My First Night in Paris

Le Kokolion

I need to borrow 30c from some Canadian backpacker girls when I arrived at the Gare du Nord because the metro ticket machines wouldn’t accept my credit card, and don’t take notes. The wad of euros I’d conscientiously converted at the bureau de change before I left sat limp and impotent in my wallet, with not a tabac in sight to get some change.

After catching the first metro in the wrong direction for 10 minutes I eventually realise my mistake and switch lines. Excuse moi and pardon will become my most frequently used pieces of French vocabulary for the next few days.

It’s Saturday night in Paris. I arrive at my hostel Le Montclair Montmartre at 10pm. I sit in the foyer of the hostel while two German guys berate the night attendant for help at having “misplaced” their car. Turns out they’d parked it illegally for the better part of 3 days while they were on a drunken Parisian bender. I listened enviously as the attendant switched between French, German, and English while trying to understand what the hell these guys are on about.

I’ve been charged for last night because I was supposed to be there then and didn’t call to say I wouldn’t be, and my booking has actually been canceled. Luckily they still have room and can un-cancel the rest of the booking. I even manage to get an upgrade to a single room, not really willing to endure the boarding school-esque communal dorm situation after the day I’ve had.

I finally get my key and check in. The room is tiny but perfect. It has possibly the worlds smallest double bed and an ensuite bathroom. It’s heaven to a weary traveler. I take a shower, leaning back on the patented hostel push button hot water system to keep the flow of water going just long enough to make me feel human again.

Finally relaxed, the hunger pangs that I’ve been ignoring all day in the face of unspeakably horrible train / ferry food have risen to the surface. After a brief consultation of Clotilde’s lovely book I find a couple of likely restaurants in the area and settle on L’Homme Tranquille. Stepping past a couple of guys smoking out the front I wander in an empty but open restaurant, and stand around for a few minutes waiting to see if someone is going to appear. Shortly thereafter the guy smoking outside comes back inside, and it turns out he’s the owner, Antoine, and that unfortunately it’s been a quiet night so they’ve closed a bit earlier. However if I want some dinner he’s happy to recommend his friend around the corner at Le Kokolion, who will be open til much later.

So I wander around the corner, admiring the sights and sounds and smells of Monmartre, the cobbled streets, the flickering neon lights, the array of people of all kinds both strange and enticing. Casually lounging in bars and cafes, making me wish I’d taken up smoking.

Le Kokolion looks like somewhere out of a dream I’d had once. A cliche of a French bistro trapped in a time gone past, but perfect in it’s simplicity. Painted in faded red with gold lettering, it felt like the right place for a first meal.

I entered and was greeted by the manager with a matter of fact “Bonjour Monsieur”. To which I stuttering replied “Bonjour. Une table pour un sil vous plait”. Suddenly the reality of communicating in a foreign language became apparent and all my careful study went to crap as I realised I really had no clue what to do if the conversation didn’t follow the painfully basic routines I’d practiced.

Fortunately though my attempts were met with polite acceptance and a guiding arm led me through to a dimly lit enclave with candle lit tables and old movie posters on the wall. A menu was presented and then some space given so I could peruse in peace. My “menu French” finally having a moment to become useful I scanned for something I’d want to eat. Settling on the terrine du canard for entree, the onglet de boeuf for main, and a creme brulee for dessert.

The waiter returned and I dutifully gave him my order in as good a French accent as I could muster, pointing at the same time to make sure I didn’t leave any room for confusion. “Une carafe de vin rouge, s’il vous plait” was also met with understanding, and I soon had a small carafe of wine sitting in front of me like it was always meant to be there.

I pour a glass and sip casually, looking around in the dim light at tables filled with friends a lovers, talking close and laughing loud. Another table sports a single diner, carefully working his way through a bottle of wine, putting me at ease. My terrine arrives, a thick wedge of duck pate with other bits of liver and duck. It’s served with toast and a small salad. I take big slices of it and smear it over the toast, it’s rich and gamey and tastes like everything I’d imagined it should.

The beef came next. I’d ordered it ‘saignant’ and it was cooked to perfection. An onglet cut is basically a skirt or flank steak. A cheaper cut that can often be tough, but cooked rare this was beautifully tender. Served along with haricots verte and pommes frites it was the simple meal I wanted. The beans were presented in a neat little stack and crowned with a knob of butter that coated them in deliciousness.
The frites were actually thick pillows of potato deep fried to crunchy perfection. Giving both texture and flavour.

I looked up halfway through the course, realising I’d totally lost myself in it. The length of the day had faded away and the ordeal I’d had to go through to get here seemed so insignificant. The restaurant was now half full of people. I check my phone for the time, 12:00am. The table next to me had just arrived and ordered a bottle of wine and 3 courses. Unheard of in Perth at such an hour. I could get used to this very quickly I mused.

Finally the creme brulee arrived. The waiter pouring some alcohol (which may have been calvados) on top and setting it alight, and interesting take on the flame throwing technique of caramelsing the sugar on top. He looked at me wistfully as he placed it before me, still aflame, and said something that I can only assume meant “Wait til it goes out before you start eating or you’ll burn your face off”. I smiled knowingly at my translation of what he said and dutifully waited for the light blue flames to die down and the thin layer of caramelised sugar on top to fully form.

I then cracked through to the creamy goodness of the brulee. I melted a little as the first taste hit my tongue, smooth and rich and luscious, coating my mouth with caramel and taking my level of satisfaction to ludicrous levels that can only be attributed to a virgin Parisian dining experience.

Closed La Marmite

After a casual “l’addition s’il vous plait” I was presented with the bill. My attempts to convey just how much I appreciated the meal probably got lost in translation, so it was with a simple “Merci, Au revoir” that I left and wandered into the Paris night, sublimely satisfied at a great first meal.

I took a long way home, photographing every in sight. Walking up and over the hill around the Sacre Coeur and then back down the other side. Arriving back at my hostel at 2am, walking past a grocery store that was still open and selling wine, I knew this was somewhere I’d grow to love.

Beef Fillet with Mushroom Gratin

Beef Fillet with Mushroom Gratin

Something draws me to large hunks of meat. It’s strange really, because there are only two people who generally need to be fed in my household, and so I generally don’t need a kilo or two of solid beef in one piece to carve a meal out of. However, since the astounding success of my beef wellington recently, I’ve become somewhat enamoured with that special cut that is the beef fillet.

So, finally making progress at my Chinese butchers (they are getting better at pretending they understand me, and my pointing skills are through the roof), I bought a lovely beef fillet for next to nothing, having absolutely no idea what to do with it.

Back home and I had a vague recollection of Gordon Ramsey using beef fillet in something other than a beef wellington during the second series of his F-Word show… After a little detective work I managed to track the episode down and was rewarded with a great recipe for (hence title of post) beef fillet with mushroom gratin. According to Ramsey, beef fillet is the Rolls Royce of cuts… but from past experience, I’d rate it more like an F1 car… The ride of your life under the right conditions, but one wrong step and it all goes downhill very very quickly.

The recipe was pretty simple though… sear the fillet, top with gratin, into the oven, done. I decided to serve mine with some jerusalem artichokes I’d been hiding in the fridge, sauteed with pancetta and red onions.

Ingredients

  • 1 beef fillet sliced into thick round medallions
  • olive oil, salt and pepper to season
  • For the gratin

  • fresh mushrooms (field, shitake, whatever you got)
  • heavy cream (thickened, not double)
  • 1 egg yolk
  • sliced shallots
  • 1 clove garlic (squashed but not chopped)
  • chives
  • fresh grated parmesan cheese

Prepare the gratin by chopping your mushrooms in chunks and your shallots finely, and sauteeing them in olive oil and a knob of butter. Add the smashed clove of garlic for a touch of garlic which won’t over power the mushrooms… and remove it after a minute or so. Once they’ve softened up and gotten some colour, take them out of the pan and into a bowl. Then add your thickened cream, egg yolk, some more salt and pepper to taste, and the finely chopped chives. Stir it all together and it should bond quite well, so that you can put it in a pile and it won’t all fall over.

So the rest is really simple. Season the fillet pieces in a good dose of olive oil, cracked pepper and sea salt, and then pop them in a hot pan and sear them all over. This means 30 seconds to a minute on each side, depending on how thick you’ve cut your slices… mine were a couple of inches thick (oh yeah !).

Once the fillets are done, leave them in the pan and pile the mushroom gratin on top…using all your physics skills to balance as much as possible on top. Then cover your glorious little towers with plenty of grated parmesan and slide them into the oven, to cook on medium heat for 5 – 10 minutes until pink and juicy… Important note: resist all temptation to leave them in longer… Beef fillet does not have the fat content to survive being over cooked, and will turn from melt in your mouth delicious to rubber ball disastrous in a matter of minutes if left in a hot oven too long.

Beef Fillet with Mushroom Gratin & Sauteed Jerusalem Artichokes

Jerusalem artichokes are a great alternative to potatoes. They are sweet but earthy and a lovely texture. In the past I’ve made them into mash, but this time I figured i’d keep them solid. Another import thing with Jerusalem artichokes is that a lot of the flavour is in the skin. So unless absolutely necessary you should keep the skins on while you’re cooking them.

This time I using my newly sharp paring knife to slice off the knobbily gross looking bits, and then threw them into a pot of salted water to boil. When they were mostly soft, but not yet falling apart, I drained them and sliced them up into… ummm… slices.

Into a pan with butter, diced pancetta, and sliced red onion, olive oil, salt, pepper, the usual. Bring it all together over heat, and when the artichokes have coloured nicely you’re done.

Served with a 2004 Hardy’s Oomoo Shiraz that was just dandy. Bring on the whole cow next time… I’m ready.

Beef Wellington

Beef Wellington

Just when you think you’ve got an original idea, everyone else seems to go and do it. Ok, so it wasn’t an original idea, it was born out of my obsession with watching Gordon Ramsey TV series, and his obsession with that quintessential English dish, the beef wellington.

I’ve been watching Hells Kitchen, Restaurant Nightmares, and his F-Word series, all of which at some point feature a delicious looking beef wellington recipe. A thick beef fillet wrapped in mushroom and proscuitto and again in puff pastry, and baked to a perfect moist pink, being sliced open everytime to the sound of his own self satisfied praises.

Now good sense and a little judgement would normally steer me away from attempting something that after a good hour or so of preparation, can come out looking and feeling like a burnt lump of wood… Not this time though. I had at least 3 different Gordon Ramsey episodes to cross reference and a giddy sense of self assuredness, that this would all be easy.

So after poring over the video footage with all the intensity and analytical skills of a coach preparing for the grand final, I was ready to go. I picked up a lean been fillet from my favourite Chinese butchers (Wing Hong in Northbridge) that looked like it would do the job nicely, and then made an important executive decision that I would not be making my own pastry. Puff pastry in itself has a degree of difficultly of around 9.5 in my book… and coupled with the standard degree of difficulty of the rest of the wellington, would push it way out of the reach of my meagre skills. So I picked up a pack of puff pastry sheets and hoped noone saw me in the frozen food isle.

So… to the recipe (batman) !

Ingredients

  • 1 beef fillet (or long roundy log shaped piece of meat)
  • Salt and Pepper to season the fillet
  • Mustard (Gordon used English, I used Dijon)
  • Field mushrooms (lots of, we’re going to blend them into a paste of sorts)
  • Thinly sliced prosciutto (enough to cover the fillet)
  • Puff pastry (enough to wrap the fillet entirely without stretching too far)
  • Egg wash (egg yolks and water (or milk)) to help the pastry seal

How I Made Mine

So firstly season the fillet with salt and pepper and some olive oil. Get a pan nice and hot and sear the fillet all over. I put it in on one side and left it there for 30 seconds to a minute til it had some nice colour, then turned it 90 degrees and did the same thing, turning each time so you get a good colouring all over the fillet. Once thats done, take it out and smear the mustard all over with a brush. Let that sit for a bit while you get the rest of it ready.

So take the mushrooms and put them into a blender or food processor, or just chop them really really small. I blitzed mine in the food processor and then into a hot pan with nothing else except a little salt to season. You’ll quickly see all the moisture that’s in the mushrooms start to evaporate and after a few minutes they’re good to go.

That's a wrapIt rubs the lotion on its skin

Now get some gladwrap (cling film/plastic wrap) and lay it flat on the bench. Lay the slices of proscuitto down next to each other in a row and slather the mushroom paste (or duxelle as it’s properly called) on top in a thin layer. Place the fillet in the middle and roll from one side to the other until the ends touch. Then wrap the cling film up tightly and put it in the fridge for about 20 minutes, try to avoid having to explain to your house mates or loved ones why there is a ball of skin in the fridge if you can.

Now take it out of the fridge, lay out your puff pastry sheet(s) and put the wrapped fillet in the middle. Using a pastry brush, get a good coating of egg wash all the way around the edges of your pastry, so it will stick nicely when you try and wrap it up.

Then summoning all the dark powers of great pastry chefs that have long since past, attempt to roll the fillet up in the sheet of pastry and have it look like something one of those professional present wrappers in department stores might come up with, rather than the twisted mess you manage to make each time you attempt to wrap anything more complicated than a small box (that was more for my myself than anyone else btw).

Glaze the wellington all over with more egg wash and score the top with a knife for some elegant post baking patterns.

Yay, it sticks !Beef Parcel

Now comes crunch time. Pre heat your oven to around 180C and place the wellington onto a tray. Season with a bit more salt and pepper and put it in.

The tricky part is exactly how long you should leave it in the oven. Never having cooked one before I was a little hesitant to take it out too soon, unless it was a mess of pastry wrapped raw meat. I left it too long though, and what I ended up with was best described as what they must serve to meat lovers in hell. The outer shell was nice… the pastry, proscuitto and mushroom formed a beautiful casing, but sadly were not protective enough to save my fillet from becoming a hard rubbery mess of dry meat.

Gah

So after going to bed hungry and crying myself to sleep, I woke up with a determination that I would not let any pastry wrapped meat dish get the better of me, dammit !

So back to the trenches I went. Another beef fillet, more mushrooms, proscuitto, mustard, seasoning, pastry… The very next night, and now with the added pressure of guests with expectations of culinary mastery… it was do or die.

The second time around was much faster to prepare, the steps of the preparation came back to me like a seasoned veteran, fillet, season, sear, mustard, proscuitto, duxelle, fillet, wrap, chill, pastry, egg wash, wrap, bake… All in all taking me about half an hour less than the night before.

I was also damned if I was going to let this one get overcooked. We’d be eating raw meat or nothing if it didn’t come out right. I’d taken the precautionary measure of finding my thermometer (previously used solely as a milk frothing thermometer before my coffee making skills developed), to test the inside temperature of the fillet while it was cooking.

So this time after about 15 – 20 minutes we were done. A check of the temperature in the middle of the fillet said just above rare, and that was good enough for me. Beef fillet doesn’t have the fat content to handle over cooking, so if you go much past pink you’re destined to be chewing your way through leather.

This time however, it was cooked to perfection. Succulent moist and tender all spring to mind as admirable words to use to describe it. The pastry and duxelle and prosciutto adding a delicate salty exterior that made for a nice feeling when you got a big mouthful of it all (which i always do).

Take 2

My guest satisfied, my stomach filled, and my faith in meat wrapped in pastry restored, it was off to bed with happy thoughts of what to cook next, and whether it would pushing it to cook the same thing three nights in a row.

Beef & Red Wine Ragout: Video Vanity

So for now here is the next episode in the egotistical world of my video blogging adventure.

Feel free to skip watching the video, as it’s basically 5 minutes or so of me cutting up vegetables and then throwing them in a pan. For those less inclined to listen to direct requests, or who have a particular love of 90’s French house music… then play on !

Here’s some photos in the meantime.

Family dinner

Beef & Red Wine Ragout

Beef & Red Wine Ragout

Chilli Beef Noodle Stirfry

Chilli Beef Noodle Stirfry

I feel like a bit of a fraud making meals like this. It isn’t really cooking so much as arranging ingredients in a wok and applying heat. In saying that though, this is the kind of meal that started me off on my cooking adventures, when I was young and impetuous and carefree.

Back in those days (circa 1997), men didn’t cook at all. Certainly not ones that went to university anyway. So I would throw together my stirfrys with all the flair and extravagance of a young Ernest Shackleton, boldly trudging into the unknown (but with a cocky assurance that I’d be rewarded with rapturous praise if I managed to assemble anything vaguely edible onto a plate). My gratuitous use of peanut oil, and my willingness to embrace the exotic world of coriander, baby corn and bean shoots made all my meals an instant success. The world was my oyster sauce… and I squeezed it for all it was worth.

So here again is my homage to simple cooking. To getting people excited about making their own meals, and to preparing food in less time than it takes to get in the car to drive to McDonalds.

Ingredients

  • Sliced Beef (I used about 400g of rump steak, but anything is fine, topside was my original goto cut)
  • 2 chillis, chopped finely (less or none if you don’t want this to be spicy)
  • 1 clove garlic minced
  • 1/2 red capsicum
  • 1 onion, sliced
  • 1/2 zucchini
  • 1 pack of egg noodles
  • Soy sauce
  • Oyster sauce
  • Red wine / Chinese Cooking Sherry
  • Big handful of chopped coriander
  • whatever else you can find in the fridge that looks tasty

How I Made Mine
Fry the chopped chilli in oil by itself. This gives it a real kick, and will infuse your oil with capsaicin (the stuff that makes chillis hot). Fry the garlic now too, and when its soft, throw in the beef to get it nicely coated. Fry the beef until its just cooked, adding some red wine or sherry while its going for a bit of extra flavour in the meat, then take out of the wok.

Now fry your onion, capsicum, zucchini, and whatever else you’ve decided to use. When they are getting a little soft (but still have some bite), throw the beef back in, add in the egg noodles, toss it all around, splash in enough soy sauce and oyster sauce to get the flavour your after coating the noodles and veges, then toss through your coriander (cilantro for americans), and you’re done.

Then place in front of your partner/friends/family/cat, and wait for the praise you so richly deserve :)

Red Wine Risotto with Beef & Bok Choy

I made this meal tonight. It’s the first heavily savoury risotto i’ve made, and a bloody ripper, even if i do say so myself.

Ingredients:
– Good quality fillet steak (i used rib eye, something nice and juicy preferably)
– Carnaroli rice – higher starch content than arborio rice means creamier risotto.
– Red wine (mine was the 2002 Riverbank Estate Cabernets, my nana bought it for my birthday… what a great nana :) )
– Tomatos (both real and pureed)
– Quality beef stock
– Bok Choy (this is for a change in texture from the rest of the risotto to add some bite)
– Rosemary
– Risotto stuff ( ive made a lot of risotto lately, so i seem to be repeating the same ingredients and steps, basically this means, chopped onion, garlic, and leek, combined in either butter or olive oil, used to coat the rice before adding stock)

So basically you cook it like you’d cook any risotto, except that before you cook the rice, you cut the beef into strips (or chunks should you so desire) and braise it in a combination of red wine, rosemary, garlic and a little beef stock. Then set it aside just as its medium rare.

Continue with the rest of the risotto, creating the base stock out of beef stock, red wine, and rosemary.

When your rice is ready to go, begin adding the stock, stirring when you need to, and towards the end add in the chopped and pureed tomatoes (as many as you like depending on how ‘tomatoey’ you want it). Then when the rice is almost done, add your beef back in, stir it through, and then add the bok choy and let it soften slighty before serving.

What you get is big juicy pieces of steak combined beautifully with succulent and crisp bok choy and tender carnaroli rice.

And yes, my photography skills are not improving… but fortunately my cooking skills are… so whilst it looks kinda ugly, it tasted really good …