Sunday, April 26, 2009

I love Paris

A little more than a month before my husband and I got engaged, we took a trip to Paris, which I think is my favorite city in the world after New York. He loves good food and had taken a weeklong course in French cooking at Peter Kumpf's New York Cooking School (which is now the Institute for Culinary Education, in Manhattan). Still, he had never gotten around to visiting a country that geographically is so small but is a giant when it comes to good LIVING (like Italy, Spain, etc. Something to do with the Romans? I couldn't say).

We just had to go. I had been to France several times, including my semester in Aix-en-Provence, and it seemed like such a waste not to use what I had learned of the language and culture. (I’d never be an interpreter at the U.N., so then what exactly had I spent those years studying French for?) We booked a flight and a week at a tiny hotel by the Jardins du Luxembourg in early November.

Our plane descended through gray cloud cover … then we dragged our luggage via the Metro to our hotel’s quartier. When we entered the little lobby (about as big as a lot of walk-in closets in the suburbs), I greeted the woman reading a small book at the front desk, “Bonjour Madame …” But she immediately responded in English, not unfriendly but not terribly friendly either. I continued in French to tell her we had reservations and gave her our names. She insisted she was able to converse in English and told us that our room wouldn't be ready until about 3 or 4 p.m. Ugh, she was sending us out to cool our heels. I told myself, “I don‘t think she likes us very much.”

We were exhausted, D had the beginnings of a cold, but we suddenly had time to kill, so we asked her if she could suggest a place to take lunch.

As we walked toward her recommended spot, I neurotically wondered aloud to D whether the clerk thought my French was bad, or my accent wasn't good enough, or did she think I was the stereotype of the uncouth American? (Overreact much? Hey, I was fried from the trip.) A few blocks away as we approached the dated exterior of the bistro where she had directed us, I thought — out loud this time — “I don‘t think she likes us very much.”

Too tired to roam in search of a more attractive place, I mentally wrote off lunch as an extension of our plane ride — like an airport meal — and we were taken to a dark corner. I ordered a duck leg confit, and D chose fish (when we got it, it looked like a fillet of trout with the skin) served with lentils.

We waited. D sipped his red wine. Minutes passed. We waited a bit more. (Where was that glass of water I'd ordered?) And we waited. Finally, the garcon strode briskly to our table and set our heavy white plates down in front of us. We both took a couple bites. That hotel clerk definitely didn’t like us. She LOVED us.

The duck was as ducky a flavor as you can get, and rich with duck fat. I love that stuff. D's fish was cooked perfectly, moist and succulent with a thin crispy skin, and tapenade of olives lightly dressing it. And underneath was a small bed of well-seasoned lentils, not mushy but tender, each one steadfastly holding its shape.
I still think about that meal a decade ago. The stores here don’t carry fresh seafood or duck, and it’s prohibitively expensive for us to order it. But French lentils (lentilles de Puy) I can get, and they play well with so many other things — chorizo, merguez, small lamb shanks — I could go on.


Lentil Stew With Lamb and Sausage
Serves 4

2 Tbs olive oil
5 slices bacon, cut into half-inch pieces
2 small lamb shanks (1 1/2 to 2 pounds)
8 to 12 oz. sausage (merguez, andouille or Palacios chorizo), cut into 2-inch pieces
3 cloves garlic, smashed
3 carrots, cut diagonally into 2-inch pieces
2 stalks of celery, chopped
1 onion (or 2 large shallots), chopped
2 sprigs of fresh rosemary (or 1 tsp dried ground)
3 sprigs fresh thyme (or 1 tsp dried ground)
1 cup dry red wine
4 cups chicken broth
1 Tbs tomato paste (or more to taste)
1 bay leaf
1 1/5 cups lentils, sorted to remove pebbles, and rinsed
salt* (to taste)
1 tsp pepper

Heat a heavy pot over medium to medium-high heat. Render bacon, then set pieces aside. Add 2 Tbs oil to the bacon fat. Salt and pepper the lamb shanks, brown them, then set aside on a plate. Cover loosely with foil. (If using uncooked sausage, brown it then reserve with shanks, and if using cooked sausage, add it to the pot later with the shanks.)

Saute garlic, carrots, celery and onion until beginning to brown. If using dried herbs, add them to the vegetables and heat less than a minute. (If using fresh herbs, put them in later with the stock.)

Deglaze with the wine, scraping up any fond, or brown bits, from bottom of pot. Stir in lentils, tomato paste, bay leaf and chicken broth. Return shanks with any juices to pot along with bacon and sausage. Bring liquid just to a boil, then lower heat and maintain simmer until lamb shanks are tender, about an hour and half to two hours, depending on the size. If pot needs more liquid, add water.
When cool enough, remove shank bones and discard. Break up meat and stir back into lentils.
Season to taste with salt and fresh ground pepper.

Possible accompaniments: a hunk of fresh baguette; some grated or shaved Parmesan; a dollop of mascarpone.

*I don't necessarily add much salt because many store-bought chicken broths and stocks already are quite salty. If using a homemade or low-salt broth or stock, then add more salt according to taste.

**We usually have extra. Leftover lentils can be stretched with some broth or canned pureed tomato and served with penne or gobbetti (a twisted tube pasta with ridges), which goes well with hearty sauces like this or a red sauce with shredded pork shoulder and sausage.
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