White chocolate mendiants

It’s that time of year again… hearts seem to be popping up all around town, mingling strangely with the last remaining Christmas decorations and sometimes (like this year) accompanied by snow. For my Valentine’s Day post last year, I waxed philosophical about the meaning of the holiday and presented you with a recipe for sugar cookies with rosewater-raspberry icing. This year, perhaps inspired by all the discarded Christmas trees I’ve been walking past on the sidewalks over the past few weeks, I decided to revisit a traditional French yuletide confection in a white, pink and red version.

As with the original dark chocolate version, this is a very easy and versatile recipe. You need only melt a bar of chocolate or two and then add whatever fruit and nut toppings you like. At the end, you have a very cute little DIY treat to give to your loved ones.

White chocolate mendiants

Makes around 12 mendiants

Ingredients:

  • about 5.6 oz. (160 g) vegan white chocolate
  • a few teaspoons of coconut oil, if needed to thin the chocolate (do not use any other type of oil)
  • freeze-dried strawberry slices
  • dried cranberries or other dried red berries of your choice
  • optional: toasted almond slivers, toasted pine nuts, candied ginger

Equipment needed: double-boiler or metal mixing bowl plus saucepan, parchment or waxed paper. A tray that can fit inside your refrigerator and a heat-safe silicone spatula will be handy too.

Gather the white chocolate plus all the berries and any other toppings you want to use. I used these 80-gram bars of vanilla-infused white chocolate from iChoc that I found at Un Monde Vegan in Paris, but if you live somewhere else you can look for white chocolate at an organic shop or online.

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Set up a double-boiler or, as I have done here, boil some water in a saucepan with a metal bowl on top. Make sure that the bottom of the bowl doesn’t touch the water.

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Break the chocolate into squares/chunks and put them in the bowl. You’ll be keeping the heat on so that the water continues to boil throughout the entire process.

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Using a heat-safe silicone spatula, stir the chocolate as it melts. While waiting for it to be ready, grab a tray that’s the right size to fit inside your refrigerator and prepare it with a sheet of parchment or waxed paper.

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If your chocolate seems too thick or dry, you can add a small amount of coconut oil to thin it. Add the oil sparingly, incorporating each amount to see the result before adding more.

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When the chocolate has fully melted and become smooth, place a teaspoonful or so onto a sheet of parchment paper and shape into a circle of even thickness. Make only around six rounds at once so you have time to garnish them with the fruit and other toppings before the surface of the chocolate cools. Once you’ve filled an entire tray, place it in the refrigerator to cool and set (this takes about an hour).

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Continue the process with the remaining melted chocolate. I melted three bars, which made about six mendiants per bar, and opted to do a different type of topping with each set of six. For the ones above, I used strawberries, cranberries and some almonds. I added a few pine nuts here and there after taking this photo.

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A strawberry-only version. Which of these three topping versions do you like best?

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After about an hour, the mendiants should be fully cooled and set. You can take them out of the fridge and put them on a plate!

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I plated mine for this post on this great contrasting blue/green plate that I nabbed in the sales at Habitat the other day… but if you’re making these to give to friends as gifts, you can wrap them up in a bit of waxed or parchment paper tied with some fancy string.

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They look kind of nice on a smaller rectangular plate, too.

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Two paws up from Sésame, who wishes you a very happy Valentine’s Day, by the way. 🙂

Enjoy!

Variations: experiment with other combinations of fruit and nuts. Make some dark chocolate mendiants to create an assorted set.

My best breakfasts of 2017

Last January, I wrote a post about the best books I’d read in 2016. But this past year, I didn’t read quite as many books and none of them were really exciting enough to devote a whole post to. So this January, for something a bit different, I’ve decided to talk about the 15 best breakfasts I had this past year. Some are my own original recipes, others are from cookbooks and a few were at restaurants or food stands. If you follow me on Instagram, you might recognize some of them!

As with my post about the books, my goal is to inspire you to try some new things. You might find a new favorite flavor combination or get ideas for further experimentation.  Many of these are simple enough that you can reproduce them just from the photo and description, but in other cases I’ve tracked down recipes for similar dishes or provided a link when the dish is from the archives of this very blog.

I’m a big fan of breakfasts—I find that having a substantial meal in the morning (with coffee or tea, of course) is a great way to start the day with enough energy to get a lot of work done before a mid-afternoon break. I often have just a large-ish breakfast and then dinner without any lunch. Of course, it helps that I work from home and can take the time—when there are no urgent deadlines—to make something interesting. But if you have an office job and are short on time in the mornings, these may still give you some ideas for things to prepare ahead of time, or to make for weekend brunches.

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Fresh seasonal fruit (here, apple and persimmon) over plain soy yogurt can make for a simple but tasty and vitamin-rich breakfast. Here, it’s drizzled with Bee-Free apple honey (substitute maple, rice or agave syrup) and topped with chopped toasted almonds.

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Homemade turnovers are really easy to make when you buy premade flaky pie dough and have an apple (or other fruit—pear, banana, berries, etc.) on hand. Check out my recipe for apple turnovers with a sweet, lemony miso paste.

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On Saturday mornings, all year round, there’s an organic outdoor farmers’ market in my neighborhood (on boulevard des Batignolles in the 17th between metro stations Rome and Place de Clichy). If you live in Paris or will be passing through, you can stop by for some vegetables and also pick up one of these delightful savory chickpea galettes with a soy-basil sauce. They’re completely vegan and super filling and yummy. Look for the stand in the easternmost section of the market, the part closer to Place de Clichy. Or if you’re a Sunday shopper, you’ll find the same people operating a stand at the boulevard Raspail organic farmers’ market in the 6th near metro station Rennes. Alternatively, stay home and make this one yourself!

scones

I recently acquired a great French cookbook devoted to breakfast recipes, L’Heure du petit-déjeuner végane a sonné by Melle Pigut. I love her recipe for scones and make it often. They’re very easy to throw together, as long as you can wait 20 minutes for them to bake! Here, I have spread them with a vegan chocolate-hazelnut spread. If you don’t read French or can’t find this book, you can try this recipe.

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This pudding-like dish made with sorghum is a common breakfast dish in Tunisia that I recently learned how to make. I’ve garnished it here with toasted almond slices and Bee-Free apple honey, but you could top it with fruit, grated coconut or whatever else strikes your fancy. Check out the recipe here!

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As an American, I have an undying affection for peanut butter and love incorporating it into breakfast dishes. I find it makes any dish more substantial and provides long-lasting energy. Here, I have spread some on toasted English muffins (newly possible to find in France!) and topped them with fresh nectarine slices and toasted pumpkin seeds.

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This amazing bowl of overnight oats, which I enjoyed at Vegabond during my stay in Amsterdam this October, is one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had, ever. It was made with rolled oats and chia seeds and topped with green apple, pecans, plenty of cinnamon and a fresh physalis berry. You can try making your own overnight oats with this recipe.

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Another recipe from Melle Pigut’s breakfast cookbook that I loved is these potato flatbreads. They’re also quite easy to make if you plan a bit ahead and have some cooked potato ready. Here, I served them spread with hummus, grated carrot, some fennel seeds and black pepper. If you don’t read French, you can try this recipe.

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One of my favorite new finds in 2017 is a gluten-free rice porridge from Marks & Spencer, which has recently opened some stores in Paris. I’m not gluten-intolerant, but I happened to try this porridge and LOVE the texture… I find it to be softer and creamier than traditional oat porridge. Here, I made it using soy milk and topped it with fresh fig and peach slices and a sprinkle of toasted blond sesame seeds.

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If you want to prepare an extra-special breakfast or brunch item (best to start the night before), try this French fruit cheesecake. This one is made with apricots, but you could use just about any fruit.

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One memorable breakfast was this homemade buckwheat muesli with sunflower seeds and almonds that I made following a recipe in the French cookbook Délices déshydratés. Served here with soy milk and fresh apricot. A similar recipe in English can be found here.

banana icecream

When it’s really hot out, banana ice cream makes a fantastic breakfast. The “ice cream” part makes it sound more like a dessert, but since it’s much more filling than traditional ice cream and is also just fruit, it’s ideal for the morning. To make it, simply follow these directions. Personally, I always add lemon juice too—I find that the banana/lemon combination strangely results in a cheesecake-like taste (don’t ask me why!). You can also opt to add other frozen fruit or cocoa powder, chocolate chips, etc.

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Another English muffin and peanut butter breakfast! This time the topping is sautéed mushrooms and red onion with a sprinkling of smoked paprika. I know this combination might sound weird to a lot of you, but I love it!

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This was a super yummy chia pudding with mango coulis and fresh berries that I had at a place called Superfoods & Organic Liquids (Mitte district) in Berlin. More about that trip coming soon! You can make your own chia pudding with this recipe. Chia seeds are amazingly good for you, by the way (read more about it in the recipe link).

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Last but not least, if you’re in a French mood, try my recipe for basic sweet crêpes that you can fill with just about anything (even savory items, if you leave out the sugar). In the photo above, I served them with bergamot lemon juice and sugar.

What are your own favorite breakfasts? Are you more of a savory or sweet person? Let us know in the comments. 🙂 Until then, bon appétit!

Scandinavian juleboller with spiced blackcurrant sauce

Christmas is just around the corner, and if you’re as busy as me you may still be wondering what in the world to make for Christmas dinner. Today’s decidedly festive Nordic recipe, created by French chef Ôna Maiocco, may be the answer!

This savory dish offers a range of lovely textures and flavors. Smoked tofu comes together with onion, toasted nuts and mashed potato to form balls with a nice firm consistency and a bit of crunch. These are paired with fluffy mashed potatoes (everyone’s favorite!) and a rich, creamy brown sauce based on a buckwheat roux with fruity notes provided by blackcurrant juice. Finally, an armada of spices (cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, turmeric and black pepper) makes this a perfect Christmas dish—juleboller in fact means “Christmas balls” in Swedish and Norwegian.

I discovered this recipe a few years ago in Ôna’s 2013 cookbook Boulettes et galettes végétales (in French only). I’ve made it for several Christmas dinners since then and it’s always a delight. And while I usually present only original recipes on this blog, this one is so good that I felt it deserved a wider audience and asked Ôna if I could translate it for you.

Before we go on, a few words about Ôna. From an early age, she had been familiar with healthy organic cuisine thanks to her parents, who were firm believers in the merits of this type of food. Several years ago, after a first career in biology, she returned to her roots, deciding to forge a path for herself in the culinary arts, her true passion. Ôna earned a degree in pastry-making and supplemented her knowledge through self-study. Building upon her family’s tradition and her own values, she opted to make local, organic, sustainable vegan cuisine her focus. In 2011, she won the top prize in the professional category of the French sustainable food culinary competition Saveurs durables.

Today, she offers cooking classes in her beautiful sunlit and spacious atelier in the 18th arrondissement of Paris. The classes are in French, but with enough advance notice and a minimum number of participants, a class in English can be arranged. In addition to the cookbook from which this recipe is adapted, she has also published Je mange veggie : Bien manger végétarien c’est facile ! (January 2016), a guide to plant-based eating, and Ma cuisine super naturelle : manger bio, végétal et local (October 2017), a larger and more comprehensive cookbook.

And now, back to our recipe. The version presented here includes a few tiny changes and adaptations from the original. I’ve doubled the original amount to serve more people, added the cranberries as an optional garnish and suggested pomegranate juice as an optional alternative to the blackcurrant juice. The mashed potatoes recipe is my own.

If you know you’ll be pressed for time on the day of your dinner, you can make all three parts (mashed potatoes, tofu balls and sauce) ahead of time and reheat them, but I recommend making at least the sauce the day of.

Let’s get started!

Mashed potatoes

Serves 4 after removing 2 cups for the tofu balls. Can be made a day ahead and reheated on the stovetop.

  • 8-10 medium potatoes of a variety that’s good for mashing (Yukon Gold or others)
  • 2-3 tablespoons vegan butter, margarine or olive oil
  • 1/3 cup unsweetened soy or other plant-based cream, or more as needed
  • 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
  • a few grinds of white or black pepper, or to taste

Peel the potatoes and cut them into large chunks. Place them in a large stockpot, add enough water to cover them and bring to a boil, covered, over high heat. After the water starts to boil, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, covered but leaving a little space for the steam to escape, until the potatoes are tender, about 25-30 minutes. Drain the water and mash the potato chunks using a potato masher or immersion blender (if using a blender, try not to overmix).

Reserve 2 cups of the mashed potatoes (before anything else is added to them) for your tofu balls and set aside.

Add the vegan butter, plant-based cream, salt and pepper to the remaining potatoes and mash further to combine. Taste and adjust the seasonings as needed. Put the cover back on the stockpot and set aside.

Juleboller (Christmas tofu balls)

Makes around 30 tofu balls, enough for 4 people if served with mashed potatoes; otherwise enough for 2-3 people. Can be made a day ahead and reheated in the oven.

  • 3/4 cup (80 g) nuts (almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts etc.) or seeds (pumpkin, sunflower)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 2 cups, loosely packed (300 g) mashed potatoes reserved from the above recipe
  • 7 ounces (200 g) smoked tofu (or use plain tofu plus a bit of liquid smoke)
  • 1/2 cube vegetable bouillon (enough to make 1 cup bouillon)
  • 1/2 cup (50 g) rolled oats
  • 1/3 cup (60 g) dried cranberries, for garnish (optional)
  • Small bunch parsley, for garnish

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Begin by chopping the nuts, tofu and onion.

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I used a combination of hazelnuts, walnuts and almonds, but you can use any nuts or large seeds. Chop roughly; the pieces should be around the size of a pumpkin seed. Be careful not to chop too finely as you want recognizable pieces of nuts in the final product.

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Break the tofu into chunks with your fingers and then crush the chunks between your fingers and thumb to form coarse crumbs as shown.

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Peel and roughly dice a medium onion.

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Heat a dash of olive oil in a sauté pan and begin browning the onion over low-medium heat, stirring frequently.

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After a couple of minutes, add the nuts. Stir to combine.

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Add the cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and black pepper and stir to incorporate. Take a moment to enjoy the wonderful Christmasy scents that are now filling your kitchen. 🙂

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Continue browning the mixture, stirring often, until the onion is soft.

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While waiting for the mixture to cook, dilute half of a bouillon cube in 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (88 ml) hot water. Keep the remaining half-cube out as you’ll need it for the sauce recipe.

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Transfer the reserved 2 cups of mashed potato to a medium or large mixing bowl. Mash any remaining lumps, as the potatoes need to be as smooth as possible to hold the tofu, oats, nuts and onion together.

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Add the tofu, rolled oats and onion/nut mixture.

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Pour the bouillon uniformly over the top of the mixture and stir thoroughly to combine. Preheat your oven at this point to 350°F (180°C).

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Roll up your sleeves and, with scrupulously clean hands, shape the mixture into balls of around 1.5 inch (4 cm) in diameter. But they don’t have to be exactly this size—just try to make all the balls the same size as each other for a uniform result. Place them on a baking sheet covered with baking paper.

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When the tray is full, put it in the preheated oven and bake for 20 minutes. In the meantime, you’ll prepare the sauce and reheat the mashed potatoes (if serving).

Spiced blackcurrant sauce

Makes enough sauce to go with the tofu balls in the above recipe.

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons buckwheat flour (the buckwheat plays an important role in the flavor)
  • 1/2 cube vegetable bouillon (enough to make 1 cup bouillon)
  • 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon (100 ml) unsweetened soy cream
  • 1/4 cup plus 2 teaspoons (70 ml) blackcurrant juice (not syrup!) or pomegranate juice
  • 2 teaspoons soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons granulated sugar (or more to taste), UNLESS you use a sweetened juice
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper

 

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Heat the 2 tablespoons of olive oil over low-medium heat. While waiting for it to heat, dilute the remaining half cube of bouillon in 1 and 1/4 cup (300 ml) hot water and set aside.

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When the oil is hot, add the buckwheat flour and whisk to incorporate. Stir frequently.

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After a few minutes, it will have formed a thickish roux base and be simmering lightly.

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Add the bouillon (not shown), blackcurrant (or pomegranate) juice, soy sauce and spices. Whisk to combine.

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Add the soy cream and whisk to incorporate. Simmer, stirring frequently, for another two or three minutes. Taste the sauce to see if it needs any sugar (if it’s too acidic) or more salt (add more soy sauce) or more of the spices. Turn off burner and cover the saucepan to keep the sauce warm. At this point, if the tofu balls are almost ready, you can reheat the mashed potatoes if they need it.

Plating

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Once the tofu balls are done baking, begin plating the mashed potatoes (leave the tofu balls in the oven for the time being so they don’t lose heat). If you want to get fancy, a circle mold like this one will give you a nicely defined cylindrical shape. But you can achieve a similar effect using a measuring cup or small ramekin or bowl.

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Just after baking, the tofu balls can be a bit fragile (they firm up more after they cool a bit), so remove them from the paper carefully, using a twisting motion to gently release the part that’s stuck to the paper.

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Arrange the tofu balls around the mashed potatoes. You can use more tofu balls than this if your plate is larger, and also depending how many people you will be serving (just make sure you have enough for everyone). 😉

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Spoon the sauce over the tofu balls, add some cranberries and garnish the potatoes with the parsley sprigs.

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You can also opt to serve the tofu balls alone without mashed potatoes.

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Finally, you can also opt for a more casual presentation with a mound of mashed potatoes (not molded) in the center and the sauce poured over the top.

Whichever way you choose, waste no time in getting everyone around the table and tucking in, as this dish is seriously yummy and you’ve been sweating in the kitchen long enough!

For a festive Scandinavian ambiance, put some nice Swedish Christmas songs or choir music on.

Enjoy and God Jul (Merry Christmas) to you!

If you liked this dish and can read French, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Boulettes et galettes végétales, the book it comes from. I’ve been impressed by every one of the recipes (both savory and sweet) that I’ve made from it. It’s actually now out of print, but (as of December 2017 at least—act fast!), you can still get it on Amazon.fr. Also check out Ôna’s new book, Ma cuisine super naturelle : manger bio, végétal et local.

Variations: Instead of mashed potatoes, serve with rice or couscous (note however that you will still need mashed potatoes in the balls to hold them together). Use roughly chopped or whole pumpkin seeds as an additional or single garnish.

Apple-miso turnovers

In recent months, I’ve spent less and less time on Facebook, having noticed that I was lingering too long there, focusing on trivial or not-so-positive posts to the detriment of more productive activities. But I like to pop in every once in a while since there are also cool people to meet and useful discoveries to make. The other week, mindlessly trawling the site in spite of myself, I struck gold: Elizabeth Andoh had just posted her recipes for lemon and ginger flavored miso sauces designed to go with fruit. As a big fan of sweet and salty combinations—mango with lime juice and salt, chocolate with fleur de sel, popcorn tossed with both salt and sugar—I was immediately on board. I wasted no time in making these sauces and trying them paired with figs and nectarines, the fruit available at the time. Delicious.

Soon enough, my brain began trying to work out other ways to use these sauces, and I landed upon the idea of adding flavored miso to a fruit pastry! I tried it in apple turnovers, long a homemade breakfast mainstay for me, and loved the result. I understand if that sounds strange to you, but bear with me here. The miso adds a whole new dimension to the panorama of flavors, highlighting the delicate sweetness of the fruit with the contrast of its earthy, salty umami notes. The result is also vaguely reminiscent of a cheesy taste, so you could think of it as a Japanese cheese danish. Also, remember that French woman in Pulp Fiction who enjoys a slice of cheese on her pie?

I should note that I also tried using straight up white miso to see if it would be enough on its own, but it proved too salty and harsh. In the recipe below, the lemon and sugar tame it enough that it nicely complements the apple without overshadowing it.

I adapted Andoh’s recipe somewhat, using a little less miso and a bit more sugar, but feel free to try her exact version too. For the saké, I found a small “one cup” size at my local Asian grocery store for 2 euros (see photo below). If you can’t get saké, you can substitute white wine.

For the crust, I used a ready-made vegan puff pastry. This is known as pâte feuilletée here in France, and it’s easy to find in an accidentally vegan version even at mainstream stores like Franprix (Herta brand) or else at organic shops. Just check the ingredients as there’s also a version made with butter. In North America, you can look for this one by Pepperidge Farm. Or, if you’re inclined, you can make your own. If puff pastry is impossible to find or too daunting to make, you can use regular pie crust dough (pâte brisée in France). It just won’t be quite as light or flaky.

Note that puff pastry is not the same thing as filo/phyllo dough. You could try that too if you’re experienced at using this kind of dough, but the results may not be quite the same as what you see here.

There are two ways to shape the turnovers: cutting the pastry dough into four triangles and folding the corners inward to form a sort of square parcel (as I have done here), or cutting the pastry into circles and folding them in half to make the traditional turnover shape. For this, you can trace circles onto the dough with an overturned bowl or use a pastry mold. With this approach, some scraps of dough will be left over, but you can press them together for enough dough to make one more turnover.

For greatest efficiency, I recommend preparing the miso sauce the day before. Then all you’ll have to do in the morning is chop up an apple, take the dough out of the fridge and put everything together.

Sweet lemony miso sauce

Makes about ¼ cup sauce

¼ cup shiro miso (white miso) paste
1 tablespoon saké or white wine
3 teaspoons granulated sugar, or more to taste
1 tablespoon water
1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest

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The miso and saké that I used. When buying the miso, check the ingredients to be sure it isn’t the kind with added bonito (fish) flakes. That would not be the nicest thing in a sweet pastry!

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Combine the miso, saké and sugar in a small saucepan. Before placing over heat, stir the ingredients until thoroughly mixed. Incorporate the water and half of the lemon zest. Cook over low to medium heat for a few minutes, stirring constantly, until the mixture is glossy and you can see the bottom of the pan after scraping the spatula across it.

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Add the remaining lemon zest, stir to incorporate, and taste the mixture. Add more sugar if you like, but don’t worry too much about the saltiness because you’ll be using only a small amount of it, and when the flavors of the apple, lemon and pastry come together, everything gets balanced out. Also remember that you can always add more powdered sugar to the baked pastry at the end if need be.

If the sauce seems too thick, you can add another tiny bit of water. Ideally, you want it to have the consistency of ketchup.

Remove from heat and allow to cool. If not using right away in the turnovers, cover tightly and store in the refrigerator (will keep for 3-4 weeks).

Apple-miso turnovers

Makes 4 turnovers

1 puff pastry dough, 12 in. (32 cm) in diameter (purchased or homemade)
1 medium-sized tart apple (I used Granny Smith)
A few teaspoons all-purpose or whole-wheat flour
A few squeezes lemon juice
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
A few teaspoons powdered sugar (icing sugar)

Begin by preheating your oven to 350°F (180°C).

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Chop your apple into small cubes (cut into thin slices, then again crossways to dice).

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Transfer to a small bowl. Add a few teaspoons of flour and a teaspoon of granulated sugar to the mix until the apple is uniformly coated. The flour helps the apple stick together and become more of a substantial filling.

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Add a few squeezes of fresh lemon juice to the mixture (it adds tartness and keeps the apple from browning) and stir to combine.

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Cut your pastry into four equal parts by running a butter knife gently down and across it. Note: if you have made your own pastry, be sure to roll it out thin enough.

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Spread a teaspoon or so of the sweet lemony sauce across each section of pastry. The amount you use will depend on how adventurous you feel or how much you like miso. You can also experiment by using more sauce in some of the turnovers and less (or none) in others, to compare. If you do this, try to mark them in some way so you remember which ones are which after they come out of the oven.

If any of the miso sauce remains, use it as a dip for whatever fruit you happen to have on hand.

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Now deposit a few spoonfuls of the diced apple on the center of the prepared pastry section. Be careful not to use too much apple, as you might have to stretch the dough to cover it and this could cause the pastry to break.

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Fold the side points in toward the center.

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Fold the bottom edge upward.

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Fold the top point downward.

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Press down on all the edges to seal so the filling doesn’t escape as the turnover bakes. I usually use the tines of a fork for this. It also results in a nice pattern, although with flaky crust the pattern doesn’t always remain after baking.

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Cut a few slits somewhere on the top of the turnover to allow hot air to escape during the baking.

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Your turnovers are ready to go in the oven! Bake at 350°F (180°C) for about 20 minutes, until the tops are golden brown.

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They’ll look kind of like this when they’re done.

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I like to decorate the tops with a bit of powdered sugar (icing sugar) sifted over the top (do this while the turnovers are still warm).

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Allow to cool a bit, but not too long—they’re yummiest when warm! The ones you save for later can be popped into the oven for a few minutes at the same temperature (350°F/180°C) to warm them up before serving.

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Brew yourself some coffee or tea and enjoy!

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Yum!

I hope you love these turnovers as much as I did. Let me know in the comments if you try them!

Variations: Use any other fruit that happens to be in season and seems likely to go well with the miso sauce (pear or persimmon in the winter, peach or nectarine in the summer). Experiment with the gingery red miso sauce too. Decorate the tops of the pastries with slivered almonds (brush a bit of apricot jam on top first, then apply the almond slivers, all before baking).

Canals, bikes and tiny cars

How could I let so many years go by without ever visiting Amsterdam? This is the question I began asking myself almost as soon as I arrived. It’s so close to me (just an easy three-hour TGV from Paris) and has so much to offer.

I soon fell in love with this charming city teeming with bicycles and crisscrossed by canals. I adore the stately narrow houses standing guard alongside them, topped with ornate gables of various kinds. My favorite is the stepped gable but the other kinds—with a vaguely Haussmannian sloping slate roof or a piping of white frosting trim—are beautiful too.

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In the second photo above, you can see a hook hanging down from the top of the building. These were installed on most houses for the purpose of moving furniture in through the windows rather than up the stairs (the stairs in many buildings are steep with shallow steps—I would have appreciated a hook option to get my suitcase up to my hotel room!). These houses were also built to lean slightly forward so the items being hoisted up and down wouldn’t scrape across the façade. For houses without a hook, people use the same kind of exterior elevator you can sometimes see in Paris.

This trip was also the chance to increase my number of countries visited and get a bit closer to beating my brother in our friendly “who’s traveled the most” competition. He is frustratingly one country ahead of me at the moment, although I still think he shouldn’t be allowed to count business trips! (sore loser, yes). 😉

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Another thing I enjoyed in Amsterdam were the chances to try figuring out the exact meaning of signs and writing (and overheard talk) using the bits of Dutch that I know thanks to the Belgian delegation of my United Nations of friends.

Of course, their purpose is obvious right away… the first one means that if you’re not careful, a giant angry dog could burst out of nowhere and dispatch you to the hereafter, but how do they say it exactly? In English, we get right to the point with “Beware of dog” while in French it’s “Chien méchant” (mean/dangerous dog), which gives only an implicit warning. In Dutch the sign reads “Hier waak ik” or “I’m watching (over)/guarding here”—again requiring the would-be trespasser to draw conclusions. The different approaches to conveying a single message are interesting.

In the second photo, a sticker alerts mail carriers to the types of junk mail the occupant does or doesn’t accept. And in the third one, a friendly-looking sign with a rhyming poem tells people that they can park their bikes there if they’re going into the nearby café. As a translator, my natural impulse is to try coming up with an English equivalent that also rhymes… something like “Coming in for a beer? Then you can park here.” But then the idea of tea is lost, and the syllable count isn’t quite right. But this gives you an idea.

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The first thing you notice upon arriving in Amsterdam is probably how very many bikes there are. In the city center they far outnumber cars, and as you explore the streets you see them chained to any and all conceivable fixtures, even (or especially?) when there’s a sign warning people not to). It seems an extremely practical way to get around, and very eco-friendly of course. For those times when biking isn’t possible, there are buses, trams and even a subway with a couple of lines. As a pedestrian, however, you have to be very careful when crossing streets as the chance of stepping in front of a silent but rapidly approaching bicyclist is always high. Especially at night, when bikes are not only silent but practically invisible. I suppose when you live there you have the reflex of looking carefully both ways even in the absence of engine noise.

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The second thing that stands out is the number of canals. I’d already known there were canals there, but hadn’t realized how extensive they are. This city of 219 sq. km has over 100 km of canals (spanned by some 1,500 bridges, each with its own name)—far more than in Venice. In fact, Amsterdam is often referred to as the Venice of the north. The canal ring area, dug in the 17th century during the Dutch Golden Age, was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010.

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As you can see in this 1671 map by Joannem de Ram, the city is a veritable spiderweb of waterways. A number of maps like this are on display at Het Grachtenhuis (the Canal House), a very cool little museum that I discovered by chance.

Its multi-media exhibits tell the story of Amsterdam in a unique and entertaining way, incorporating video, holograms, claymation, physical models and projected images that create a sort of augmented reality to take you back in time. You learn why the canals needed to be dug, how their layout was chosen, why the city’s houses sometimes lean to one side and what lies beneath them. One of the highlights is a model of the Grachtenhuis itself with its rooms furnished in the styles of different periods from its history. It seems that a popular hobby among rich Amsterdam ladies back in the day was to have a dollhouse version of their own home made. I wonder, was it strictly for show or did they also play with their mini-house when no one was around?

Amsterdam is also a place where you can see a few species of very, very small cars. I remember the first time I saw a Smart Car, on one of my early trips to France—they’re so small compared to typical American cars that we took photos of ourselves next to them, even in the days of film cameras when doing so was arguably wasteful. But those are luxury sedans next to these little guys (the official term for vehicles this size is microcars). The first red car and the white car above are Cantas, developed in the Netherlands specifically as a mobility aid for disabled drivers. They run on gasoline, and when I encountered one going down the road its engine sounded like a lawn mower. They’re allowed to drive on sidewalks and you don’t need a driver’s license to operate them. And as you can see, they need to be secured to something with a chain, since just about anyone could pick one up and tuck it under their arm. The black cars are examples of the Birò, the world’s smallest electric car. See it in action here. So cute! You also won’t want to miss the Canta ballet.

Our wanderings through the city were sometimes random and sometimes purposeful, as we had come in part to find some of the Space Invaders installed back in 1999 by the eponymous French street artist. Those of you who follow my Instagram already know that we succeeded! Out of the original 26, we found 18, although many if not most of those had been “reactivated” (replaced) by fans due to destruction of the originals. Some of them have a small row of tiles installed underneath them, and we were thinking this might be to indicate that they’re reactivations.

After a morning of Invader-hunting, it was time to refuel at Vegan Junk Food Bar. I won’t say much here as I mainly wanted to share these photos and pass on the name before moving on to Van Gogh. Suffice it to say that these burgers were pretty much life-changing, and that those are sweet potato fries with scallions and a truffle mayonnaise. Yes!

So, of all Amsterdam’s museums, the most “must-visit” of them all is undoubtedly the one devoted to Vincent Van Gogh. It’s the largest collection of his works, and he was very prolific for a time before unfortunately slipping into madness. Among other works, you can see these very famous pieces. And also take the artist home with you in crocheted form. In an interesting coincidence, the temporary exhibition of the moment was The Dutch in Paris.

Something funny happened one morning when we were in search of food and realized that the coffee shop across from the hotel offered a vegan breakfast. Okay, we already knew what “coffee” shops in Amsterdam were really about, but were sort of thinking that if they also served food, maybe it was more of a restaurant during the day. And perhaps this one was, but that didn’t stop people from also coming in to smoke. It was a bit surreal to be sipping at your coffee and eating baked beans on toast while at the same time inhaling fumes of a most herbaceous kind from the next table (and baked beans on toast are already strange enough for me). Furthermore, as smoking in buildings has been banned for some ten years already in most of Europe—including in the Netherlands, for regular cigarettes—it was odd to have ashtrays on the tables. Not that I’m even opposed to this kind of thing… it’s more that it hasn’t come into my reality for a long time. Anyway, we saw the humor in it though and weren’t deterred from enjoying our breakfast. Well, as far as possible, since it was a somewhat underwhelming breakfast, especially since they had no plant-based milk and a coffee with milk in it is one of the cornerstones of breakfast for me. But it was filling enough and did the job. Looking more closely at the menu after eating, we noticed the “Happy English” option—an English breakfast “with Popeye’s spinach :)” and wondered just how this “spinach :)” was incorporated (space breakfast?) or if the dish came with a rolled combustible as a dessert course.

That evening, my friend bought a vegan space cake (actually a space cupcake) from the same place to have at the hotel. I was almost going to have part of it but then decided not to, as I’d heard something about unpredictable results and wasn’t in the mood for unpredictable things. The effects of this cupcake, however, were reportedly just as underwhelming as the breakfast, but we both enjoyed the drawing of the enthusiastic chef, so there was that.

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Speaking of weed, another culinary highlight of this trip was The Dutch Weed Burger, a fast-food restaurant fully in line with the spirit of its home city. But no, it’s not that kind of weed, not this time. Behind the provocative name is a culinary philosophy devoted to highlighting the virtues of another kind of plant—seaweed! From burgers and hot dogs to drinks and desserts, everything is made with a bit of added seaweed of one variety or another. We had a burger with kim chee plus the “wish ‘n’ chips”, a drink made with chlorella and a brownie (normal kind). It was all divine. I also loved their cute logo (a sort of partial Jolly Roger with a spatula and a trident) and the many clins d’œil to what people usually think of when you put the words “Dutch” and “weed” together—they refer to the restaurant as a burger “joint” for example, and their quarter-pounder is called the “extra high”. While waiting for our order, we paged through a book of plant-based, seaweed-added recipes called Groente uit zee that was written by one of the restaurant’s founders. It’s also available in English as Ocean Greens. I of course now want to get it, but luckily for my overcrowded bookshelves, it’s not so easy to obtain in France.

After the coffee shop imbroglio, we realized there was a better place to eat in the morning only a few blocks away. Vegabond is a little café that serves breakfast and lunch items, in addition to a range of hot drinks (with plant milks), and it also houses a vegan grocery store with a wide range of products including a locally made almond-based brie. I loved sitting there early in the morning before anyone else arrived, enjoying the ambiance of the sleepy street with a canal flowing lazily in front of it.

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On our second-to-last day, I decided to make a side trip on my own to Delft (one hour from Amsterdam by train) to visit the Royal Delft factory and museum. I’d been wanting to see this town ever since reading Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and seeing the film adaptation of it (although it was actually filmed somewhere in Luxembourg). And of course I also love all things porcelain, pottery and tile, and blue and white designs.

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The town of Delft has (disappointingly) not remained frozen in time in the days of Vermeer, but it was still fun to amble around and look at the old buildings and narrow canals, which run right alongside the houses in some places. I was rewarded in my explorations with some “Delftware” street art!

The factory and museum showcased old plates commemorating Dutch royals as well as large murals made entirely of Delftware tiles and a 17th-century Dutch dining room set up for dinner with period tableware. You can enter a part of the factory to see where the pieces are fired, as well as a workshop where artisans painstakingly paint designs on prefired porcelain—interestingly, the glaze is black when applied and turns blue with the heat.

Your path out of the museum naturally takes you through the gift shop, which I personally found quite enjoyable although most everything was far out of my price range and too delicate for an apartment lacking a china hutch. The tea services, vases and so on are arranged in descending price brackets as you make your way through the shop, so in theory there is something for everyone. Among the more unique items was a €4,150 hand-painted Delftware version of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, which in their defense is not actually that bad when you think about it. The work of painting it by hand to match the original must require a certain effort, and then you have a one-of-a-kind conversation piece bringing together two iconic Dutch things: Delftware and Van Gogh. Or maybe you could just sit at a Delft sidewalk café to draw the thing yourself in a sketchpad and tell people later how you did it on site. 😉 But anyway, those who don’t have the means for such a purchase can console themselves with a Delftware Christmas tree ornament (as I did) or rubber ducky (quite cute actually). A “Delftware” car was parked outside the gift shop, but didn’t seem to be for sale.

This little trip made for a fun afternoon, but it might not be worth the two-hour round trip if your time in Amsterdam is limited, since you can already find Delftware (or similar) and much more beautiful canals and houses in the capital.

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That evening, back in Amsterdam, dinner was at the exclusive, by-reservation-only Japanese restaurant Men Impossible. It was my favorite dining experience of the trip. Guests are seated around a single communal table, a set-up that creates a truly intimate ambiance, and given a warm welcome by the gracious and friendly Atsushi, the proprietor and chef. After directing you to a seat, he hands you a laminated manga (click on the photo of it above to expand) that explains how to order and eat his ramen dishes which, after a starter, are the stars of the show. Atsushi makes all the ramen he serves by hand the same day—you can see why guests must reserve in advance! You choose between warm and cold noodles plus a soup that doubles as a sauce (I picked mushroom) and a flavoring that gets added toward the end (I had black garlic). The process for eating the dish was very precise, so the manga really came in handy—for example, you’re supposed to eat the soup and ramen separately at first (only dipping the noodles into the soup/sauce), and then pour the soup over the noodles later on. I don’t know if I managed to follow all the directions correctly or not, but this dish was one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten. The mushroom soup offered rich flavors bursting with umami and the noodles were very fresh with an amazing texture. And despite manning the kitchen and dining room all by himself, Atsushi was very attentive and gracious. I cannot recommend Men Impossible highly enough. If you’re ever in Amsterdam, find a way to go there (you can make a reservation online). And if you’re into Invaders, you’ll find one on the same street!

The last thing we visited before returning home was the Anne Frank House, a place I’d been curious about for years, ever since reading The Diary of a Young Girl as a teenager. We were actually very lucky to get in, as we hadn’t thought to reserve tickets before the trip started and on the day I checked for openings, absolutely every time slot during our stay was full except one (a group must have just canceled). I reserved spots for us as fast as I could! Plan far ahead if you want to visit this house during your stay.

The tour through the building and its achterhuis (“house behind”), as Anne called it, where her family hid, was a solemn and somber experience. I should point out that the hiding place actually no longer has any of its furnishings—Otto Frank, Anne’s father, requested that it not be furnished again and the photos above are of a recreation in another place. But you can stand in the same rooms where they lived and try to imagine their experiences. To recreate the conditions of the time, the windows are covered with blackout curtains and the interior kept fairly dark. Photos of the family and their helpers hang on the walls, but the audioguide that visitors are given as they enter the site has no recordings to go along with the spaces in which the family had lived, as if to promote reflection. We silently shuffled forward through the small, crowded spaces in step with the other visitors, each of us lost in our thoughts, imagining perhaps the day when the police came to bang on the door of the hiding place and take everyone away. There was a palpable sense of unease in the air and one woman began to cry.

A few vestiges from the days of their hiding remain. Some of the film stars from Anne’s collection are still pasted to her bedroom wall, and the pencil marks where Otto marked his daughters’ heights as they grew can be seen on the wallpaper behind a plastic panel.

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As we exited the building at the end of our visit, it had just been raining and an enormous rainbow stretched across the sky over the rooftops. As if Anne were saying hello.

My friends are used to hearing me say I want to move to whatever European city I’ve just been to, and to avoid testing their patience I won’t do that this time. But between you and me, this is a city I could probably get used to.

If you’re interested in learning more about Amsterdam but can’t visit just yet, you may want to check out Russell Shorto’s Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City (I’m about one-fourth through it and so far it’s been an entertaining read) or The Coffee Trader, a historical novel by David Liss set in 17th-century Amsterdam. I read it years ago and loved it.

Where will my travels take me to next? Stay tuned!

Chickpea of the sea salad

Chickpea of the what?

Allow me to explain. Those of you who live in the US will probably be familiar with the Chicken of the Sea tuna brand. I never knew why they called it that, but a quick visit to their site the other day revealed that fishermen of yesteryear used to refer to white albacore tuna this way because its light color and neutral flavor made them think of chicken.

Today, amid concerns about mercury levelsoverfishing and bycatch (the needless demise of non-targeted fish and other species such as dolphins and turtles), more and more people are reducing their fish consumption. Happily, for those who like the taste of certain seafood dishes, there are ways to reproduce the flavors.

This very easy chickpea salad has a mayonnaise-mustard-caper dressing that gives it a tangy flavor reminiscent of tuna fish salad (hence the name). It’s also filling and protein-rich and has a bit of crunch thanks to the celery and onion. Furthermore, it is a versatile and forgiving recipe—the quantities of the various ingredients don’t need to be exact, and if you add too much of one thing you can easily balance it out by adding more of another. Also, if you love onion, you can add more that the amount specified, or less (even none!) if you’re not so much of a fan. If you don’t happen to have celery on hand, you could add other crunchy things like radish, green apple or even walnuts. This is a recipe where you can let your imagination loose and experiment endlessly.

It can be served in the same ways as a tuna or chicken salad: on bread for an open-faced or traditional sandwich, atop a green salad, on endive leaves, in lettuce cups or even on halved canned peaches! (yes, I’ve tried this and as strange as it sounds, it’s good!).

Without further ado, let’s move on to the recipe!

Chickpea salad

Makes about 2 cups of chickpea salad

Ingredients

  • 14 ounces (400 g) cooked chickpeas
  • 1/4 cup (40 g) finely diced red onion
  • 1/2 cup (112 g) diced celery
  • 1 teaspoon whole capers, or more to taste
  • 3 tablespoons vegan mayonnaise
  • 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon brine from the caper jar
  • 2 teaspoons dried seaweed flakes or shredded nori sheet
  • 1/4 cup (5 g) chopped fresh parsley, plus extra for garnish

 

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Begin by dicing the onion and slicing the celery. If your celery branches are very wide, cut them in half lengthwise so the pieces are more bite-sized.

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Drain the chickpeas, saving the water from the can if you want to make something with aquafaba later.

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Transfer the chickpeas to a bowl and mash them with a potato masher or fork. They should be broken but not pulverized to the point that they become hummus (for this reason, it’s best not to use a food processor). There should still be visible chunks of chickpea in the mixture.

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Now, in a small bowl, combine the mayonnaise, mustard, lemon juice, caper brine and seaweed flakes or finely shredded nori sheet.

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The mayonnaise mixture will look like this when ready. Taste it and adjust to your liking. You may find you would like it to be a little more spicy (add more mustard) or less so (add more mayonnaise), or more “tuna-y” (add more caper brine and/or seaweed).

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Add the onion, celery and capers to the mashed chickpeas and stir to combine.

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Finally, fold the mayonnaise mixture into the chickpeas and stir until thoroughly integrated. Add the shredded parsley and stir a few more times to combine. Your chickpea of the sea salad is now ready!

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The chickpea salad can be served in many ways. Here, I have prepared some mini open-faced sandwiches on a type of rye bread often found with the name Baltik or Artik in bakeries in France.

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Enjoy!

Variations: Make a curry version of this chickpea salad by adding curry powder and omitting the capers and caper brine. Add any of your favorite nuts and seeds (pine nuts are quite good in this). Serve in endive leaves, lettuce cups or on halved canned peaches as shown above.

Street art in Paris

If all the world’s a stage, it may as well be a canvas too.

As you visit Paris, scurrying perhaps between one art museum and another, keep your eyes peeled for the many works of art on display right out on the street: sprayed or stenciled on a wall, pasted to a pillar, affixed to a street corner or integrated into a road sign.

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Elf-like creatures by Fred Lechevalier try to get a better view of the city’s most famous landmark.

The streets are probably the best place to view the very latest, freshest contemporary art. Some of the works you see may have been added in the wee hours of the previous night. Often ephemeral, always changing, it turns a city’s public spaces into an open-air museum for all to enjoy. No entrance fee necessary.

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In Paris, street art (or art de rue in French) as we know it today began to appear in the late 1960s. One of the first major works was the 1971 installation Les Gisants de la Commune de Paris by Ernest Pignon-Ernest, who is still active today. Paying homage to the Paris Commune revolt 100 years earlier, it consisted of silk-screened images of fallen men unfurled down the steps leading to the Sacré-Cœur Basilica in the Montmartre district.

“Places are my essential materials,” the artist told biographer André Velter in a 2014 interview. “I try to understand, to grasp everything that can be seen there—space, light, colors—and at the same time everything that cannot or can no longer be seen: history, buried memories.”

For more about the history of street art in France, I recommend this Widewalls article. Also check out the highly entertaining Banksy documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop for an insider’s view of installing art around the city in the dead of night (Paris features prominently).

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One of my favorite street artists is Invader, who in 1998 began his ongoing project Space Invaders. As of this writing, there are now 3,564 of his tile-mosaic creatures in 74 cities around the globe. See him at work here.

In homage to the 1980s video game that inspired his characters, the artist created a game, Flash Invaders, in which players compete to scan as many mosaics as they can with their mobile phones. Each piece has its own number of points depending on size and elaborateness, and when you scan Invaders in new cities you get bonus points. Since the artist is French, Paris is the city with the largest number of these creations (1,305 as of today), and finding new ones as I go about my daily life is always a little thrill.

Street art is something you will inevitably notice as you stroll around Paris, but the works are often enigmatic. Why do Kashink‘s faces always have four eyes and a mustache? What does it mean when a little crown is spray-painted above a head by another artist?

Whether you live here or will be passing through, a fun way to learn more about street art in Paris is to join one of the English-language street art walking tours offered by Kasia Klon, who is an artist herself. During each three-hour tour, she focuses on a specific district of Paris (La Butte-aux-Cailles, Belleville, Montmartre and others) and also offers tours in a few of the near suburbs. Kasia takes you straight to the most interesting works, often pointing out pieces that you wouldn’t have noticed on your own, explaining their significance, back stories and how they fit in with the history of Paris. When a series of pieces by different artists appear together on a single wall, she highlights the subtle common themes between them, showing how the artists have responded to and built upon each other’s work. As she knows many of the street artists in Paris personally, she can offer insights that you wouldn’t have access to otherwise.

Kasia’s tours are now listed above all other street art walking tours on Tripadvisor and were named Second-Best Tour of Paris in 2016 and 2017 (for all tour categories combined) by Expatriates Magazine as well as Local Experience of the year 2018 for Paris by Travel & Hospitality Awards. She is also the only official guide for the Street Art 13 mural project launched by Galerie Itinerrance.

The following are some noteworthy pieces I photographed in Paris and the suburb of Vitry-sur-Seine, either on my own or during one of Kasia’s tours.

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Robert Dalban from Les Tontons Flingueurs, revisited with nicer weapons by Jaeraymie.

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A Space Invader eyes the road construction with some trepidation, while a calmer person with ruffly clothes takes it in their stride (Invader and Kam & Laurène).

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Muhammed Ali and Ryu from Street Fighter face off in the Butte-aux-Cailles district (Combo).

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Yarn bombing (artist unknown).

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A mural by German artist MadC.

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Fierce warriors guarding (or menacing?) Vitry-sur-Seine (Kouka).

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A decidedly chill Zelda Bomba face looks over toward Canal Saint-Martin.

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A cat and some other creatures brighten the way to this parking garage thanks to Lala Saidko and Bebar.

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A wheat-paste figure gives me a taste of my own medicine (Noar Noarnito).

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A street sign revisited by Clet Abraham next to yet another Invader.

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American artist Alloyius McIlwaine brings life to this wall (see it happen here).

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A unique figure in the Batignolles district by Anne-Laure Maison.

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A portrait of late singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg and (not late!) partner Jane Birkin on the façade of their rue de Verneuil residence, which keeps getting covered by more layers of new street art paying tribute to them (Jo Di Bona).

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A few of Kashink‘s four-eyed characters, this time in a special project called Kashink Kids, in which local children are invited to fill in the faces.

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A crow’s nest in the Batignolles district (artist unknown).

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Heartcraft‘s stickers spread kisses and love all over the city.

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A collaboration in Vitry-sur-Seine (artists unknown).

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Persian calligraphy by Iranian artist A1one.

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Kabuki theater with Irish artist Fin Dac.

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A portrait of French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, who helped legalize same-sex marriage in France (C215).

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A decidedly French robot in Vitry-sur-Seine by Italian artist Pixel Pancho.

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And sometimes all it takes to create a work of art is a well-placed heart (artist unknown).

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Finally, whether you join a street art tour or strike out on your own, be sure to wear comfy walking shoes!

More information about Kasia’s street art tours can be found on her website. Also check out her Facebook page and Instagram.

Chocolate cake with azuki filling

In recent weeks, I’ve been experimenting with more and more Asian-inspired flavors and ingredients. It all began when my friend Yukiko introduced me to a Japanese dish that has become one of my top favorite recipes of all time. My discovery then furthered when I got my hands on Elizabeth Andoh’s outstanding recipe book Kansha. In it, she focuses on shojin ryori, or “temple cooking”, which in line with the Buddhist principle of non-harm is plant-based. I now realize how much more there is to Japanese cuisine than the usual sushi, maki rolls and mochi that we’re all familiar with. I’ve tried about seven or eight recipes from this book so far, including cold buckwheat noodles with a tangy umeboshi sauce and herbaceous shiso, creamy/crispy kabocha squash croquettes, candied sweet potatoes and pancakes filled with red-bean jam (check my Instagram from a few weeks ago for photos of all these).

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In Japanese cuisine, an effort is made to combine a range of colors, textures and flavors in each dish. Pasta with a creamy sauce is paired with a crunchy, tangy salad made of colorful carrot, cucumber or red pepper. White rice is cooked together with a few spoonfuls of black rice to become lavender, and is then studded with bright green edamame beans. Sweet preparations may include a few drops of soy sauce or a touch of miso to temper the sugary taste. Such combinations result in works of art that are pleasing to both the palate and the eyes.

It was in this context, then, that I began imagining ways of integrating these principles and ingredients into familiar Western dishes. After my discovery of red-bean (azuki) jam, I wondered how it would taste paired with chocolate. This fusion recipe is the result: a traditional chocolate layer cake with a sweet azuki filling, topped with a sprinkling of powdered sugar and kinako (toasted soybean flour).

I’m quite pleased with the way this experiment turned out. The dark, rich chocolate goes very well with the sweet paste, which gains a caramel-like dimension from the soy sauce. The kinako adds an interesting color contrast as well as a nutty, toasted flavor. And with the traditional layer cake form, it would be the perfect birthday cake for anyone who (like me!) enjoys Asian cuisines and is not a huge fan of cakes slathered in frosting. 😉

This recipe is also a good example of mindful, contemplative shojin cooking (“slow food” in contrast with today’s trends), since the azuki paste takes time and watchfulness to make. I recommend making it the day before the actual cake.

So, what exactly are azuki beans? They’re smallish red legumes with a white stripe and must not be confused with kidney beans (see below). I get mine from my local organic shop, but they should also be available online.

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You may already have heard of azuki (sometimes spelled adzuki) beans, or red beans, being used in Asian desserts. When I lived in San Francisco, I would sometimes buy something called a mooncake, which has a red-bean filling, when I passed through Chinatown. If you live near an Asian supermarket, you may be able to get pre-made red-bean paste there. But if you’re a do-it-yourself type, like I am, or want your filling to be free from preservatives and coloring agents, or just less sweet than the ones found at stores, you can make your own with the recipe below. In making this jam, I drew inspiration from two recipes: Andoh’s and this one from the blog Just Hungry (but any errors in the following are purely my own fault).

This azuki preparation (tsubu-an in Japanese) can also be spread on toast or pancakes like jam, used as a topping for oatmeal or rice pudding, or even served with cheese in lieu of a fruit chutney. The blogger behind Just Hungry recommends enjoying it with ice cream and strawberries, which does sound pretty good.

Azuki filling

Makes about 2¼ cups of filling. Can be made a day or two before the cake.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup (200 g) dry azuki beans
  • ¾ cup to 1 cup (150 to 200 g) granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon (5 ml) soy sauce, or more to taste

Equipment needed: food processor or high-power blender (alternatively, a potato masher  or fork and some patience).

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Place the dry beans in a bowl and add enough water to cover them. Allow to soak for 24 hours (keep in the fridge for best results). The beans will lose their red color as they soak. If you don’t have time for this soaking step, you can skip it, but the cooking process will take longer.

01

At the end of the soaking stage, rinse the beans and transfer them to a large stock pot. Fill  it with enough water to cover the beans (never add salt when cooking legumes, except at the very end) and bring to a boil. Allow to boil for one minute, then drain and rinse the beans with cold water.

Return the beans to the pot, refill with fresh water and bring to a boil a second time. Allow to boil for one minute as before, then drain and rinse the beans again. Rinse and wipe the inside of the pot with a sponge to remove all residue. Although lengthy, this process ensures that all impurities are removed. If you have plants, you can save the cooking water to water them with once it’s cool.

Now you’re ready to cook the beans for real! Return them to the pot and refill with fresh water to about 1 inch (2 cm) above the beans.

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Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer, covered, until the beans are soft enough to crush between your thumb and pinky finger (45-60 minutes). If you did not soak the beans before cooking, this step may take longer. Check them every once in a while during this time, adding more water if the level goes down too low and they aren’t done yet. If you have a table in your kitchen, this is a good time to take a seat and delve into a good book.

When the beans pass the thumb-and-pinky test, drain them but reserve about a cup of the cooking water.

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Return the beans to the pan and add about ½ cup of the reserved cooking water back in, or more as needed—the idea is to have just enough to keep the beans from getting too dry and sticking.

Add the sugar and continue to simmer, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, until you have a thick syrupy sauce (about 15 minutes). The beans will darken in color once the sugar is added. If at any point they become too dry, add more of the reserved cooking water in small amounts (¼ cup at a time).

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Now add the soy sauce, stir to incorporate, and taste. If it seems too salty to you, add a bit more sugar. If it seems too sweet, add a bit more soy sauce, or ¼ teaspoon salt if you need more saltiness but want to limit the soy sauce flavor. Simmer for a minute or two more, then remove from heat and allow to cool.

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Transfer the beans to a food processor or high-power blender and pulse or purée until you have a smooth, paste-like consistency.

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Mine ended up looking like this because the little food processor I use is not super powerful. You could also opt to mash it with a potato masher or similar. It’s fine if a few chunky bits remain.

Store the azuki filling in the refrigerator and use within 5 to 7 days.

Chocolate cake

Makes two cake layers.

Ingredients

  • 3 cups (375 g) all-purpose flour
  • 1¼ cup (250 g) white or raw cane granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon (7 g) salt
  • 2 teaspoons (9 g) baking soda
  • ½ cup (40 g) unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted
  • 3 teaspoons (15 ml) vanilla extract
  • ¾ cup (177 ml) neutral-flavored oil, like sunflower or canola
  • 2 tablespoons (30 ml) white vinegar
  • 2 cups (500 ml) cold water

Decoration

  • a few tablespoons powdered sugar
  • a few tablespoons kinako (roasted soy flour), optional

Equipment needed: two 8-inch (20-cm) round cake pans (or bake them in two stages using one pan—be careful to divide the batter evenly). You can use pans with a larger diameter if you like, but the layers will be lower and the cake shorter than what you see in these photos.

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First, preheat your oven to 350°F (180°C). Combine all the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl. I used a raw cane sugar in this case, but regular white granulated sugar is fine.

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Combine the liquid ingredients in a smaller bowl and whisk to combine.

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Prepare your cake pans by lining them with some baking paper. Apply a bit of oil to the pan first to make the paper stick. I like to leave little “handles” like these on the sides to be able to dislodge the baked cakes more easily.

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Whisk the dry ingredients together and then add the liquid ingredients to the bowl with the dry mixture. Whisk everything together just until combined, being careful not to over mix as this would make the cake stiff.

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Transfer the batter to your prepared baking pans, diving it evenly between the two, and place in the oven. Bake at 350°F (180°C) for about 20 minutes.

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Check for doneness at this point by inserting a toothpick or fork into the center of the cakes. If it comes out clean, the cakes are done. If not, put them back in the oven for another five minutes and check again. When fully baked, place them on a baking rack or stovetop to cool. Allow the cakes to cool completely before attempting to remove them from the pans.

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You will notice that each cake layer has a domed shape. The tops will need to be leveled before you can assemble the two layers.

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Using a large knife, carefully slice off the top of each cake, depositing the pieces you cut off into a bowl. Crouch down to look at the cake from the side, at tabletop height, to check whether it’s even enough.

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It will look something like this. Remove the baking paper from underneath it and transfer it, cut side facing up, to a clean plate.

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Apply the azuki filling thickly, spreading it with a spoon or large knife to ensure that it covers the surface evenly. Reserve a small amount to fill in any gaps that remain in the sides once you’ve placed the other cake layer on top.

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Now carefully place the other cake layer, cut side facing down, on top of the filling. The cake will have a nicely defined edge along the top. With a frosting knife or flat spatula, fill in any gaps between the two layers with more azuki filling and smooth out the sides. Cover the cake with a cover or an upside-down salad bowl until just before serving. Powdered sugar tents to “melt” into the surface of a cake, so if you apply it ahead of time you will most likely have to do it again and the results will not be as nice. If you will be serving the cake the next day, keep it in the refrigerator until about an hour beforehand.

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A few minutes before serving the cake, apply the powdered sugar. I recommend using a sieve such as this one, or a sifter of some kind, to prevent any large clumps of sugar from falling on the surface and ruining the powdered effect.

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You can use more sugar than this if you like. It depends how opaque you want the surface to be.

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After the powdered sugar, use the same method to sprinkle some kinako on top. Or if you prefer, you can apply the kinako first and then the powdered sugar. It depends which color you would like to be more prominent.

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And now you’re done!

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After serving, cover the remaining cake and place it in the refrigerator (without preservatives apart from sugar, the homemade azuki paste can go bad if left too long at room temperature).

Variations: Use the azuki paste as cupcake filling: after filling the cupcake cups half-way full with batter, deposit a small dollop of azuki paste in the center and push it down until it’s submerged by the batter. Also try it as a frosting for the top of a single-layer cake, or as a spread for toast, etc. as mentioned in the azuki filling recipe above.

Stranger in a familiar land

After eight years living abroad, already well aware of the differences between Paris and Midwestern America, I usually still feel a shock when I go back for my annual visit. A culture shock, naturally.

It’s normally just details like the abrupt change in what people are wearing once I deplane in Chicago—a lot less black, way more baseball caps—and other things like hearing English all around me and noticing strangers striking up conversations with each other. Although it’s sometimes hard to distinguish true culture shock from the disorientation I feel after an eight-hour flight and no sleep.

This kind of reverse culture shock is usually but a momentary disorientation, fading after a day or two once I re-accustom myself to my former everyday landscape. I shouldn’t even really call it shock, since I know about and expect these differences.

During my last visit earlier this summer, though, the differences for some reason seemed greater. I also found myself paying more attention than usual to all the little things that had changed in my home city since the time I first left. Improbable new flavors of Mars Bars and M&Ms at checkout counters. A laundromat that had become an electronic cigarette shop and a parking lot that used to be a bank. New teenage clothing styles I hadn’t noticed before. And most disconcertingly, large flat-screen monitors at the train station playing mass-shooting survival instructions (similar to these) on a loop.

And then I had a strange experience that went way beyond normal culture shock.

I had been cozily isolated at my parents’ house in the Wisconsin countryside for a week or two, not venturing into town much but spending my time with family and taking advantage of the large kitchen to try out new recipes. A visit to my sister in Minneapolis was next on the agenda, and on the way I would need to stop by my bank to reset the PIN number of my debit card.

I felt fine when I entered the mainly empty branch office, where I was greeted by a tall, solidly built man in his 30s who looked inordinately happy to see me. A dark-haired young woman behind a counter seemed to share his feeling. To my surprise, this unnerved me. I stopped where I was for a moment, halfway between the door and the counter, to collect myself while the two of them smiled broadly in my direction as if I were a celebrity. This was of course completely normal, I knew, especially in a semi-rural area of the Midwest. But their attentiveness somehow struck me as aggressive. I went up to the woman to explain what I was there for, hoping I could get the PIN number changed without too much delay.

“How are you doing today?” the woman asked, before I could speak. I had a curious urge to back away and almost narrowed my eyes at her. How can she be so personal when we’ve never met until this moment? And yet, countless times in my life, I reminded myself, strangers had inquired as to my well-being and I’d never been bothered. In fact, it was nice that she’d asked. Feeling more and more out of place, I managed to react as a normal American would, telling her I was fine and returning the question before going into the situation with my card.

Using the word “you” to address her suddenly also felt odd, overly intimate. But there is no “vous” in English. I wanted to reach for a more formal equivalent that just wasn’t there.

For a debit card problem I would need to speak with Doug over there, the woman informed me. She motioned to a corner, bracelets clinking, and I turned to see the tall man grinning at me from the entrance to his padded cubicle.

After shaking his hand and going through another how-are-you-good-and-you, I dutifully sat down, with a growing sense of unease, in front of Doug’s desk while he called up my account details on his computer. This took a few moments, which gave him time for chitchat. “So, what are your plans for the weekend?”

What? My mind raced. Why would he ask that? The question took me off guard—it felt invasive and wrong, the way it would be if a casual acquaintance at a dinner party asked you to state your yearly income. I fidgeted with my cardigan, pulling one side up over the other. “I’m spending a few days in Minneapolis with my sister,” I confessed, unprepared to make up an alternate story but feeling a bit violated. Come on, I told myself, he’s just being friendly like everyone else here. I got more flustered and began inspecting my nails.

“Small world—I’m going there myself tomorrow to see some old college buddies,” he replied. “We’re going to the beer festival. Have you been to the Twin Cities before?”

Somewhere around this point, I felt myself sort of split into two. The American me recovered her senses and joined in the talk without missing a beat. Yes, I’d been there many times since my sister moved there ten years ago. Yes, I liked the city and we did have some fun things planned to do during my stay. The non-American me (I prefer this to the overly restrictive “French me”) was appalled at his presumption and mentally crossed her arms over her chest. What’s it to him if I’ve been there before? What’s he after anyway? Say you’ll be really busy so he doesn’t get any ideas. Say it!

Meanwhile, American me kept talking. She made a final few remarks about the size of the art museum and the nice restaurant scene in Minneapolis before moving on to the second order of business: finding out how to deposit a check remotely. Doug explained that I could download the bank’s app and just scan it. “Here, let me show you.”

American me turned on her phone and went to the App Store but remembered she had no network there with her French phone plan. “The coffee shop just next door has wifi,” Doug volunteered. “You can download it over there. I’ll go with you if you like.” Non-American me poked American me in the shoulder, a little too hard. Why would he go so far out of his way to help? We’d better get out of here.

The encounter ended without incident and I was soon on the train to Minneapolis, musing over my bizarre experience. It had been like inhabiting two sets of consciousness at once, with two simultaneous sets of reactions. Two identities superimposed in the same body. Clearly, the bank representative hadn’t had any ulterior motives in my regard and was just being friendly. If he’d been after something else, American me would have detected it. But non-American me was taken aback by his approach, automatically filtering it through the prism of what would be normal in France, and couldn’t help wondering what he was up to. At the very least, she was so unused to a stranger showing an interest (however transient) in her personal life that she was disturbed by it.

For the first time, I had experienced American culture directly through foreign eyes, having the visceral reactions of a non-American myself rather than just imagining what someone would think or feel in a given situation. The new identity I had developed over the past eight years could not so easily be set aside.

Even if unfamiliar with French culture, you will have deduced from this story that customer service in France, where I live, is quite different from the American approach. In France, the default behavior of people working with the public is one of businesslike straightforwardness largely devoid of emotion, an attitude that often strikes Americans as cold or rude (but actually is not). In your everyday life in France, whether you’re buying bread at the bakery or trying to return the wrong size shoes at a department store, you’ll usually be assisted by no-nonsense individuals who greet you courteously but don’t act like they want to be your friend. There’s no “How are you?” because that’s perceived as nosy.

Customer service people also don’t fall all over themselves to assist you. They’ll help you when they’re good and ready. If you’re standing at a grocery store check-out, your items on the conveyor belt in full view of a cashier already busy stocking a shelf, they might come over only once they’re done. And this isn’t meant to offend; there’s just an understanding here that customers need to be reasonable and patient.

Smiling is purely optional. Even catcalling men on the streets of Paris have never told me to smile. (What do they say, you ask? Just last week, one of them trampled upon all the rules of civilized society and yelled Bonjour! Ça va? in my direction.).

To be fair, most of my experiences with France are concentrated in Paris, and as any non-Parisian will tell you, this city is not representative of all of France. Like in most countries, attitudes in smaller towns tend to be friendlier than in large cities. Parisians themselves are aware of their general reputation for unfriendliness. In this short comedy sketch from 2003, French actor Omar Sy (The Untouchables, Mood Indigo) plays a Malian immigrant who quickly learns that his natural friendliness is not welcome in Paris. He decides to assimilate to the culture of his new home, becoming just as grouchy, unhelpful and unapologetic as everyone else—a move that earns him the approval and respect of his next-door neighbor.

In the US of course, people working in customer service are encouraged and expected (by their managers, by society) to be very friendly, smile a lot, and make small talk. This is famously interpreted by many non-Americans—not just the French—as fake and superficial, as they suspect these people are not really so happy to see them. Yet when you know the culture, you understand that there isn’t any duplicity in it because the other players of the game (other Americans and people living in the US) already know that it isn’t meant to be genuine, that the friendliness is intended to last for the duration of the encounter, to create a cheerful ambiance.

Of course, these tendencies are merely the default; exceptions can always be found. Smiling customer service people do exist in Paris, although this is more likely to reflect their genuine mood of the moment, and I certainly encountered some gruff, grumpy characters during this stay in the US—most notably, and just as genuinely, at the DMV.

I had a few more culture-difference annoyances during this stay, particularly at restaurants. I myself worked as a restaurant server in the US for years during my university days and completely understand the reasons behind a waiter or waitress’s accommodating—some might say obsequious—manner. But I was more irritated by it this time than during other visits back. I just wanted to be left alone, even if it meant I would have to chase after the waiter in the event of a problem.

And now I will reveal a paradox. In spite of my reactions at the bank and the restaurants in the US, in spite of what I’ve grown accustomed to here in France, friendliness among strangers (to a point!) is one of the few things about the US that I miss.

My context-independent, innermost feelings about smiling and being friendly are complicated. Despite my nationality, I am by nature a rather solemn, poker-faced individual and an introvert, a condition that’s only exacerbated by working as a freelance translator. So on the one hand, my natural disinclination to smile too easily means that I’m comfortable (to a certain degree) living in a non-smiling place. But on the other hand, I’m aware that smiling can be good for you, physiologically speaking, as long as you don’t feel forced. And it can be contagious, helping lift the moods of people around you even if just by a little. When I’m in the US I find it’s good for me to be prodded by social situations into smiling and opening up a bit rather than staying encased in a shell as I would otherwise, or as usually happens in Paris.

I will admit I’ve sometimes given in to the temptation to make small talk in France (strategically, to the right type of person—recall my reaction to Doug), partly out of a real need to talk to someone besides my cat.

If it were up to me, I would probably dial American effusiveness down a bit and turn up the volume on smiling and small-talk in France. Some people are just never satisfied. 😉

Just how American am I now? How French/non-American have I become? I’m sure that my inner core is still quite American, having been forged in the US over several decades, and that if I were to move back I would shed my non-American reflexes after a while. But for the moment they’re still firmly in place.

The very last day of my five-week visit, I was back at that same train station with the mass-shooting video and nearly collided with a woman coming the other way around a corner. At a speed exceeding that of rational thought, an apology in French rather than English burst out of me. Whatever my cultural behaviors might be, the default public language of my operating system has clearly been reset to French.

Tofu bánh mì

Vietnamese food has been on my mind a bit lately due to the recent opening of a great new vegan restaurant in the 9th arrondissement, La Palanche d’Âulac. I had lunch there a couple weeks ago and fell in love! Scrumptious food (noodles, egg rolls, soups, coconut desserts) and a dining room that manages to be both spacious and cozy at the same time. And it is of course always very nice to be able to choose what actually appeals to you on the menu of an Asian restaurant rather than having to select from only two or three items that happen not to contain oyster sauce. Paris did already have a vegan Vietnamese restaurant, Vietnam in Paris, but for some reason it didn’t win me over like this new place has. If you live in Paris or will be visiting, definitely put La Palanche d’Âulac on your list.

So today I thought I would bring you an easy but delicious Vietnamese recipe that also happens to have a French connection. As you may already be aware, Vietnam is a former French colony—from the late 19th century to 1945, together with what is now Cambodia and Laos, it formed French Indochina. During this time, the colonizers introduced bread to the region and this fusion sandwich featuring traditional Asian ingredients was eventually born. The name bánh mì literally means “wheat cake” and so is the Vietnamese word for bread, as I understand it, but outside of Vietnam, the term is used to refer to this iconic and so very delicious sandwich.

If you have a Vietnamese or general Asian grocery store in your area, you can try looking for Vietnamese baguettes, which are made with added rice flour and so differ a bit from the firmer, crustier traditional French baguettes. But any baguette-shaped bread will work. A must for this recipe is the toasted sesame oil—be sure not to buy untoasted sesame oil by mistake because it’s key to this sandwich’s yumminess.

Since the various components of this sandwich can easily be marinated ahead of time, it’s ideal for bringing to a picnic or a day of hiking. Just assemble it shortly before leaving to ensure that the bread doesn’t get too soggy (you may also want to bring the “sauce” or soy-sesame marinade along in a separate container to add just before serving).

Tofu bánh mì

Makes two sandwiches

  • 7 oz (200 g) firm tofu
  • 1 long baguette or 2 submarine sandwich type buns
  • 1/2 cup (50 g) carrot, shredded/grated
  • 1/2 cup (75 g) cucumber, sliced thinly and chopped into quarters
  • 1/4 cup (60 ml) rice vinegar
  • 1 green onion/scallion, chopped into rounds
  • small bunch fresh cilantro (or coriander in UK English)
  • 1/4 cup (60 ml) soy sauce or tamari sauce
  • 1/4 cup (60 ml) toasted sesame oil (be sure it’s the toasted kind)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon Sriracha or other hot sauce
  • a few tablespoonfuls vegan mayonnaise
  • 1 or 2 limes

 

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The first thing you’ll want to do is get your carrot and cucumber marinating. Shred or grate the carrot and chop the cucumber into small pieces. Place in a smallish bowl and add 1/4 cup (60 ml) rice vinegar. Stir the veggies a bit with a fork to make sure they’re evenly covered by the vinegar. Set aside and take note of the time, as this should marinate for about an hour (longer is okay too).

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Next you’ll be preparing the tofu for its marinade.

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With a non-serrated knife, chop the tofu into slices as shown. Be careful not to cut overly thin slices as the tofu could break apart. Each sandwich will get three or four of these slices.

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In a non-stick pan over low heat and without any oil (this makes it firmer — also there will be plenty of oil in the marinade!), brown the tofu about five minutes on each side until golden as shown and slightly crispy.

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While you’re waiting for the tofu to brown, prepare the tofu marinade. Combine the soy sauce, toasted sesame oil and hot sauce, and then stir in the two minced garlic cloves.

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As soon as the tofu is done browning, transfer it to the soy sauce and sesame oil marinade and toss a bit to coat evenly. Allow to marinate for the remainder of the time that the veggies are marinating, or longer, but the tofu should ideally marinate for at least a half hour. Stir them halfway through, changing the positions of the tofu slices to be sure that they all get to soak up some of this magical marinade.

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Once the marinating step is finished, you can begin to assemble your sandwiches.

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With a serrated knife, slice a length of baguette (this one was about 8 inches/20 cm long), taking care not to cut entirely through to the other side as having one uncut side helps keep all the fillings in. Spread the bottom part with some mayonnaise and squeeze a bit of lime juice over the top. Alternatively, you could mix the mayonnaise and lime juice ahead of time, but the result will be much the same.

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Add three or four slices of marinated tofu, depending on the size of your bread and how stuffed you want the sandwich to be. Spoon some of the marinade over the top.

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Now top that with your marinated carrot and cucumber, plus some sliced green onion and fresh cilantro leaves. Make sure you’re using only half of all the ingredients for your first sandwich so that the ingredients for the second one don’t come up short!

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Close the sandwich, and you’re done! If you have overstuffed it and it threatens to spring open, you can secure the bread with some of those long toothpicks that have fancy decorative tops.

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You can use the excess tofu marinade to stir-fry some seitan, mushrooms or other veggies for a great Asian umami dish (serve over rice or noodles). If any of the rice vinegar remains from the other marinade, you can add it to a homemade salad dressing.

Variations: Substitute or add different fillings: avocado, marinated radish, red bell pepper, etc. Experiment with a peanut-based sauce by mixing some peanut butter into the tofu marinade. Garnish the fillings with sesame seeds before closing the bread for an extra-fancy touch. For a gluten-free version, prepare everything as described (making sure that the soy or tamari sauce you use is a gluten-free one) but serve over a bowl of rice noodles.