cuisine sans cuisine.

mise en place

(that’s “cooking without a kitchen” for you Anglos.)

Even casual readers of this blog probably know I love to cook… and since I don’t think anyone reads this besides my friends and family, hopefully some of you remember a meal I cooked for you, hopefully with fond memories.

When I was accepted into grad school, I knew that a major part of my life was going to change. I’d be moving every six months to various cities around Europe. There would be no more cob ovens in the backyard, no more potluck pizza parties; no more summer nights concocting each new flavor in the hand-cranked ice cream maker; no more spring days sweating over a boiling vat of water as I pressurized cans of newly-cooked-up jams.

I did a farewell tour of my favorite cookbooks, then packed my bags for Europe.

At first it wasn’t so bad. In Sweden I had a great communal kitchen and great hallmates; I’d whip up huge curries and soups that I’d eat for days, and I’d bake strange and adventurous desserts to share with my friends. I’d leave cakes on the counter with a note that said “eat me”; one morning, I found a note back that said, “thanks, mysterious cake baker. you saved my day!” (I still have the note.)

For my friend Katie’s birthday, I made a cake, frosted it, and we had a great time decorating it with pink and purple sprinkles, flower-shaped sugar candies, and Disney princess candles. It was a hit.

Then I moved to France.

Not only do I not have a kitchen in my room – that was fine in Sweden – but the group kitchens are atrocious. There is one kitchen for thirty people; it has no ovens. Just a few stovetops and a few sinks, and one table, and sometimes some chairs. There are no cupboards, so you can’t store anything there; by default that means no communal cooking equipment. You own all your own stuff and store it, with your groceries, in your room. Luckily, we have small refrigerators. But our rooms are tiny enough as it is (mine is just nine square meters). So you don’t keep much.

The one time I have used the kitchen, I made donuts – well, beignets, with a nod to Todd – for my classmates. We drenched them in vanilla sugar. They were delicious. Other than that, the kitchen is just too much of a pain in the ass.

So what’s a gourmet addict to do? Believe it or not, there’s a lot you can cook without a kitchen. Am I happy? No. Am I eating? Yes. Tonight’s dinner:

meal

Pretty romantic. And yes, my whole room, basically, is lime green. It’s not as jarring as you would imagine.

If you are in a similar situation (with the kitchen – not the lime green paint, you’re on your own for that one), the most important thing to do is to buy an electric kettle! You need to be able to boil water. Other appliances are great too, but that’s the bare minimum, and that’s what I did, for not too much money at the Casino Geant. It’s like a Wal-Mart. Yes, first I lost my kitchen privileges, then I started shopping at the French equivalent of Wal-Mart. What is my life coming to!?

So when the shit hits the fan, here’s how to eat. A guide to cuisine, sans cuisine.

Sandwiches

If you’re not American, skip this part. Apparently everyone else thinks sandwiches are stupid. I used to agree with them; I just never liked them that much, and then I went through this summer where I could eat at a dining hall but I was always gone for mealtimes so sometimes I’d eat PB&J three meals a day, and that did not improve the sandwich outlook.

But: sandwiches can be great. If you put no effort into a sandwich, it will suck. But think how much time you put into making a “normal” meal. Now put half that time into a sandwich. It’s going to be great! Even if it’s not even half the time.

In Sweden, I had great combinations of soft cheese, lingonberry jam, chicken, and cucumbers. In France, it’s a paradise with which to make a sandwich. You have great bread. Amazing cheese, of every provenance and type. Mustard? heck yeah! Cured meats sliced thin. Sauces and spreads. Olives and pickles and fresh vegetables. I like to throw in apple slices. You can make a different sandwich every day, practically.

Do not fear the sandwich. Turn it into a meal. The sandwich is your friend.

Cold Things in Bowls

Basically everything else I eat is a pile of food in a bowl. I don’t own a plate; I own two blue ceramic bowls that I bought at IKEA. So, food in a bowl. The first category is cold things in a bowl.

The most obvious answer is salad, but as a single person, I don’t buy greens; they always get slimy before I eat them all. So my cold bowls have other bases, and are usually topped with a homemade two- or three-ingredient vinaigrette that sometimes contains mustard. Some recent ones:

Avocado, pear, hard-boiled eggs (made in your electric kettle!), cheese

Purple cabbage, lentils, apples, nuts

Tomatoes, cheese, cucumber, tuna

Panzanella: bread salad with tomatoes (like this)

Use your imagination and go wild. Vegetables are your friends; so are fruits (fresh or dried); so are canned beans and legumes. Meat and cheese are good additions. I’m inspired  here because soon it will be so damn hot that you won’t want to eat anything cooked anyway; salads are the way to go. If you think at any point, “I’m spending this much effort on a goddamn salad?” think of the Salade Nicoise, which is delicious, famous, filling, and has a ton of stuff in it. Seriously. A meal.

Warm Things in a Bowl (or Cold and Warm Things Mixed in a Bowl)

So let’s go over that electric kettle thing again. There are some obvious things you can make in there, without it even seeming to weird: ramen noodles. Just put ’em in a bowl, pour the boiling water over them, cover, wait. They’ll get cooked. Frozen vegetables, too. Powdered soups.  And more adventurous quick-cooking items like couscous, Chinese egg noodles, dried mushrooms. Pour, cover, come back in five or ten minutes and voila.

But I’ve been working to test the limits of what you can cook in an electric kettle. One thing is for sure: just boil things in water. You don’t want to boil anything else to the bottom of your heating element. Or, who knows, I haven’t tried, but it sounds like a big mess/burn waiting to happen.

So: pasta. Easy. You just have to make sure the water doesn’t boil pasta foam all over your counter, and that you wash the kettle well afterwards so your morning coffee isn’t made out of pasta water. Most even have a sifting spout, making draining super easy.

But also: vegetables. Think of ones that you would usually steam. So far I’ve had great meals with broccoli, green beans, and even asparagus that I cooked in the kettle – yes, asparagus, prepared in the least gourmet way possible. Which leads to lots of options.

Tonight’s dinner: tortellini, tomatoes, and green beans with olive oil

Last night: Chinese egg noodles with peppers (frozen), mushrooms (dried), green beans, and curry sauce (store-bought)

Penne with broccoli, tomatoes, pesto, and chevre

You get the idea.

Breakfast

This is no problem. You can’t fry up any eggs and bacon, but luckily, France has the biggest yogurt selection in the known universe. I could try a different kind every week the whole time I’m here and never get bored. I usually top it with either jam (or marmalade), fresh fruit, and/or museli.

Plus, I can always walk around the corner and get an amazing pastry, because I have the rocking-est local patisserie (bakery) in town. Maybe I’m biased, but I swear La Mie de Pain (get it?) is the best. I don’t even have to tell them what I want, they just give it to me. In other news, I’m probably eating too much pastry…

…. And Junk Food

This makes me sound incredibly healthy. Despite the two-week diet that was pretty successful, I’ve gained all that back… mostly in junk food. Shit. My life is stressful, okay!? You can buy individual-sized tiramisu in the yogurt aisle; that’s a popular dessert, or maybe just a tiny tub of Hagen-Daaz (they sell boxes with one-serving tubs of different flavors… yeah I’m screwed). There are so many kinds of chocolate bars to choose from. I try to snack on fruits and nuts but every time I go to the grocery store, I’m enticed by crap. Delicious, delicious crap. These people take their cookies seriously.

Finally: the two-euro wine in the story is way better than American two-buck-chuck. Heck, it’s often even made right next door. So if you’re food isn’t that great, rinse it down and you’ll be way happier.

Kitchen problem solved.

The End.

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