Learning to eat, drink and carry fish as the French do it


August 25, 1993|By ROB KASPER

PARIS — After spending a few days in France, I am ready to eat more lemons, use less ice and to generally reform my eating habits.

Typically you come back from a trip to some faraway place -- or even a two-week visit with an eccentric relative -- and you can't wait to trot out the new styles of eating and drinking you learned.

Enthusiasm for these reforms usually fizzles in about a week. Nonetheless, I have vowed to try a few of the tips I picked up from my French friends, who, after all, do have a reputation for knowing what they are doing in the kitchen.

The next time, for instance, I carry fresh fish home from the Cross Street or Lexington markets, I am not going to let any ice touch my fish. If ice touches fish flesh, the texture of the fish suffers. That is what Christian Willer, the chef at the Hotel Martinez in Cannes, told me.

When I asked him the secrets to cooking seafood, Chef Willer offered three pieces of advice. First, he said, use fresh fish. Second, never let the fish touch ice. And third, to preserve the authentic flavor, wash the fish only in sea water.

Unlike this chef, I don't work within walking distance of the sea, so I will have to settle for meeting two of the three requirements.

Next I am going to try to be more creative with my crab shells. Instead of throwing them away, I might use them as serving bowls. That is what the kitchen at Les Ambassadeurs restaurant at the Hotel de Crillon in Paris did. The night I ate there the chefs cooked crab meat, seasoned it with fennel, then served it cold in a hollowed-out crab shell. These were French crabs and their bodies were rounder than those of our Chesapeake Bay blue crabs. But I think that in the right hands, our crab shells could be made to look just as fancy as the French ones.

I also am going to try to cozy up to lemons. The French love lemons. They make terrific tarts with them. They drop slices of them in glasses of water. They make a sorbet out of lemons that is among the best cold food I have put in my mouth. They even had a lemon-flavored chewing gum called citron. And, excusez-moi, but citron chewing gum is better than Juicy Fruit.

The only lemon challenge I couldn't meet was drinking lemon juice, straight. I took a sip of a glass of lemon juice that showed up with breakfast one morning. But a sip was all I could swallow.

I am not going to "gas up" during the meal. This means I am not going to drink the wrong kind of water. The French call carbonated water, like Perrier, "water with gas." They frown on folks who drink this gassy water during meals. Before or after a meal is OK. But drinking it with food, I was told, makes you bloated.

I will try to wait to drink my coffee after I have eaten dessert. I am not sure why the French drink their coffee this way, probably because they don't think dessert should share the spotlight with any other flavors. After tasting their desserts, I think they are right.

I am going to serve better wine in smaller glasses. That is what Air France does. The short yet graceful glasses the French airline used to serve champagne and its red and white wines were the perfect size. They were similar to juice glasses, but slightly bigger, much classier, and were hard to knock over.

I am going to try to eat more slowly. One reason the French seem to get such enjoyment from their food is they don't rush meals. They take a bite. They pause. They talk. They sip. Then they take another bite. They don't regard meals as a race, to see who gets finished first.

There are some things the French did I am not going to try. Jackie Renard, chef at the hotel in St. Paul de Vence near Nice blew open some zucchini blossoms, stuffed them with turbot and served them for lunch. It was magnificent fare. But I know my limits, and I am not a skilled blossom blower.

One dish I ate that I am going to try to cook, even though I did not like it, was crab choucroute, crab meat and sauerkraut. It was served on the Bateaux Parisiens, one of the fleet of boats that cruise down the Seine River.

The sauerkraut was good. The poppy seed sauce was fine. The crab meat was OK. But the flavors did not harmonize.

Nonetheless, I think this dish has potential, especially in Maryland where people put sauerkraut on almost everything, including the Thanksgiving turkey.

I wouldn't change the kraut. But I would serve sweet meat from the Maryland blue crab.

It would be so good that after eating it Frenchmen and Marylanders would roll their eyes and squeal "Ooh-la-la, Hon!"

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