Megnut

Archive for May 2005

When a party of one isn't alone

I've gotten used to traveling alone over the past few years, and have found it's something I quite enjoy most of the time. One thing I still find difficult though is eating alone in foreign restaurants, especially during prime dining hours, such as a Saturday night. And yet, that's the position I found myself in last night, wanting to enjoy a final Parisian meal of oysters. I headed to a spot close to my house called Au Chien Qui Fume, a restaurant that's bustling and fun -- not haute cuisine by any stretch of the imagination.

The weather was beautiful and warm and I wanted to eat outside. But, to my dismay, when I arrived around 8:15 it looked as if the terrace were already full. And worse, everyone was eating with someone else, and all of a sudden I got a kind of lonely and sad feeling, and felt lame for being alone. But I wanted my oysters, so I enquired of the maître d', "Would it be possible for one on the terrace?"

He looked a bit dismayed and said, "It is quite full, but for you I will find a place!"

Relieved, I waited and he quickly returned and asked me to follow him. He pulled out a table that was quite snug in next to another couple. This couple was using one of the chairs of my table to store their things, and as the maître d' pulled out out my chair, the gentleman began to remove his belongings. I told him it wasn't necessary.

"You are alone?" He asked me.

"Yes," I said. And then the maître d' jumped in.

"No! You are not alone! Now you are here, dining with us!" he said, smiling, and with a gesture of his hand indicated the restaurant.

It was perhaps one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me. I settled into my seat and watched the families and couples enjoy their dinner while I slurped the last briny oysters of my visit. And the feeling of being alone was forgotten.

To learn the cheeses, one must eat the cheeses

About mid-way through my month in Paris, I decided I would learn more French cheese. I read my French cheese book, but the choices and varieties were overwhelming! So Jason and I decided one day we would have lunch at a fromagerie that not only sold cheese but offered a variety of cheese tasting menus.

We each ordered the five cheese assiette after confirming with the waiter we wouldn't be given the same cheeses (mai non!). It came with a nice green salad and bread, and we also had a carafe of wine to accompany it.

The cheeses arrived in a circle from weakest to strongest, and we were told to eat them accordingly. And each had a little flag indicating its name.

My plate contained: Clacbitou, Comté, Reblochon, Bleu des Causses, and Hansi. Jason's contained: Ste. Maure, Cremeaux du Puy, Brie aux Noix, Pont L'Eveque, and Dauphin.

Aside from the Hansi and Dauhpin -- the two strongest cheeses -- we liked them all. The biggest surprise was the Pont L'Eveque. I'd purchased Pont L'Eveque from Murray's Cheese in NYC about eighteen months ago, and when we unwrapped it and served it to our guests, we were convinced there was something wrong with it. Wrong as in: "Holy Crap, did some liquid cooling agent from the fridge spill on this cheese and get absorbed by it ten days ago and then just ferment in there?!?!"

We couldn't eat it, and the next day I took it back to Murray's, only to be told it was fine, that's the way it's supposed to be! So when the platter arrived and we saw the Pont L'Eveque, we were very scared. But it was decicious. I asked the young cheeseman about it after, explaining how gross we'd found it before. He said the one we we'd just tried wasn't very old, and that it sounded like the one from Murray's was much older. Apparently Pont L'Eveque can get pretty strong as it ages. He then told us more about the current state of cheese, how the more you like cheese the more you get into strong cheeses, etc. etc.

It was a lovely lunch, and I recommend it for anyone looking to expand their cheese horizons while in Paris. Lunch for two was ~35&Euro;, with 50cl of red wine. Note: closed on Mondays

La Fromagerie 31

64, rue de Seine

75006 Paris

Also, if eating a lot of cheese causes you some digestion problems and "backups", I recommend Naturalia, a natural food chain store in various locations around Paris. They sell several herbal teas to help set things in proper motion again. It's also the place to buy soy milk, soy yogurt, and those sort of American dietary things you wouldn't expect to find in France.

Naturalia

11/13, rue Montorguiel

75001 Paris

A very megnut.com birthday

Today is the sixth birthday of this site. Sixth! It's hard to believe it's been going for so long (and by "going" I mean "hanging on by a thread for weeks on end when I barely bother to update"). I've -- really I'm not lying -- been working on a redesign for the past two weeks, and I'd hoped to launch it today for a birthday present. But as these things go, it's not done, and I now actually don't like the design anymore. But I do have changes planned, and will probably roll things out gradually. For now, let's just all sing "Happy Birthday megnut.com!" and I'll get started baking the cake.

Photos from Paris

I've been posting my photos from my month in Paris to my April in Paris 2005 photoset over at Flickr. Some are from my camera phone, others from my Nikon D70. None are cropped, enhanced, or in any way manipulated. I hope to go back through the whole collection and do another more serious album of the best shots at some point. But for now I'm satisfied with what I've got. I was just happy to have Flickr as an outlet to share the photos nearly as quickly as I was taking them.

Tony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook

Les Halles CookbookShortly before I left for France I ordered Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook: Strategies, Recipes, and Techniques of Classic Bistro Cooking. Now that I'm back and desperately craving all things French, I've dug into it, and wow! It's great! Not that I've made anything from it yet, but it's so readable (especially if you're a fan of his writing) and also so authentic.

My eating adventures last month in Paris really broadened my French culinary horizons -- and vocabulary -- and I found I recognized so many of the dishes that fill the book. Plus, he's just so frank, I find it refreshing, especially when it comes to discussing French food, which tends to receive some stuffy (or worse, insulting) treatment in the wrong hands. The back has a glossary to help clear up any confusion the reader may have about unknown terms. My favorite definition? That for my old friend foie gras:

FOIE GRAS: The fattened liver of a goose or duck. Unfortunately, an endangered menu item with the advent of angry, twisted, humorless anticruelty activists who've never had any kind of good sex or laughed heartily at a joke in their whole miserable lives and who are currently threatening and terrorizing chefs and their families to get the stuff banned. Likely to disappear from tables outside of France in our lifetimes.

Also spot-on:

CREME FRAICHE: Expensive French sour cream.

I'm heading back to New York City later this week and I'm going to eat at Les Halles. Not only has the cookbook piqued my interest, but also my apartment in Paris was right at Les Halles, the old central marketplace of Paris turned horrid underground shopping mall. It seems only fitting that I make a visit, and partake of the glories of the French table once again.

Other memories of Paris

Remembrance of Things ParisLike a lover who, after the affair has ended, desperately revisits old letters and photos to hold onto the magic, I cannot stop reading about Paris! I ordered Remembrance of Things Paris: Sixty Years of Writing from Gourmet, edited by Ruth Reichl, while I was in Paris so it would await me upon my return. I've been reading the short articles whenever I have a few minutes break, and it's bringing it all back. What's even more amazing is how many of the spots I know -- and the articles I'm reading were written shortly after WWII! But the streets, cafés, restaurants, and hangouts are all still the same. At least it assures me that when I do return, I'll be able to enjoy many of the same things. As this enjoyable book demonstrates, Paris sure has continuity going for it!

The confusion of the restrooms

New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni has a funny article today entitled, Forget the Specials, Explain the Restroom. He talks about the confusion taking place in many restaurant bathrooms in New York City, including those at such high-end spots as Per Se and The Modern (the new restaurant at the MoMA). I can concur with many of his observations.

...I couldn't figure out how to trigger the electronic-eye sensors above the commodes, motion-detecting flushing mechanisms with enough of a delay that you were sometimes asked simply to trust in a cleansing aftermath to your departure. I've encountered religions with less daunting leaps of faith.

I couldn't figure out how to tell whether commodes were occupied. Neither, apparently, could anyone else, because whenever I was using one, someone in the communal area would rattle the door, not to mention my composure.

And I couldn't figure out why, in restaurant after restaurant, the attempt to relieve oneself turned out to be anything but a relief.

I always panic when, instead of simple labels like "Ladies" and "Gentlemen" or pictures of a man and a woman, they put those gender symbols on the door. I have to stop and think, "Which one does Austin Powers wear around his neck?" and then when I get the answer, I open the opposite door.

In the various parts of Europe I've visited, I've noticed two great things about the restrooms: 1. They put pictures on the door, which are easy to comprehend no matter what language you speak, 2. When you lock the door to your stall (which is really your own private compartment! Nice!), it rotates a little colored panel on the outside of the door to red. So when you enter a restroom, you look at the doors and see either red or green, and voila, you know which are occupied. New York restaurant designers, please take note!

Remembrance of the French Laundry Fund

I received an email recently from Maurice Graham Henry, proprietor of Dining In France who'd had dinner at Per Se recently and wrote to share some incredible news.

I had dinner at Per Se last night, and I had the good fortune to see Thomas Keller again.

He asked me anout my website DininginFrance.com, and I told him that I was recentlay able to recover a write up on The French Laundry (listed on my French Laundry page) on archive.org from 2002....written by 'the woman with the French Laundry Fund can'. Thomas remembered immediately, but he never knew that either of you had ever written about the experience. FYI Michael has been working at Per Se since it was opened, and I told him also. He (saying to me, "I tell people about that story all the time!) also never knew about your web postings.

How amazing that they remember! And how cool that Michael is at Per Se. I'm hoping to go there later this year, and perhaps I'll get to have him as my waiter again!

A total French spazz!

If you've met me in person, you know I'm quite the gesticulator when I speak. And I also have a strange tendency -- which my brother has as well, so I can only imagine it's something we developed as children -- to make sound effects to accompany my actions. For example, if you and I are walking towards each other in a narrow hallway, and I skirt to the side to avoid a collision, I will also utter, "yurreeek," or some sound to approximate a skid and/or close call.

While in Paris, I added a whistle to my communication style to indicate something that I didn't have the vocabulary to express in French. For example, I'd be saying, "And then I went..." and with my hand I'll make an up-and-down-and-over-the-hill motion, and I'd make a long whistle sound to accompany it. Or if I wanted to say, "He had to go," I'd simply say, "He" and then shoot my hand out to the right and make a short whistle sound.

While this was very effective in making myself understood when French failed me, I've discovered it's permeated my English interactions as well! So now I'm eeking and whistling not matter who I'm talking to or what I'm saying. Truly I'm becoming a human beat box. Or a crazy lunatic. You decide.

The miracle of life in a dead garden

With all my travel, my fire escape garden has been sorely neglected. In fact, nearly everything out there is dead. Most stuff did not survive last summer/fall, and what managed to hang on died this spring. Everything that is except my pinks, which are growing well and on the verge of exploding with blossoms.

So yesterday I leaned out the window to clean some dried dead stuff out of the container (old dried pinks from last summer) and as I did so, I moved a dead rose plant out of the way. All of the sudden, there was a huge fluttering of wings and lots of cooing, and right there, nestled between two containers was a momma dove and her nest of eggs!! I hadn't noticed the nest because it wasn't visible from my window, but there it was once I moved a pot. I quickly replaced it, and momma dove settled back onto her nest.

Now I just need to figure out a way to view the nest and watch the family's progress without disturbing them. Perhaps a small camera mounted on the railing of the fire escape? Last spring a dove family created a home in my neighbor's window box. I wonder if it's the same family, this time relocated to have a nest with more of a view? I can't wait to watch and see when the babies are born!

Ajaxian fun

I had a really great time earlier this week in San Francisco at the O'Reilly Media and Adaptive Path Ajax Summit. It was just the thing to get my brain jump-started into programming mode, and I feel like for the first time in a very long time, I've got lots of ideas of little apps and do-dads I want to build. Now if only I could find the time!

Studying French in Paris

As many of you know, while I was in Paris last month I took French classes. I searched online for a schools and was overwhelmed by the Google results. Then the first day I was in Paris, I was reading an ex-pat's blog (he too was in Paris) and he mentioned studying at the Alliance Française. The next day, I headed over there, took a placement test, paid my fee, and got my student id. Sure, I could have done more research, but somehow, this just felt right, so I went with it.

I signed up for two hours a day, four days a week. The off day (which is the same for all courses), the Alliance offers cultural outings for students. From the very first day, I loved my class. Our teacher (Madame was what I called her, as her last name was complicated to pronounce and using her first name seemed too casual) was wonderful. Fluent in French, English, and Spanish, she also seemed to speak Chinese and Russian when the moment arose. She spent time talking about French culture and history in addition to grammar and vocabulary.

The class size was about twenty people, but it didn't present too much of a problem, and Madame made sure we all had opportunities to speak aloud (during which time she'd correct our pronunciation) both within small groups and to the whole class.

I really enjoyed it, and my classmates, and was very sad on the last day, especially since the rest of my group was continuing together with our teacher in Paris, and I was returning to the States. I learned a lot and felt that my French really improved a great deal, to the point that I could understand a lot of what was said to me, and could (in most situations at least) make myself understood.

Based on my limited experience, I'd definitely recommend taking classes at the Paris Alliance Française. I certainly plan to return to Paris, and when I do, I'll sign up for more classes there again.

39 things I should do

If you're into food, and wondering, "what the heck should I do next?" check out the [UK] Observer's list, The top 50 things every foodie should do.

To celebrate OFM's fiftieth edition, we asked some of our favourite bon viveurs what they considered most essential to do before they died.

Amazingly, I've already done ten of the items they've listed! Is that because I'm a "bon viveur"? Maybe a little, but also I've liked cooking and food for a very long time. Of what they've recommended, I've already completed the following:

3) Dismember a chicken
I learned this last summer when I was working at a restaurant. Our chef said everyone needed to know how to break down a chicken. Now I do. I haven't done it since.

6) Dine at the French Laundry
May 2002. I can't imagine you're reading my site and haven't read my review, but if that's the case get thee to It's All About Finesse immediately! Now start saving your dollar a day!

18) Shuck an oyster
I first learned this in 1994 on Cape Cod, where indeed just as they recommend, I enjoyed 'wild native oysters, from a forgotten oyster bed'. I last shucked two dozen for my family at Christmas.

20) Wolf down a hotdog on Coney Island
July 4, 2003. I ate one. Japanese super-eating legend Takeru Kobayashi ate 44 1/2 in twelve minutes. A photo of Kobayashi in action!

24) Be cooked for by a legend
(See #6)

32) Shop till you drop [at La Boqueria in Barcelona]
When I visited Barcelona in October, 2003 I spent many hours exploring this amazing market, though I never bought anything because I was staying in a hotel and had nowhere to cook.

33) Catch your own dinner
They recommend deep-sea fishing for tuna in Barbados. I went fishing for bluefish off Nantucket in August, 2003 and cooked up the riches for dinner with my family. Bluefish is my favorite, and I think one of the best meals you can eat (but only if you're in the northeast of the United States in July or August) is bluefish baked with breadcrumbs, butter, and lemon; steamed sweet corn, with butter and salt; and boiled red potatoes. If you don't have strawberry shortcake for dessert, with real whipped cream and homemade shortcake, you haven't gone all out.

39) Visit Pierre Gagnaire in Paris
I did this in June 2003. For some reason, I never wrote about it. Drat, I wish I had.

40) Bake a loaf of bread
I can't even remember the first time I baked a loaf of bread, but it must have been around 1986. I started my culinary adventures in the baking arena (cakes and sweets) before moving into the savory world of cooking. Of course, the Guardian says, "If your loaf is a true San Francisco-style sourdough then all the better." And I say, "No!" Yuck. I don't like sourdough. I had enough "San Francisco-style sourdough" when I lived in San Francisco to last my whole life.

47) Kill a pig
The last on the list, I did this over the 4th of July weekend, 1994. Some folks I knew in college had a little tradition of doing this. At a farm in New Hampshire, we (by which I mean a friend named Danny) killed the pig and bled it. Then we all took part in gutting and skinning it (writing now, it sounds more "Lord of the Flies" than it was). We roasted it in a pit for a very long time, and the result was the best thing I'd ever tasted. I had never liked pork before that, and I didn't for a very long time after. But everything we ate that day was incredible.

They also recommend that you:

9) Pick your own [mushrooms]
But I've never done this. I had a class in college called Plants and Humanity and we learned from our biology professor never to pick mushrooms in the wild. He said it was too dangerous, even with books and training, because the possibility of making a mistake was too great. I learned a lot from Prof. Ellmore, and to this day I still recall much of what he taught, so I'm going to trust my gut and skip the picking of wild mushrooms. The 39 remaining items could easily take the rest of my life as it is, I don't want to end it prematurely by eating a Death Cap!

The NY Times wants fewer links

A couple months ago, I chatted with someone who said the New York Times was considering going to a subscription model for nytimes.com, similar to the Wall Street Journal. I said that would be a foolish and short-sighted decision on the Times' part; to place their content behind a subscription wall would be to remove themselves from online conversations now and in the future.

Adam L. Penenberg, in an article for wired.com on February 24, 2005 about the Wall Street Journal's for-pay approach, Whither The Wall Street Journal? expressed a similar point of view:

Since most people refuse to pay for WSJ stories, most bloggers are reluctant to link to them. It also has an impact on anyone who uses the web for research -- and there are a lot of us. As importantly, the next generation of readers is growing up by accessing news over the internet, and one place they are not surfing to is WSJ.com. With their habits being formed now, there is little chance the Journal will become part of their lives, either now or in the future. (emphasis mine)

The Times should remove all barriers to content, from their registration requirement to their for-pay archive access
And yet, yesterday the Times issued a press release, The New York Times Announces TimesSelect - New Online Offering to Launch in September announcing their decision to move more content to an expensive for-pay only section of their site. This is a move in the wrong direction: The Times should remove all barriers to content, from their registration requirement to their for-pay archive access. Such action would enable and increase linking to their broad range of content.

As Jill Walker writes in her paper, Links and Power: The Political Economy of Linking on the Web, "Links have become the currency of the Web. With this economic value they also have power, affecting accessibility and knowledge on the Web."

Enabling more links to the New York Times would:

Clearly, increased traffic would drive increased revenue in the form of online advertising. And in the long term, I believe it would generate more income than charging US$49.95 for an annual subscription. Perhaps US$49.95 is, as Martin Nisenholtz (senior vice president of digital operations for the Times) says, a "terrific price point" for what they're offering -- if you happen to live in the US or western Europe. But it truly is a world wide web, with English as its de facto language.

As media brands increasingly become more global, it's hard to fathom why the Times wouldn't do everything in its power to ensure it's the world wide web's news leader. By charging for its online content, the Times reduces its number of linkable sources, and thus its reach in the online world. It's their first step towards ensuring they will play a smaller role in it going forward.

Categories are back, and better!

If you've got sharp eyes, you might have noticed that categories have made their way back onto megnut.com entries. As part of my "slow but steady" redesign process, I've recategorized all my entries into topics more manageable than I had before. I haven't set up any category archive pages yet, but will at some point soon. I don't know whether this will be useful or not, but it seemed like a good idea to me.

One more foodie suggestion

Choire writes in with another foodie suggestion:

what you REALLY want to do once in your life is make your own "mother sponge" -- capture some wild yeasts outside, and blammo, you've got your own tamagotchi, basically, which needs feeding and care. it really only takes a week to raise before it can go dormant in the fridge, with weekly feedings-- and it makes REAL sourdough, not that blechy SF sourdough. and any good baker should do it once. it's both incredibly easy and incredibly hard, but REALLY the most satisfying bread experience EVER.

It sounds scary, but I'm going to trust him on this one.

Returning to tech? Sort of...

Last September I wrote an entry on this site, From geek to chef, announcing my transition into the world of cooking. I wrote, "[m]y interest in the web and tech was always more about people...But something was always missing, and I've realized that was true passion for what I was doing..." I spent the last few months of 2005 working in a restaurant, and I loved it. But in January I moved to New Hampshire and my schedule became more hectic, too hectic to take another kitchen job.

Working in a kitchen is a full-time commitment, and by full-time I mean 9+ hours a day, six or seven days a week. And as much as I love cooking, I still love other things too, including technology. The more time I spent away, the more I realized that perhaps my lack of "true passion" was a lot of burn-out. I knew I was suffering from some burn-out, but wow, I think I was WAY WAY more burned-out than I ever realized.

In early February I spoke on a women entrepreneurs panel at NYU's Stern School of Business, and I recalled how much I enjoyed creating companies. Then I traveled to Munich, where I was invited to speak about weblogs and met all kinds of smart and wonderful people. And then I headed to San Diego for the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference, and my interest in all sorts of new and geeky things was piqued.

Since then I've attended two more technology conferences and many people have asked me, "What happened to the cooking? Are you back to doing tech?" and I realized I had been very open and clear about departing the tech world, and very unclear about whether I was returning to it.

Since I wrote From geek to chef, it's become clear to me that my interests are varied not only within the sphere of technology, but outside it as well. I love to write; I love to cook and work in kitchens; I love programming and fiddling and inventing; I love building things, from sauces and meals to applications to teams and whole companies; I love traveling and speaking and meeting new people; I love going a hundred miles an hour doing a hundred different things. So I'm going to refrain from making absolute statements like, "I'm done with tech!" or "I'm done with cooking!" and instead say only that I will pursue things that interest me for as long as they continue to do so.

Right now that means: speak at conferences; cook as much as possible in my own kitchen; continue to learn as much as I can about food and its history (e.g. The Food of France by Waverly Root); learn Ruby and play with Ajax and build more little web apps; consult and guide people around issues that matter greatly to me, such as the role of women in technology. Most importantly, I will remind myself that it's OK to change your mind, and it's OK to change it again.

Off to Ireland

I'm off to Ireland for pretty much the rest of the month. I'll be traveling with my family around the south-west of the island. There will be no updates while I'm gone, as it's a real honest-to-goodness vacation, and I'm ready for it! I hope to take lots of pictures while I'm there, so look for some greeny photo goodness when I return.

Back from Ireland

Cliffs of MoherI'm back from a lovely but very rainy visit to Ireland. It was a very different vacation for me, as I'm not so used to driving around so much. Most of my trips involve visits to cities where I stay in one place and travel by subway or foot. I managed to avoid car travel for one day though and took a 14 mile hike/walk over some pretty green rugged terrain that involved close encounters with many sheep. It was long but fun. The south-west of Ireland is beautiful, and I'd like to return again and see all the stuff I felt like we missed. I'll post photos in a week or so, once I have time to go over them properly. Now, to catch up on all that email...

Patricia Wells reviews Hong Kong

I rarely think of Patricia Wells as an international foodie -- though she does write for the International Herald Tribune -- so I was surprised by her latest review, Highs Notes and Low Notes in Hong Kong. Boy does it sound yummy, and it fueled my growing interest in going to Asia.