Cooking On Vacation
We got back from a really wonderful visit to Paris. My husband and I rented an apartment on the Left Bank and for nearly two weeks we pretended to be Parisians.
We've been taking apartment-based vacations for years because we like having the option to cook instead of eating out which both saves money plus give us the pleasure of shopping at the local food markets. We had rented apartments in Paris before, but this one was new to us. It was two blocks from La Grande Epicerie, the amazing food store associated with the Bon Marché department store; two blocks in the other direction was Quatre Hommes, what some think is the best cheese store in Paris. Plus there were the outdoor markets held across the city, in every neighborhood, on every day of the week except Monday.
When you rent an unfamiliar apartment, you never can be sure what you'll find in the kitchen. Even if you rent from a good agent, ask lots of questions in advance, and study the Internet photos, what may be well-equipped to one person (the agent or apartment owner) won't be to you.
Judging from what I found in the kitchen drawers and on the shelves, I suspect that others who stay in this short-term rental don't resist the neighborhood restaurants since it was one of the least detailed kitchens we had yet rented. The basics were there -- small refrigerator/freezer, dishwasher, electric oven with both a convection and broiler feature, and an electric cook top. No microwave. There were a few pots and pans (all non-stick Tefal), a colander, two sizes of glass oven-proof baking dishes, a huge salad bowl and some work bowls, a roasting pan, electric tea kettle, electric coffee maker, and a wooden spoon, spatula, corkscrew, and a rather dull vegetable peeler. Being France, there was also a tart pan. Plus dishes, water and wine glasses, and flatware. But no knives.
Fortunately I had brought with me a chef's knife, my instant thermometer, a length of cotton butcher's twine, my own salt, and a little baggie of my husband's favorite green and herbal teas. On our first day we went out and bought an inexpensive bread knife because to me, part of being on holiday in France is eating bread every day. Around the corner from our apartment was a small organic market and twice a day the proprietor received a fresh delivery of baguettes by famed baker Eric Kayser. These loaves would convert the most carb-phobic into a daily bread eater.
My other first purchases were olive oil, vinegar, a tube of Dijon mustard (to add to vinaigrettes and also have with slabs of pate which I anticipated buying at one of the farmers markets), salted butter, and a container of duck rillettes -- a wickedly delicious mixture of shredded duck confit and duck fat. In the coming days my market visits added white-tipped radishes, fat green sweet peas, small round zucchinis, pale lettuces, deep cherries the size of walnuts, miniscule strawberries, other fruits and vegetables, cured hams and bacon, plus those miraculous unpasteurized cheeses that never leave the country.
In the coming days I would roast a beautiful little leg of lamb, bone-in, bought from a neighborhood butcher. I rubbed it with a paste of minced garlic, fresh thyme and olive oil. I knew that a 200° C oven (about 400° F) would give me a good sear and I started checking for medium rare (140° F with my handy instant thermometer) after an hour. We had it first with little red potatoes I had roasted alongside the lamb. The next night I cubed some leftovers and added a store-bought jar of a spicy tomato sauce and tossed with fresh pasta. The third day the scraps were left cold and added to a salad.
I did another cook-once-eat-twice with a gorgeous piece of fat-rimmed fresh ham bought from a butcher who bore a strong resemblance to Gèrard Depardieu (albeit Gèrard Depardieu wearing a bloody apron and working his Gallic charm at an outdoor market at Boulevard Raspail). He told me to braise it with chopped onion, tomato and white wine. One night it was dinner with a sauté of zucchini and mushrooms; the next day the last little pieces were added to eggs whose yolks were left runny to smear over pieces of a Kayser baguette.
The point here, other than to make you hungry and me nostalgic, is that an unfamiliar and barely outfitted kitchen needn't be an obstacle. What's more important are excellent ingredients, a steady oven and your willingness to risk the unfamiliar.
So if you fall in love with food markets when you travel -- whether it's in Paris or Seattle or Maine -- consider a cooking vacation. It gives you another way to connect and at the same time to be away. And eat well.