pairings and of course, eat.

Lebovitz’s recipes are easy to follow and I find myself making a range of recipes from beet hummus to chicken with mustard (poulet à la moutarde) and tangerine-Champagne sorbet. Like in his blog, davidlebovitz.com, the instructions are thorough and friendly with ideas for the occasional substitution. Just don’t try to take away the butter.

Whether it’s learning how to fall in love with my butcher or understanding the virtues of complaining, My Paris Kitchen effortlessly transports me to the City of Lights. Lebovitz points out the differences between Parisian and American ways of dining and cooking — as well as the results of his often humorous efforts to bring American preferences to French proclivities. I return from his book craving not only a delicate terrine, but oddly enough, sticky caramel pork ribs as well. But keep the fork, I’ll eat these à l’américaine — with my fingers.

Who should buy ‘My Paris Kitchen’? Any lover of French food and stories of life in Paris. Fans of David Lebovitz, well-tested recipes and butter. Give this to your cookbook-loving Valentine.

Planning a trip to Paris? This little addition to your cookbook gift will be a great hit this Valentine’s Day. Check out The Farm to Table French Phrasebook by Victoria Mas (Ulysses Press $15.95), complete with recipes and all the words needed to navigate a Parisian street market.

steak with mustard butter

Steak with mustard butter and French fries
Steak frites au beurre de moutarde

Serves 2

To make this bistro classic in my kitchen, I use a cast-iron skillet or grill pan that I get really hot, and then I sear the steak on both sides, cooking it medium-rare, which is the way I like it. My preferred cut is entrecôte, or rib-eye, and I ask the butcher to cut it into steaks that aren’t too thick since I like lots of surface area on my steaks. I rub them with chipotle chile powder to give them a bit of a smoky flavor.

It’s difficult to say exactly how long it will take a particular steak to cook to your liking since there are so many variables, but there is actually no truth to the rumor that if you cut a steak open a little and peek inside, all the juices will come gushing out and your steak will be dry. In fact, the best way to ensure a steak is dry is to overcook it. So feel free to peek inside if you need to.

2 (8-ounce/225g) rib-eye steaks

1/2 teaspoon hickory-smoked salt, sea salt, or kosher salt

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon chipotle chile powder

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh cilantro or flat-leaf parsley

Vegetable oil or clarified butter

Freshly ground black pepper

mustard butter

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

2 teaspoons dry mustard or mustard powder

1 generous teaspoon Dijon mustard

French fries (recipe below)

1 Pat the steaks dry and rub them with the salt, chipotle powder, and cilantro. Refrigerate the steaks, uncovered, for at least 1 hour, or up to 8 hours.

2 To make the mustard butter, in a small bowl, mash together the butter with the dry mustard and the Dijon. Form it into two mounds and chill on a plastic wrap–lined plate.

3 Heat a little oil or clarified butter in a grill pan or cast-iron skillet and cook the steaks over high heat, being sure to get a good sear on each side. For rare steaks, cook 5 to 7 minutes total on both sides, or aller-retour (“to go and return”).

4 Remove the steaks from the pan and put on plates. Top each steak with a knob of the mustard butter and some pepper and serve with a big pile of frites.

French fries
Frites

Serves 4 to 6

Although they didn’t invent them (the Belgians did), the French love French fries. Such is their devotion that after I attempted to make them at home in a large pot of oil on the stove without a lot of success (and making a big mess), a French friend told me everyone in France has a deep-fryer at home. He was surprised when I told him that home fryers weren’t so popular in America, which he thought was odd, considering how well known Americans are for liking deep-fried foods.

Equally hard to believe is that good fries in Paris are not necessarily a given. I was once so discouraged by getting yet another plate of soggy frites that I tied them in knots and left them on my plate, which was whisked away after I ate everything else without a word from the waiter. When I asked a restaurant owner why the fries served at his place were so soft, he said, “I used to make them crispy, but too many customers complained.” Yowza. Who could complain about crisp fries?

At home, crisp fries were eluding me as well, until I switched to oven-baked fries, which are simple to make and a lot less messy. Soaking them in cold water allows them to brown up nicely in the oven and they get extra crispy on the outside. I toss in a big handful of sage leaves and some thyme sprigs—the sage leaves get crackly-crisp with the fries and they’re quite tasty to crunch on, and the thyme adds an additional bit of savory flavor.

Any russet potato will make good baked French fries. I leave some of the skin on, for a more handmade look.

3 pounds (1.3kg) potatoes

4 tablespoons olive oil

2 teaspoons sea salt or kosher salt

Fresh herbs, such as a big handful of sage leaves, a few sprigs rosemary or thyme, or a mixture of them

1 Peel the potatoes, leaving on a few strips of skin as you go. Cut the potatoes into 1/3-inch-thick (1cm) slices. Lay the slices on a cutting board and slice them into 1/3-inch-wide (1cm) sticks. Put them in a large bowl with very cold, lightly salted water, and let them sit for 1 hour.

2 Preheat the oven to 400ºF (200ºC).

3 Drain the potatoes and lay them on a kitchen towel. Rub them with the towel to dry them very well. Spray two baking sheets with nonstick cooking spray. Place the potatoes on the baking sheets. Dribble the olive oil over the potatoes and sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of the salt. Add the fresh herbs and mix everything together with your hands. Spread the potato sticks out in a single layer on each baking sheet.

4 Bake for 45 to 50 minutes, rotating the pans from front to back and top to bottom midway during baking. As they bake, stir the potatoes several times so they cook evenly. Once the fries are golden brown and crispy, remove the pans from the oven and serve.

Reprinted with permission from My Paris Kitchen, by David Lebovitz, copyright 2014, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
Photography copyright 2014 by Ed Anderson

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