Top Parisian “Food Picks” from two 18-year old Americans

Recently, I spent a week in Paris with my goddaughters, Mei and Zoe, 18-year-old twins who live in Brooklyn. Being a foodie, my goal was to expose them to as much French cuisine as possible, short of force-feeding them. However, they were encouraged to make their own selections of what they ate.  Even with so much French deliciousness, they had no difficulty in ticking off which culinary experiences they liked best.  To my surprise, their choices were often not even French. And so goes the globalization of everything around us.

Here are the twin’s top five food picks:

Zoe’s Top Foods:

1.    Gazpacho:  While certainly not French, Zoe concentrated on seeing how many different interpretations she could find of this dish.  I asked her why Gazpacho.  “When I travel, I gravitate to what I know I like, plus I don’t want to offend the chef by not eating everything on my plate.”  Zoe later explained that she had discovered Gazpacho in Spain last year when she and her sister walked the Camino de Santiago.  “As I really liked the soup’s refreshing taste, I ordered Gazpacho every time it was on the menu.” Zoe is consistent.  She ate it every time she saw it on a menu in Paris as well.

2.    Lobster ravioli:  At Fines Gueules—a terrific little wine bar near Place des Victories—Zoe thought the ravioli was exceptional because of its unexpected Asian flavorings of sesame oil and ginger.  When the chef came out of the kitchen and walked by our table, she remarked, “Oh, that’s why.  The Chef is Chinese!”

3.    Burrata with Serrano Ham:  This dish, which combined an unctuous Italian cheese with a dry-cured Spanish ham, sparked a conversation about the diversity of people and tastes we encountered during our week together.  Ten years ago, menus in Paris would have been limited to classically French dishes, unless, of course, you were dining in an ethnic restaurant.  Now that France is part of the EU, it is no surprise that there would also be a free flowing of dishes and ingredients between the various members countries like this delicious Italo/Spanish combo.

4.    Fish with double carrot sauce:  One evening, exhausted from a day of sightseeing, we decided to kick off our shoes and eat at home. Everyone put on an apron and got an assignment to produce one portion of the meal.  The main course, which I made, was shrimp topped with a double carrot sauce flavored with rosemary (defrosted from an earlier dinner party!) served over rice. While super easy, it ended up being one of Zoe’s “faves.” Puttering around in our bare feet in my tiny kitchen while listening to Edith Piaf songs —plus the fact that Zoe loves to cook—probably also had something to do with her choice. (Sidebar: The Fish and Double Carrots recipe is from Dorie Greenspan’s book, Around my Paris Table, and is one of my favorite go-to dishes for last minute entertaining.)

5.    Green Bean (Haricots Verts) Taste-off:  For fun, we decided to conduct a blind tasting of green beans:  fresh haricots verts from the Richard Lenoir Sunday outdoor market vs frozen from Picard, Paris’ temple of frozen food. To our amazement, we all preferred the taste and texture of frozen green beans.  Mei was thrilled as “Secretly I was rooting for the frozen green beans,” she exclaimed gleefully. “And they won!” During dinner we discussed that flash-frozen vegetables, processed at their peak of freshness, can often be even more nutritional and flavorful than their fresh counterpart, especially if the fresh ones are purchased out of season.  So, why were we so surprised?  Probably the natural prejudice between fresh and industrially frozen foods.

Truth be told, all three of us had become Picard groupies.  Earlier in the week, I introduced them to our local Picard store where we selected all the ingredients for a dinner party.  From the Salmon Tartare to the chicken Cordon Bleu to the Eclairs, everything was frozen.  We didn’t allow our guests—Zoe and Mei’s parent, who were also in Paris— in the kitchen and kept our secret to ourselves. At dessert, after receiving raves, we finally disclosed our ruse. Hopefully, at some point, Picard will find its way to our shores and you can become a fan too.

Mei‘s Top Foods:

1.    Fish Tartares: Over a period of six days, I noticed Mei kept ordering fish tartares.  When asked why she kept selecting the same starter Mei explained.  “When I discover a new dish, I also like to see how various chefs interpreted it.” Variation on a theme.  I get it now. While in Paris, Mei tasted it made with salmon, fluke, and tuna with different flavorings from sesame oil to citrus.  By the end of her stay, she had become quite the fish tartare aficionado!

2.    Blanquette de Veau: I had pre-made this dish for the girls so that we could eat at home after a late evening piano concert. The quality of veal is exceptional in France which is probably why Mei enjoyed it so much.  Or else, she was being uber complimentary to her host. Smart goddaughter. By the way, this recipe, plus the Fish with double carrot, is posted under the dessert section of this blog. Check them out.  You won’t be disappointed.

3.    Haricots Verts with slices of Champignon de Paris:  At Georges, the overpriced restaurant on the top floor of Centre Pompidou museum, Mei ordered La Salade d’Haricots Verts as her entrée. (Incidentally, the girls were amazed to learn that Entrée in French means a first course and not main course as it does in the U.S.) Mei’s dish was a mound of slightly chilled haricots verts topped with the thinnest slivers possible of Champignon de Paris (button mushrooms), each round the size of a tennis ball, all dressed in a light vinaigrette.

I explained to Mei that although the mushrooms were name de Paris, they were, in fact, grown in caves located in the Loire Valley.  “How’s that?” she asked. I explained that she could wow her friends with this piece of food trivia. However, later, I investigated why they were called Champignon de Paris and learned in this article ( that my mushroom history was not completely accurate. In fact, button mushrooms were originally cultivated in Paris by champignonnistes who grew them first in the catacombs and later in quarries. With the advent of the Metro, their underground fields were gobbled up and the industrial production moved outside of the city.  Today in France, Champignons de Paris are primarily cultivated in troglodytes found in the Loire Valley.  At least I got that part right.

4.    Mille-feuille: During our lunch at Georges, Mei’s spied one of the other diners eating a “foot long” Mille-feuille, a dramatic interpretation of a French classic dessert also known as a Napoleon. We decided it was big enough for the three of us to share which we did digging into the pastry’s thousand (well, almost) layers of puff pastry filled with crème pâtissière or pastry cream. Georges’ version was decorated with fresh figs and a salted caramel sauce.  Décadent et délicieux.

5.    Paris Brest:  With two out of five food faves being desserts, one might assume that Mei has a sweet tooth.  Mei’s Paris-Brest enjoyed at Ore—Alain Ducasse’s new restaurant in Versailles—was a miniature version of yet another classic French dessert.  Normally, this is a large ring of airy choux pastry filled with a rich praline pastry cream.  This spectacular dessert was named for the 1891 bicycle race run between the two French cities of Paris and Brest—precursor of the Tour de France—thus its round, wheel-shape. Sharing this dessert plus two others—an oblong chocolate Ingot sprayed with gold and a Mille-feuille—provided a real sugar high compensation for the three of us, one fully deserved after an exhausting day exploring the palace and gardens of Versailles.

While Zoe and Mei’s curiosity for classic French cuisine was not exactly ignited, their other take-aways from a week in Paris were quite reveling. In stark contrast with their lives in New York, they commented on: how quiet the Metro was with its train wheels made of rubber; the cleanliness of the city streets with the daily running of water in the gutters; the number of beautifully landscaped gardens available to the locals; the well-planned traffic flow where buses and taxis—with their professional drivers—shared the same lane with cyclists making it safer for everyone; how the banks of the Seine River were magically transformed into a summer Plage (beach) for the Parisians to sun themselves and enjoy their stay-cations; how the French lifestyle was more relaxed and less frenetic than ours; and finally, the diversity of the French population they encountered with their a rich array of skin tones and ethnic clothing. They had expected all Parisians to be Caucasians until I explained France’s former and expansive colonial empire.

Clearly, traveling to Paris offered Zoe and Mei many unique experiences, culinary and otherwise, all part of life's on-going education. As the girls go off to college this fall, souvenirs from their Parisian sojourn will be packed up along with their new dorm room quilts and pillows.  And while Mille-feuille and Lobster ravioli will probably not be on their cafeteria menu, certainly green beans will!  With any luck, they’ll be frozen.