You might know that I lived in Paris in my late 20s. Bought a one-way ticket, ostensibly so I could finish my PhD in French literature. I think if I look back and I’m honest, I probably knew that degree would never be completed – I wasn’t really sure why I was doing it (other than the fact that, well, I could) but what I did know was that Australia was a pretty odd place to be studying 19th century French novels so I felt that at least being in Paris and studying at the Sorbonne would give me my best shot at completing that degree.
I’ll be the first to admit that it wasn’t easy. Sure, sounds amazing, so brave, right? But it was HARD. In pre-internet times, moving to another country was a huge deal. Looking back, I’m amazed mum and dad let me go – I didn’t know anyone, didn’t have a place to live and didn’t have a job to supplement the small scholarship I had earned. Sounds a little precarious, right? The first year was definitely challenging but slowly I found my feet. Got a job (at a now-defunct Australian-themed fine dining restaurant), found a studio (in the lovely rue Montorgueil area) and slowly started to make friends.
Friends. The cornerstone to my life in Paris. Sure, there was amazing food and cheap wine and hundreds of kinds of cheeses along with gorgeous architecture and so much history to learn about but at the end of the day, my good friends were probably the reason I stayed as long as I did. My Paris years involved a lot of pot-luck type get togethers with friends (so, picnics of sorts) where typically the menu might have been: cheese (a lot of different kinds), really good bread, a “big salad” and dessert (sometimes a fancy one from Stohrer (just around the corner from my studio), sometimes a caterpillar cake from Marks & Spencer). And wine. But more than being about the food, those evenings were all about building community which is so important when you find yourself in a country a long way from home trying to figure out how to make a life there.
Food bringing people together is a huge lesson I learned living in Paris, so when I saw Shaheen Peerbhai and Jennie Levitt’s book, Paris Picnic Club was coming out, I pre-ordered it immediately because the whole concept spoke to me in a lot of ways.
From the publisher:
Delicious recipes from two chefs who cooked up a community as well as a meal.
Every Friday for a year in a small town tucked into the hillsides south of Paris, Shaheen Peerbhai and Jennie Levitt made a delicious picnic-style meal for their friends, and it grew into a clandestine pop-up restaurant, serving much-anticipated lunches to eighty hungry guests. Soon they moved their picnic club to parks and hidden spots across Paris. In this charmingly illustrated book, Shaheen and Jennie offer a collection of their flavorful recipes, taking inspiration from the diverse cuisines of Paris. You’ll delight in eclectic small plates and sharing platters, abundant tartines, creative drinks, indulgent desserts, and more—to savor and share in your favorite picnic spot or at your dinner table.
What a truly lovely idea, right? Community. Food. They go hand in hand and now here’s a guide to help you recreate that experience at home. Shaheen and Jennie talk about the inspiration for their Picnic Club and how they built a community around weekly meals which people pre-ordered, then later pop-up meals all around the city. Their inspiration? The “food playground” that is France – so, the book features not just French food but dishes drawing on inspiration from the wide range of ingredients available in Paris – the “Paris potpourri” as they call it.
There’s a wonderful section all about Cooking in France and Pantry Essentials, detailing where to find some of the “must have” items in Paris. I actually lived next door (!) to one of the stores they reference, G. Detou (a play on the words “J’ai de tout” meaning “I have everything”) for four years but, sadly, since I didn’t really have a kitchen and wasn’t cooking or baking properly, I wasn’t a customer. Now, of course, it’s the first place I head to in search of hard-to-find ingredients when I land in Paris.
The book is divided into 8 chapters, seven chapters of recipes (Small Plates, Sharing Platters, Bread, Tartines, Desserts, Drinks and Basics) with one chapter, Le Pique-Nique, to help you “picnic like a Parisian” (including information about the best places to picnic in Paris!). The recipe headnotes are interesting enough to read on their own (so the book is just as at home on your bedside table as it is in your kitchen) and you’ll learn a lot about French food and Paris’ changing food landscape. Each chapter introduction contains tips to help ensure success making the recipes (I love that they have a whole chapter on tartines – open faced sandwiches – featuring their most popular baguette sandwich combinations from their original lunch club, because they realise it might not be as easy to get great baguette where you live – so smart!).
This is a unique book in a lot of ways and one of the things that really sets it apart is the fact that it’s illustrated (which I absolutely love!). Illustrated cookbooks are so much more common in France and this is a beautiful example. Not all the recipes have “complete dish” illustrations – there is a mix of ingredients as well. It is, in a word, delightful. The concept, the stories, the recipes and the illustrations make for a long list of food you’ll want to eat and share.
The first recipe I made from the book was a “big salad” – Quinoa Salad with Butternut Squash, Pomegranate, Feta and Hazelnuts (a grown-up version of the salads I’d make for my get togethers in my Paris days…) and I’m happy to be able to share the recipe with you today!
Quinoa Salad with Butternut Squash, Pomegranate, Feta and Hazelnuts
This method comes straight from a Bolivian friend of ours who grew up in the Andes eating quinoa. The perfect texture is one that retains a little bit of a bite at its core even after it’s done cooking. First, rinse the quinoa several times. Quinoa has a natural soapy coating that acts as an insecticide. It should be rinsed off, or the quinoa will taste bitter when you cook it. Boxed quinoa is usually prerinsed, but give it a few good rinses anyway, just to be sure. Rather than cooking quinoa in plenty of water, and then draining it, as you would if you were preparing pasta, quinoa should be treated like rice: bring it to a rolling boil in exactly two times the amount of stock as quinoa. You then reduce it to a gentle simmer and let the quinoa cook, until it has absorbed all of the stock and has just about popped open. Overcooking, along with under-rinsing, can make quinoa taste bitter and destroy the perfect chew that makes it such a lovely and versatile seed.
Reprinted with permission from Paris Picnic Club © 2018 Shaheen Peerbhai and Jennie Levitt. Published by Sterling Epicure.
1 medium butternut squash, deseeded and cut into 1 ½-inch (4cm) cubes
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, chopped
¾ cup (85g) hazelnuts
1 ½ cups (250g) quinoa
3 cups (720ml) Basic Vegetable Stock
2 medium leeks (white and light green parts only), sliced into thin rounds
2 cups (100g) fresh arugula
4 ounces (112g) feta
¾ cup (100g) pomegranate seeds
Hazelnut Oil Vinaigrette
1 tablespoon (15ml) white balsamic vinegar
¼ cup (60ml) hazelnut oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 425°F (215°C). In a large bowl, combine the cubed squash with 3 tablespoons olive oil, thyme, and salt and pepper. Spread the squash cubes on a baking sheet in a single layer and roast for 25 to 30 minutes, until the squash is golden and tender.
After removing the squash, lower the heat to 350°F (275°C). Toast the hazelnuts in one layer on a baking sheet, until they’re fragrant and the skins look dark and papery. Remove the hazelnuts from the oven, let them cool slightly, and then rub them between the palms of your hands to remove the skin. Don’t worry about skin that’s firmly stuck.
Prepare the quinoa by rinsing it several times under cold water and then draining it.
Heat the vegetable stock in a pot. Bring it to a simmer.
Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil to a medium-size saucepan and saute the leeks until they’re just golden (about 10 minutes). Season generously with pepper (hold off on the salt), and then add the quinoa, sauteing until it starts to toast with a nutty fragrance. Stir frequently and make sure it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan. Add the hot stock to the pan and give the quinoa a good stir. Place the lid on the pan and turn up the heat to high. Once the stock is boiling vigorously, turn down the heat and continue to cook the quinoa until it has absorbed all of the liquid, about 10 to 15 minutes. You’ll know the quinoa is done, and has just the right texture and bite, when it looks like it has popped open, with its “tail” out.
Remove the quinoa from the heat and let it sit, covered, for about 10 minutes. Spread the quinoa in a thin layer on a baking sheet or a shallow bowl to let it cool quickly.
While the quinoa is cooling, prepare the vinaigrette by first whisking together the white balsamic vinegar and salt to taste. Once the salt is dissolved, whisk in the hazelnut oil. Season to taste with black pepper and additional salt as necessary.
Once the quinoa has cooled, toss all ingredients (except the feta and a few pomegranate seeds) to coat with the white balsamic vinaigrette. Crumble the feta directly on top and finish with a sprinkle of pomegranate seeds, salt, and pepper.
US and Canadian readers – win a copy of Paris Picnic Club thanks to Sterling Publishing. Details here.
Disclosure: I purchased Paris Picnic Club myself. The publisher has kindly provided one copy for a giveaway. I was not asked to write about the book, nor am I being compensated for doing so. All opinions 100% my own.
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MY BOOK! In the French kitchen with kids releases July 31, 2018! Click here for pre-order details!