Blog

Welcome to my blog. Vanilla Bean Cuisine has moved to Paris! Join me as I navigate Parisian supermarkets, food vendors, markets, and my own tiny kitchen in order to prepare delicious and healthy meals for my family inspired by French cuisine. You can email me at chefmolly@vanillabeancuisine.com. Bon appetit! 

Glamping, French-style

We are now a mere 2 days from leaving Paris and heading back to the United States, but we have had such fun this last month that I’m dying to document it here so we can re-live every wonderful moment of it when we’re back at boring old home sweet home. (Can you tell that my feelings about leaving are a little conflicted?) 

Anyway, upon the recommendation of friends and all-things-France experts, Gaelle and Nikhil, we decided to get away for a long weekend of upscale camping in the Loire Valley at Huttopia. Things did not start well, for while Chuck was stuck in the line from hell picking up our rental car a few metro stops away, I was still packing and Ruby was lying sprawled on the floor with a fever and a tummy ache. Sure enough, a few minutes later, she said she had to go to the bathroom, and just made it there before throwing up (luckily, mostly in the toilet). So by the time we had made it into the car with our stuff and our sick little angel, we were running a couple of hours behind schedule. It was not a pleasant ride for sweet Ruby (I will spare you the details), but we finally arrived at our campsite 2.5 hours later, after driving through fields of sunflowers and hay bales, and immediately fell in love with our little cabin on the edge of a small lake. 

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While Ruby rested, Piper and Chuck checked out the campsite, which included a little steam train, a small restaurant with homemade pizza, excellent steak haché (according to Piper), and fresh crepes, as well as an outdoor pool. 

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Our cabin had a small kitchen inside and even had a dishwasher (my preferred level of camping includes significant amenities and indoor plumbing), along with a little gas grill that we brought out onto the porch the first night to grill hot dogs (kids) and provencale pork and merguez sausages (adults), which we ate with my homemade potato salad. Ruby was feeling better by this point, and was even able to eat a little bit before she and Piper headed up to their little loft area to sleep. With no TV or WiFi, and spotty cell reception, Chuck and I spent our evenings kicking back on the front porch with glasses of wine watching the sunset and trying to decide if the small black creatures swooping over the river and near the trees were bats. One evening, there was even a concert by the pool with a lovely jazz/soul/rock singer. We took the kids with us to listen to a few songs before bed, and then could hear more of the concert wafting onto our porch while they left. Honestly, it was bliss (bats or no). 

An American Cousin in Paris

I think when the girls look back on their time in Paris, one of their highlights will be when their cousin Joaquin and Auntie Shana came to visit. For months, “I miss Cuzzie!!” was a recurring refrain here, and Piper and Ruby talked incessantly about what they would do when Joj came to visit. I’d say we knocked it out of the park. We’ve been here long enough now that we know the ins and outs of tourism with kids here—what sights you have to line up early for, what restaurants are kid-friendly, where the least-busy entrance to the Louvre is, and where the best parks are for just hanging out. 

After a devastating start to the trip, when I confused the day they were arriving (forgetting to add the +1 day to the airline arrival time) and sent the girls off to school with promises that their cousin and auntie would be there when they got home (I had to make an emergency trip to the bakery to buy chouquettes in order to console a wailing Piper upon her arriving back home and not finding them waiting for her). But they did arrive the next day, and from then on, life was good. 

With Ruby off on her school trip to the farm for two days, Piper got to spend some quality time with Joj, and she loved it. From walking backwards on people-movers together to concocting menu ideas for the craziest restaurant ever (appetizer = slushie on potato chips), they had a great time together. First up was the “Art of the Brick" Lego exhibit by Nathan Sawaya, which was cool for both adults and kids—Sawaya is a real artist who has chosen lego bricks as his medium, so his work is both thoughtful and just plain neat. 

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Another highlight was a visit to the catacombs, where (as we are old hands at this now), Chuck got up to wait in line for us so we could arrive with only a half hour to wait with the kids instead of 2 hours! 

School Life in Paris

One of the things that had me in the most panic last fall as we were planning our move was where the girls would go to school. I spent weeks researching schools and reaching out to friends of friends for recommendations. In the end, we decided that an English-speaking international school would be best, as dropping the kids midway through the year into a French-speaking school for only 6 months seemed pretty cruel. We applied to several, spent some anxious days and weeks waiting, and in the end had both girls accepted (one off the waitlist) to the English-speaking campus of EIB (Ecole Internationale Bilingue). Now as we come to the end of our school year, I don’t think we could have made a better choice.  

The girls were both welcomed into their classrooms, as it is not a rare occurrence for kids to come and go during the school year. While Piper had some trouble fitting in at first, she ended the year with tons of friends, boys and girls alike. Ruby hit the ground running, making friends quickly and winning “Student of the Month” in her first month at school. And unlike at home, where I feel like parents were pushed out of the classroom in kindergarten and barely invited back, here I was welcomed into the girls’ classes as well. Once a week, for each class, I’ve headed out to the school to spend a hour reading with the kids (or, actually, having the kids read to me). For many of the children, English is not their native language, so the teachers consider it extra helpful to have a native English speaker come spend 1:1 time with them reading. And I have loved getting to know Piper's and Ruby’s classmates. They come from many different countries, and are smart and curious about the world around them (and especially the United States)! Piper’s three best friends are from Japan, Ghana, and Russia, while Ruby’s two best friends are from Malaysia and South Africa. 

Building New Pathways

One of the biggest challenges in moving to a foreign country is having to rebuild all those life pathways you have created over years and years. How long have you used your favorite brand of toothpaste, or mascara, or cereal? How do you know where to buy your clothes or kids’ shoes or birthday party decorations? Moving to another country is to disrupt those worn pathways almost entirely, to give yourself a reset for all those routines you fall into without really questioning why. 

While at first I was overwhelmed by the unfamiliarity of almost everything here, I have also come to appreciate the shake-up. I was listening to a podcast I enjoy, Dear Sugar, in which they were talking about how major life changes like a birth or a death or a big move can be a chance to “swirl the waters” of your life, and in that, make you reexamine the choices you make every day and find out what does and doesn’t work for you anymore. I’ve found that I have been happy to disrupt some routines I had fallen into back at home. For example, rather than having the kids in 4 different extra-curricular activities each after school and on weekends, here it’s been school and that’s it. We have had more time to explore what’s around us and spend family time together on the weekends. Back at home, it’s hard to resist the pressure to over-commit your child, especially when you hear how Susie down the street is doing music, art, science, and language lessons after school not to mention ballet and basketball. But that leads to exhausting days and weekends filled with commitments—I feel much more confident now about limiting our activities to just our very favorites, and with that, taking back some weekend time to relax and take advantage of the wonders of our own awesome city, Washington, D.C.

Bucket List

Just 7 weeks left in Paris, and suddenly I feel like the days are being ripped off a day-of-the-year calendar in fast motion like in the movies. There is still so much I want to see and do (and eat!) before we leave, while at the same time, lunches need to be packed, and laundry needs to be done, someone just yelled “but it’s not FAAAAAIIR! she got…” for the bazillionth time, there’s no food in the fridge, it’s time for the homework battle, and dinner must be made. It’s a weird combination of vacation and regular old daily life we’re living here, and it’s clear that without making an extreme effort to do so, we could just ride out the days and find ourselves at the end of July wondering how we possibly could have missed going to the Musée d’Orsay. I dread returning home and having some well-meaning friend who checked off every major sight in Paris in a week-long vacation say, “Oh, didn’t you just love the insert-obvious-Paris-sight-here,” while I say, “Um, actually, we never made it there. Nope, not in 7 months. But did you know I managed to get my hair cut (twice!) and had a dryer installed?” 

Anyway, it’s obvious a list must be made, and who am I but champion list-maker! (Pro tip: never start a list with something you haven’t actually done yet. It is much more satisfying and encouraging to start by checking off something immediately—see how much progress you’ve made already!) So here goes:

1. Go to the French Open

2. Musée d’Orsay, without kids

3. Rodin museum and lunch, with kids

4. Get a glass of wine or a coffee at Les Deux Magots or Café La Flore in St. Germain des Prés and people-watch

5. Go to the Sunday organic market at Boulevard Raspail

6. Relaxation and massage at one of the Paris hammams (traditional North Africa/Turkish steam bath)

Simple Entertaining

At home, back in the States, entertaining is one of my great pleasures in life. I can spend hours planning menus and weekend time prepping dishes (or parts of dishes) to freeze before the event. I create detailed timelines so I can keep track of when each step for each dish needs to be completed, sometimes backing up a few days in advance of the party. And while you might consider this to be completely insane a little extreme, I can assure you, I love it. 

But somewhere between the small kitchen, lack of cooking equipment, and easy availability of such wonderful food around here, that urge to throw parties with complex menus has somehow been replaced by a much more simple style of entertaining. Instead of choosing dishes with long exotic ingredient lists, why not just try to showcase the best of what’s here? Now, when I lie awake at night, going over menu possibilities in my head, more often than not, it is filled with the things I can buy nearby: how about some slices of smoked salmon from Autour du Saumon and proscuitto from the Italian shop in Rue Cler? and cheeses from Fromagerie Laurent Dubois? Should I serve dessert from Aux Merveilleux de Fred? Crostini with olive tapenade from Provence or the artichoke truffle paste I picked up in Italy? And of course whatever is in season at the farmer’s market.  

As a result, I’ve been drawn to recipes that don’t call for specialized equipment or spices and just let the basic ingredients shine. (It helps that my pantry is extremely limited here since I am trying my best to only buy things I know I will use up before we leave—spices like cumin, cinnamon, and pimente d'espelette and a few different types of vinegar and olive oil for salad dressing.) It’s actually a way of cooking that is somewhat inspiring—far fewer jars of things in the fridge and cabinets that I’ve used once and then kept around “just in case.” So, appetizers with friends might look something like this: 

Family “Vacation” in Italy: Parte Due

On our last morning in Rome, we took a taxi to the train station and had no problems finding our high-speed train to Venice. We located our seats, stowed our luggage, and sat down to enjoy a three-hour train ride through the Italian countryside—this is the way to travel, people! The weather became progressively more overcast and rainy as we rode, but we still enjoyed seeing the small Tuscan farmhouses and rolling hills as we flew by at well over 100mph. We also had time to check out a couple of great kids books I had found in the bookstore in Rome: an Usborne History of Rome book and Alberta Garini’s A Kids’ Guide to Venice. Piper enjoyed the kids overview of Ancient Rome and later brought it in to share with her class. And we all appreciated the Kids’ Guide to Venice—tons of great ideas on what to see in Venice and what kids would find interesting at the various sites. All with great colorful drawings. 

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Once we arrived, we took a vaporetto to the San Stae stop and met our wonderful AirBnB hosts, Silvia and Manuel. Their modern, recently renovated apartment looking out over a small canal was just lovely: all clean white lines with splashes of color. Once again, the girls had a sweet little attic room with two twin beds and their own bathroom. And, no annoying birds or church bells! Score one point for Venice. 

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Beautiful kitchen

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The girls’ attic room

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View from the living/dining room window

We loved it, and our hosts sat with us for almost an hour after we arrived, giving us the tour of the apartment, showing us how to use the various appliances, and giving us lots of restaurant recommendations while marking them on a big map of Venice. The apartment was located on the border of the San Polo and Santa Croce neighborhoods, which was an excellent spot. At least a few blocks away from the crazy crowds around the Rialto Bridge and major Venetian sites, but still close enough to walk almost everywhere we wanted to go. 

Family “Vacation” in Italy: Part 1

Does the word “vacation” conjure up images of white-sand beaches, fruity drinks with umbrellas in them, and hours spent lying on a chaise by the ocean with a stack of books next to you? Nothing to do, nowhere to be, and the hardest decision you have to make is what to order for dinner? That sounds nice, doesn’t it? Well that is not what happens when you vacation with your children—anywhere, really, but certainly not when you travel abroad with them. And so, I will refrain from calling our Italy adventure a vacation, because the only thing vacation-y about it was that Chuck and I sorely needed one after we got back. 

That said, we knew this going in, and armed with the correct mindset (more of a warrior approaching the battlefield), our trip to Italy was so worthwhile and even, dare I say, fun. We took off from Paris on a Tuesday morning and were in Rome a mere 2 hours later—no long flights, no jet leg, Europe is awesome! We took a taxi from the airport to our apartment, although the taxi could only get within 3 blocks of the flat before having to stop because of pedestrian traffic. Our address was merely the name of a tiny square off a small road near the Campo dei Fiori, but we pulled our suitcases trustingly down the narrow street and found our AirBnB contact waiting there for us (phew!). Once again, AirBnB did not disappoint! We were in a very unique apartment with a small kitchen tucked away under the eaves and a loft bedroom for the girls (it was reached by way of a ladder, and adults could barely stand up there, but the girls loved it). 

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It rained on and off our first afternoon in Rome, but nothing could stop us from our first taste of gelato at a little ice cream shop near the Pantheon. We marveled at all the twisty and turny streets and the fact that you could walk around the corner and find some pile of old rocks or half a tower dating back to Ancient Roman times! 

A Visit to Giverny

There’s a reason for the cliché about Paris in the springtime. In March and the beginning of April, it seemed like leaves were appearing back on the trees at an interminably slow pace, patches of flowers here and there suddenly in bloom, one fountain filled and turned on, and then another. And then suddenly the end of April arrived, and the gardens and parks exploded into color. My regular jogs in the Champs de Mars park are now under the canopy of leafy trees, where it seems like just yesterday there hung bare branches. The fences have been taken down from around the main grassy areas in the park, so that on the weekends, the lawn is covered with picnickers, and surrounded by colorful patches of newly-bloomed flowers. And just as predictably as the flowers, as my new ex-pat friends have told me, visitor season has arrived.

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We are hosting a bunch of friends over the next couple of months, but first up was my mom. She arrived a few days into the girls’ (2nd, but who’s counting) two-week Spring Break, and we were thrilled to have her. The night before she arrived Piper told me, “I’m more excited than Christmas Eve and the night before Easter that Grandma is coming tomorrow!!” She (Grandma) arrived safely (bringing me more treats from home, including some good old American trashy magazines. I was kind of disappointed to find that pretty much nothing has changed in the world of celebrity gossip—sometimes it seems like we’ve been here for years, and then the same actress is still pregnant and that annoying Jersey Housewife/Inmate person is still front page news and you realize that we have only been gone a few months…). We had lots of ideas for our days with Grandma, but when the forecast for the day after she arrived was promising, we decided to visit Giverny (Claude Monet’s home and garden). 

In Defense of American Food

Not long after moving to Paris, I was convinced that I had found food heaven. Quaint little bistros on every corner, fresh baguettes, biting into a croissant or pain au chocolat still warm from the oven. I would move here for the cheese shops alone. And the farmers markets that pop up every day of the week in different parts of the city (Tuesdays, I pass one on my way to and from the girls’ school when I go to read with Ruby’s class. Wednesdays and Sundays, there’s one just a few blocks from our house.) The grocery stores have an entire aisle devoted to yogurt.

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And I haven’t even mentioned the wine. Eating here is good, real good. But slowly, some cracks have begun to appear. The bistros, while most of them serve good-enough food, are not the classic French perfection of the past. I’ve had some (gasp!) just ok meals here. The beer is pretty terrible in the majority of places. The espresso, though everywhere, is mostly controlled by the Café Richard monopoly and is frankly, not very good. (Side note: how can one coffee company provide the coffee to what seems like all of the bistros and boulangeries here?? Is that allowed?? And why do French people, who clearly love their espresso, not do something to get some good coffee here? Why have they not organized a strike, like for everything else?)

And apparently some American traditions are slowly making their way over here, as evidenced by this article I saw in the paper the other day.

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Yes, there is a major argument brewing here on “doggy bags,” with some people advocating doggy bags to reduce food waste, and others arguing that doggy bags create more container waste, and people rarely eat their leftovers anyway (oh, and that French refrigerators are too small for that sort of thing, and by the way French restaurants make sure to serve only the most reasonable portions unlike in the U.S. where portions are, and I quote, “gargantuan"). But most importantly, it’s just not done, chèrie. Personally, I think they find the term “doggy bag” to be offensive to their ever-present dogs. In fact, the article asserts that name would never fly, and instead it would be called “gourmet bag” or “rest-o-pack”. 


e© Molly Pisula 2015