Friday, June 26, 2009

Science in action

I took part in an ERP study on Wednesday.

Here I am:

That white things in that cap on my head are electrodes that are going to measure what's going on in my brain (as a measure of what's happening on my scalp) in response to linguistic stimuli. You can read about it here on wikipedia.

What you can't see, and may not know if you've never done an ERP study, is that there is a tremendous amount of gel that has to be injected into those electrodes so that they can make good contact with your scalp.

After the experiment you look pretty slick. And then the gel dries and you look like you have serious dandruff.

However, it was fun. And in addition to the free hair gel and coif, I got a cookie for my participation. And, of course, I got to contribute to scientific discovery.


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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Decoding labels

Labels here are sort of like Ikea furniture instructions.

Here's one of my favorites:

Don't drink this one-handed with your other hand on your hip?
Or don't drink this one-handed with your other hand on your hip when you have your hair in a ponytail?
Oh, wait, don't drink one-handed with your other hand on your hip, with your hair in a ponytail if you're pregnant.

Speaking of instructions for pregnant women, here are the warnings on the box of ibuprofen:

If you're less than six months pregnant, use caution and only take it on your doctor's advice. If you're more than six months pregnant, don't take it at all -- regardless of your hairdo and what you're doing with your hands.

On the other hand, if you're not pregnant, you can take it if you're over 12 years old and wear shorts or pants, but not if you're a blue turtle:

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International pasta

This box of farfalle contains Italian pasta made of durum wheat semolina. Its sole ingredient is durum wheat semolina ... and it tells you that in 26 languages.

Unless you look at the Hungarian and then you'll see that it also contains viz, or "water".

The other side ...

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Visitors, part II

As much as we like it here, we do still miss Chicago. It's mostly our friends who are/were there that we miss, so it was especially nice to see two of them.

It was great fun. Again, I failed to take enough pictures, but Jessica posted her pictures on Facebook (and Flickr I think) so there's more to look at there. If you're friends with her.

Here's our first night, having kir royal. James managed to make them layered, which adds some fun when you're drinking them out of mustard glasses (= mustard jars designed to be glasses when empty -- we now have five, alongside several Nutella glasses left by the previous tenant).

Another night we had pizza from our favorite pizza place, Pizza Capri, an Aixois institution.

And homemade crêpes, which we ate the right way -- standing around in the kitchen and filling them with jam or Nutella as they came out of the pan.

We also ate out a couple of times. This is Carton Rouge a wine-restaurant (sort of Yves' competition, but not really because it's really a restaurant not a wine bar ... and having been there, they don't really know their wine like Yves does).

Here's Jessica, looking at the wall of wines available at Carton Rouge. In the glasses are a sauvignon blanc (foreground) to accompany the octopus salad and two glasses of Monbalzillac to accompany the seared foie gras appetizer.

Dan, with the bottle we chose for our dinners (braised lamb shank with squash blossoms, grilled dorade and two steak tartare with the usual garnishes plus argan oil -- yes the oil that comes from the kernel of the fruit that goats digest and then, um, expel through digestion).

James was there too.

I was the one trying to take pictures without a flash, so no pictures of me.

It was fun, but short, and we missed them lots when they left.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Gainfully employed

I have a job now. Actually, I have two.

Remember the wine store on the corner where I tasted the Beaujolais nouveau? Probably not, but that's ok. Here's a shot of La Cave d'Yves back on Beaujolais nouveau day, taken from our window.

Around the new year, Yves, of La Cave d'Yves, posted a sign saying that he would be opening up a wine bar to go with his boutique. When I asked him about it, he said it "wouldn't be far" from his location on the corner, but then, nothing in Aix is that far.

Then in February, he posted a sign with the address of his new place: another corner of the same intersection, directly across the street from our apartment.

So I asked him for a job. He was amused at first because he knew my background, but he was polite. The conversation went something like this ...

He would only be able to afford to hire one person in the beginning so did I have any restaurant experience?

Well, there was my time as a hostess at the frequently empty (and now long defunct) Washington Street Station in Ann Arbor, where I once took drinks to a table. And there was also my time as a sandwich/yogurt technician at Y&S Yogurt and Sandwich. (At Y&S, the "&" was one of those E-shaped ampersands so that they could call it "YES Yogurt and Sandwich" and still have it be Y-and-S. Get it? Clever.)

I didn't mention that these lasted only a few months each.

But did I know the fast-paced stress of the restaurant world?

Well, I had to serve the busy downtown Ann Arbor lunch crowd at the yogurt and sandwich shoppe and there was my time as pizza delivery girl/dishwasher at Papa Romano's, also in Ann Arbor.

I didn't mention that I had only been a pizza delivery girl for a few weeks when I told my parents about my great job. They thought it was too dangerous and told me to quit. I dutifully complied.

Could I work hard and carry cases of wine up from the cellar?
Well, I used to have to load air tanks into the van when I worked at various scuba shops.

I didn't mention that I hadn't lifted weights in months.

Surely these months of experience from 15 years ago (or longer) would be enough to swing a full-time job as Yves' second-in-command.

No dice.

He decided to go with Marie who has over 18 continuous years of restaurant experience. The nerve!

He did, however, give me a chance. So, since the last days of April, I have been an equipière polyvalente, which is something like a "team member who does many tasks", at La Cave. Like everyone who works there (and by "everyone" I mean Yves, Marie and myself) I clean, restock the wine, cook, pick up the meat from the butcher or cheese from the market, and a couple of times, I've served food to the customers.

I only work 7.5 hours per week, mostly in the mornings getting things ready for the day and for lunch, but it's great! In the past two weeks, I've also gotten a couple of "practice" evenings in the kitchen, where I'm in charge of all the food, and an official "try out" (which I passed!) so that I can not just help out Marie, but step in if she is sick or has to take a day off, and probably also for when Aix is invaded by tourists and opera afficionadoes during le Festival. I should be clear that I'm not cooking every dish to order -- most of the stuff on the menu is cold plates that accompany wine well, or stuff we can make earlier in the day.

Here's a picture of La Cave's new location. This space housed a restaurant when we moved in, and had since the 1950s. The most recent owners were the son and daughter-in-law of the previous owners, and they were now ready to retire. I'm not sure what the space held before it became a restaurant, but back in the 17th century, it was a stable. Those arched windows are there from the stable days, when they were doors (I think).

And here's the view of the front door. Normally, we have a sign that we hang out there with the plat du jour. Sometimes, I write the sign.

The only drawback is that La Cave is open Tuesday through Saturday, so I work Tuesday through Saturday mornings, which sort of cramps my (and James') hiking style. However, there are still places we can get to on Saturday afternoons and Sundays. It also put a stop to my plans to play tour guide and hang out with our May guests, but I think they had plenty of fun on their own.

My other job, since the beginning of May, is doing hourly work on James' project. Also great. I do linguistic-y things.

So in the mornings I work at the wine shop and in the afternoons I go into the lab. Equipière polyvalente by morning, linguist by afternoon.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Spring vegetables = risotto primavera

You've already seen the peas and the favas, but one other spring vegetable that has been unfairly neglected on this blog is asparagus. Not because we don't like it and not because we can't get it. It's just been ignored.

Sorry asparagus.

Asparagus is big around here. And, actually, I mean that in two ways. First, there's tons of it and it is widely available in different colors: white, green, and purple. Second, it's also really fat. It's so fat that you'd expect it to be really tough, but it's actually been just as tender as any skinny asparagus you've ever eaten and it's really sweet.

Starting in the foreground, purple, green and finally white asparagus. ("Gard" in "asperges du Gard" on the sign is a region, administrative and otherwise, just west of Provence.) All of them fat. Well, except some of the greens you can see at the front of the table. (And that's the horse butcher you see in the background.)

I recently bought some white asparagus to put in a spring risotto with (again) peas and favas. White asparagus was perhaps not the wisest choice color-wise, but on this day they were the skinniest. It turned out that they had surprisingly tough skin so in the spirit of being in France, where asparagus is peeled, I peeled them.

This was served, the first time, with roasted chicken. The second, time with left-over roasted chicken. The third time -- did I mention that I made a whole bunch of risotto? -- with pork chops. So when you still have risotto after that, it's best to make arancini for apéro.

Mmmm ... fried rice balls with a melty grana padano center.


Risotto Primavera
1 lb unshelled favas
1.5 lb unshelled peas
10-15 asparagus spears
1 sm. onion, minced
1 lg. shallot, minced
350 g. arborio or carnaroli (about 2 c.)
0.5 c. white wine
about 5 c. of chicken broth, hot
3 oz. grated grana padano or parmesan

Shell the favas and peas, (peel and) cut the asparagus into bite-size pieces. Boil the favas to remove their outer shell (as in gnocchi post), set aside. Cook asparagus and peas in boiling (salted) water for 5-8 mn depending where on the crisp - tender scale you like them. Drain, rinse and set aside with favas.

Melt about 2 Tbs. butter in a large pot. Add onion and shallot and sauté until they're getting tender, but not turning brown. Add rice and turn to coat in the butter until the grains are a little translucent. Add wine and cook until it evaporates. Then add the chicken broth in one fell swoop (I saw this recently on a French cooking show and was skeptical, but it worked just as well as adding liquid little by little), give it a stir, lower the heat so that it simmers, cover and cook for 15 to 20 mn.

At the end, stir in the cheese an extra Tbs. of butter (if you like), salt and pepper to taste. Then fold in the vegetables.

Left over risotto
Grana padano or parmesan cut into little cubes (3/8-in dice?)

Form leftover risotto into balls (about the size of a clementine) around a cube of cheese. Chill for an hour (if you can wait that long).

Heat oil to 350 - 375F. If you don't have a fryer (ours is in Columbus) or a thermometer (we don't), never fear! Put about an inch and a half of oil in a 2-liter pot with, following a tip from Cook's Illustrated, a little cube of fresh bread. Set the pot to heat over a medium-high flame. According to Cook's, when the bread cube is deep golden brown the oil is at 375F, so when it's about that color, your oil is ready.

While the oil is heating, roll the chilled rice balls in flour, dip in egg and then roll in breadcrumbs. When the oil is ready, gently put the rice balls in and fry until they're golden brown on the submerged half, then flip and fry again. I repeated this process to make sure the cheese in the middle had melted. (It had, and the arancini were not burned.) Alternatively, use little cubes of melty cheese and probably one round of frying will do it.

*Note about the recipes -- I had been putting amounts in grams because that's what I've bought them in, but the amounts are mostly approximate (as you know, 500 g = about 1 lb, 750 g = about 1.5 lb), so this time I put them in pounds.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Les Rush aux Pays d'Aix

April = spring break = visitors = "Bienvenue en Aix", or so the sign here says. (I'm still trying to figure out why it's "en" and not "à" since you go "à" cities and you go "en" countries but that's my non-native speaker intuition talking.)

Our first visitors of the season were my relatives from California who came for their Easter vacation.

I realize now that we took far too few pictures while they were here.

Here they are in the gardens of the Pavillon Vendôme. Note that there are no leaves on the trees -- there were a few, but mostly just buds. About a week later, it was all leafy around here.

Don't they look happy? That was before we made them walk all over the place ...

Like the Cours Mirabeau.

Sam and Jack (and the Diabline -- the funny little electric "bus" on the left that you can flag down if you want a ride) ...

and Suzi, Ben and me (James took the pictures) ...

In Cassis, where we followed the Sentier du Petit Prince on Port Miou ...

Note Sam's smile. She still had energy to run part way back at the end of the walk.

The rest of the day in Cassis doesn't have pictures, which is really too bad because it was sort of an adventure. Actually, it was more the leaving of Cassis that was the adventure, but more about that later.

First there was the wine-tasting at the Clos de la Magdeleine, which had nice wine, but a really unfriendly, glazed-eyed proprietor ... at least the one we met. The man who is smiling in the picture on this website looks way too happy to have anything to do with the woman who did our tasting. She was all doom and gloom with crazy black hair that looked like it might be hiding several pencils, a broom, and maybe even a cat. She didn't like us from the get-go because Sam and Ben, who weren't tasting the wine, didn't come down into the dark cellar -- go figure. We were reprimanded. We only got to taste their white, even though they also make a rosé. And despite what our wine book said about the Clos de la Magdeleine having beautiful grounds, we really have no idea because we weren't allowed to walk around and were ushered back out the gate as quickly as we had come in. Hrumph!

Things got better after a stop in a cafe by the harbor, and a delicious dinner of Breton style crêpes at Le Bonheur Est Dans Le Blé. Mmmmm ... buckwheat galettes!

And then starting with the credit card machine that didn't want to read an American credit card, things went a little south. Like when we pulled into the closed-for-the-night train station just as the 21h10 train was pulling out. We weren't too worried because there was a ticket machine and a 22h20 train so we said goodbye to Les Rush, who headed back toward Grasse in their car, and we waited for the next train.

Here's a frog we saw on the train platform. He reminded us of Aleppo.

Two other people came to wait, and the station agent and some other employee were there if anything went really wrong, until it did and then they were unable or unwilling to help out.

Our train arrived right on time, but didn't pull all the way into the station. The station agent's helper came out of the office and James and I and the other two people waiting, who turned out to be a mother and her 20-something son, went up to the train and tried to get in. I say "tried" because the door wouldn't open. We tried the next door. Still nothing. We tried a door on the next car. Nothing. And then the train started to move. We all thought that it was just pulling into the station from the end of the platform where it had stopped. But no, it just pulled on out of the station. The last train of the night.

We all went into the station agent's office and told him what happened. He didn't believe us but his helper, who had seen the whole thing, backed us up. Eventually he reluctantly called the next stop and they said there was nothing wrong with the train, so too bad for us. No, the SNCF wasn't going to send a bus or shuttle, there were no more trains, there would be no refunded tickets or putting us up overnight because the train malfunctioned -- because it hadn't at the next stop. We were out of luck. So over the course of the next 20 minutes while the agent begrudgingly looked up some things on his computer, the mother got livid and started doing all the yelling we wanted to do but couldn't in French, the son foresaw his firing for not being at work in Toulouse the next day and we contemplated almost certain death on our walk back into town along a dark road where people drive way too fast, where we'd have to find a hotel that we hadn't budgeted for, missed work the next day, and we wished we'd taken Jack and Suzi's offer to drive us back to Aix (even though it was out of their way).

Finally, the station agent shrugged and said there was nothing he could do to which the mother responded with an angry snort and a "Bravo SNCF! Bravo!" And then she turned to her son and said, "well, I guess I'll have to drive you to Marseille" and very politely offered to take us too.

And so began the frenzied car ride, complete with a call from les Rush who had taken a wrong turn and somehow ended up in the dodgy part of Toulon and who, now that they knew we were in a car with a frantically speeding stranger, were worried for our safety too. It's a good thing they called before we got on the motor way because that was when the mother started going almost 140 kph (85 - 90 mph, but it felt a whole lot faster in that car), which was in fact not that far over the speed limit of 130 kph (part of the time -- the rest of the time it was almost 30 kph over the speed limit, but who's counting?).

Then things got really scary when we got to Marseille and they asked us for directions. It turned out they'd never been there before. They were from Toulouse and on holiday in Cassis. I had assumed that since the mom had a car, she lived in Cassis and was likely to know Marseille. In fact, she laughed that she'd have to get out when she dropped us off so she could say she'd been there. Ha!

So let's see ... How do get to the Gare Saint Charles? Well, I can figure it out if we follow the signs to the Centre Ville.

Lucky for all of us, our two weeks in the hotel in Marseille and all the walking around I did came in handy and I knew a way to get to the train station. Not the best way that would get us there with a little extra time before the train left. More like the way that gets you to the train station and forces you to block traffic and get out of the car at a place where you shouldn't have stopped and then run to your train. But we never had to turn around and we didn't get lost. It just wasn't the most efficient way. But we made it home. And the son's train to Toulouse was delayed, so he made it too. At least we assume he did. We know that he hadn't missed his train.

And as it turned out, despite our adventure, we made it back to Aix before Suzi, Jack, Ben and Sam made it back to their B&B in Grasse. The little detour to the wrong side of the tracks in Toulon added over 2.5 extra hours to their trip and they didn't get home until after 1:30. But they say they'd still like to come back to France!

Springtime gnocchi

Every Saturday at the market, there's an unassuming little trailer that pulls up with Pâtes Fraîches et Farcies, or "fresh and filled pasta" on the side in some pretty plain lettering. As you can see, the trailer is not much to look at, especially compared to the fancy (but corporate-looking) pasta tent a couple aisles over with ten kinds of ravioli and a silvery-tongued hawker, but its fabrication artisanal, or "hand made" pasta, and especially its gnocchi will delight.

Seeing the trailer on Saturday mornings makes my mouth water a little because the gnocchi is just that good. Actually, I should say the gnocchi are just that good because the cart's owner (inside the trailer in the picture) makes both potato and semolina.

So, I know that gnocchi aren't hard to make. I've made them quite a few times, and with the exception of one disasterous batch of potato gnocchi that pretty much dissolved when they hit the water, they've been quite good if I do say so myself. But the gnocchi lady's gnocchi are special, especially the potato ones. They are always little pillows of tender goodness. They taste great with every kind of sauce we've ever put on them, but they're so good right out of the bag -- yes, before you've cooked them, but not that you'd want to eat more than one or two! -- that we had the idea of frying them. Mmmm...

Looking around online, I found this recipe. Our version:

Fried gnocchi with lardons and spring vegetables

750 g. unshelled favas
cherry tomatoes, halved (about 2 pints?)
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
150 g. smoked lardons (or bacon)
2 large shallots (in France they look like smallish, oblong onions), chopped
500 g. potato gnocchi
salt + pepper

In case you didn't read the link to the recipe above (and you don't already know -- I didn't until I read it), after you shuck the favas you need to remove their pale green inner shell. Boil the shucked beans for a couple of minutes, drain and rinse in cold water. The beautiful bright green favas can easily be popped out of the inner shell. Put the favas in a large bowl and set aside.

Sauté the cherry tomatoes with a little olive oil and garlic for a few minutes, remove from pan and put in the bowl with the favas. Wipe out the pan and heat some olive oil until it's good an hot. Add the lardons and cook until they're nicely browned on their edges. Remove the lardons to a paper towel, but leave any remaining oil/fat in the pan. Once they've drained a bit, throw them in with the favas and tomatoes. Sauté the shallots until a few are just starting to brown on the edges. Remove shallots to fava-tomato-lardon bowl and give it a quick stir to mix things.

Wipe out the pan and heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil. Fry the gnocchi until golden brown on one side, then flip and fry until golden on other side. Depending on the shape of your gnocchi, you may just be able to cook two sides, if they're less flattened, maybe you can brown them all over.

When gnocchi are ready, add the "sauce", toss and serve with chopped mint sprinkled on top.