Thursday, March 12, 2009

At home in St. Gallen

I’ve called St. Gallen home for the past few months, but my short time living in Switzerland has now come to an end. It is surprising how quickly a place can feel like “home.” The upcoming move has really gotten me thinking about what “home” really means, especially since I have been moving around so much in this past year and will continue to do so… well, indefinitely, I guess. I was the guest host on the Chicken ‘n’ Waffles podcast over at Leena Eats a few months back. The topic was living and eating abroad, and in preparing for the taping I put some major thought into my mobile lifestyle. Cooking is obviously a priority in my life, but when you move so frequently (and are constantly on a tight budget) it is nearly impossible to maintain a stocked kitchen – so here in Switzerland, my pantry has salt, pepper, dried pepper flakes, saffron, a few boxes of various carbs at any given time, instant coffee… and that’s about it. I have a pan, and two pots, a few wooden spoons, a box grater, a kitchen knife, two forks, and some other basics. No microwave or electronic appliances. And you know what? I love it. It is liberating. I’ve realized over the past year that I don’t need fancy equipment or a gas stove to make great food (although, I must admit, they would often help). I’ve come to think that home is a place where you are comfortable, where good, albeit simple, food is lovingly originated and is enjoyed with gusto. And my little apartment on Zürcherstrasse has met that criteria over the past three months.

When we first arrived, the winter atmosphere that I hadn’t experienced in Australia prompted me to immediately think back to homey American comfort classics. Think butternut squash lasagna, chicken pot pie, potato-based casseroles, vegetable stews.

I went as far as having a weeklong run where I solely cooked American classics. That’s very unusual for me, as my weekly menus are usually pulled from around the globe. One evening I found myself with a random assortment of chicken breasts, bell peppers, mushrooms, and some cream. Normally I would pull out some sort of pasta in cream sauce with that combo, but I was feeling saucy (pun intended) and my pile of ingredients stirred a memory in the far recesses of my brain – of chicken à la king! I did some research on the dish and discovered that the cream sauce bathing the chicken and vegetables is thickened with flour and enriched with egg yolks. Rich, no doubt. Outdated, certainly. A project for a bored gal living in Switzerland? Most definitely.

I can’t really say that my chicken à la king transported me back to my childhood with loving memories of mom schlopping thick eggy cream sauce on plain white rice. In fact, I’d never actually eat chicken à la king before (but I had seen it re-created on Top Chef). And, um, well, I’ve also never eaten invalid food in an old persons’ home, but for some reason, that’s what this dish reminded me of. I won’t be making it again. Stick with the pasta in cream sauce, folks.Also attempted during my run of American classics was gumbo. Phil worked at a restaurant in Jacksonville where gumbo was the house specialty. I’d never made it before, but truth be told, most of the stuff I make is a first time experiment and Phil is always happy to oblige. He was my gumbo consultant – picking out the okra, which I’d never cooked with before, and instructing me to let the roux brown way past the point of rational comfort. Seafood isn’t exactly overflowing in the markets here in German Switzerland, so I decided to go with a chicken and sausage gumbo. Sausage IS overflowing the markets, and the food carts, and the supermarkets, and the restaurants here. This part of the country was built on sausage. I digress. The gumbo was just, well, just okay. I put plenty of love into it but making gumbo in Switzerland is kind of like going skiing in Australia. You can do it, but it just doesn’t seem appropriate, somehow. But darn, that roux was a beautiful chocolate brown!

My cooking escapades gradually took a European spin. Pappardelle with veal, beef and pork ragù? Great success. The wide noodles carry the chunky richness of the sauce and the parmigiano didn’t really have to travel THAT far from its home in Emilia-Romagna to show up on my plate.

My snacks were undeniably Swiss from the beginning of my time in this part of the world. Chestnuts are roasting all over town this time of year and make a cheap, convenient snack. But they are way above the cheap convenience of other snacks – their warm, creamy, nuttiness beats a bag of chips any day.

Actually, sometimes you just want chips, you know? I bought these special edition guys because I liked the faded, fake antique photo of a laid back pig-tailed Swiss gal hanging in the Alps, eating potato chips with perfectly distributed pepper granules from the stump of a tree trunk. A true Swiss scene. They turned out to be uniquely flavored, perhaps owing to the Swiss alpine salt and peppered fresh cheese? Hmm.

I’ve actually found out that you can learn a lot about a country’s flavor preferences by browsing the potato chip section of the local supermarket. My Australian roommate Madi loved Thai sweet chili potato chips dipped in sour cream – the quick version of potato wedges with sweet chili sauce and sour cream. Australia also has chicken-flavored potato chips and I am sorry but that is just silly. I remember seeing the craziest flavor combinations in Japan but I liked the nori-flavored and the spicy wasabi chips. Here is Phil enjoying what is clearly a pizza-flavored variety in Japan. This was about the closest we got to comfort food there.

Gosh now that I think about it, I really love potato chips! I had kimchi ones in Korea that were odd. But I must say that my favorite is hands down the Cape Cod sea salt and vinegar potato chips that are available in the U.S. They’re kettle-cooked, and I’m not sure what that means, but I am sure that they are the crunchiest, curliest, saltiest and vinegariest chips I’ve ever tried.

If you’re bored, I just realized that the wiki entry on potato chips is fascinating. Canada has its dill pickle or poutine-flavored potato chips, Japan has a scallop and butter variety that I (thankfully) never came across, cucumber-flavored chips are available in China, masala or coriander in India, chile y limón in Mexico, oregano in Greece, mayonnaise and lemon in Columbia… and Germany of course has a beer-flavored variety! But the UK dominates the contest with such awesome options as Marmite, Worcestershire sauce, lamb & mint, roast pork and creamy mustard, lamb with Moroccan spices, buffalo mozzarella with tomato and basil --!!! I know where I’m going to move if I ever want to be a fake flavor taste tester!

Jeez that was an unexpected tangent, maybe I should write an article on discovering world cuisines through the humble potato chip.

Back to wrapping up my time in St. Gallen….

Just this week I embarked on my most ambitious Swiss-food making mission yet. I picked up a cookbook on Swiss specialties and tried to translate it from German to English, to varying degrees of success. At first, I thought my Härdöpfel-Pizokel was going to be a disaster. But, thank goodness for the instructional photos accompanying the recipes! The version of pizokel in my cookbook is essentially a mound of potato dumplings smothered in Gruyere, onions, and bacon.

You first peel and grate a heck of a lot of potatoes and mix them with flour and salt, then make potato balls which you boil until they float.

My first few tater balls fell apart in the water and I had to continue adding flour to the mix until they held their shape. But eventually I had a pile of boiled carb-balls in my baking dish that I covered with a blanket of grated Gruyere and baked for about 20 minutes.

As they were baking, I fried up some cubed bacon and onions to top the dish. Pizokel will definitely make plenty of appearances on my table in the future as a substitute for scalloped or roasted potatoes.

And with that, I say my farewell to St. Gallen. Goodbye beautiful church…

Goodbye quaint stuff…

Goodbye massive mugs of beer.

The next few weeks I will be heading SOUTH through Italy. Watch for posts at the beginning of April on time spent in Lugano, Como, Milano, Venezia, Firenze, and Roma.

Prost!!!!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Genève and Lausanne

To travel from St. Gallen to Geneva is to traverse the length of the country of Switzerland. In four hours we saw the nation in a microcosm – compact villages, global cities, calm lakes, hilly pastures and stark Alps. We decided to make a stop in Lausanne on the way to Geneva. From the train, we had a view across the vineyards surrounding Lausanne over Lake Geneva to the French Alps. I had really hoped we would be able to take a walk through the vineyards and do some wine tasting, but the weather just wasn’t up to par when we were passing through.

We only ended up spending a few hours in Lausanne – just enough time to quickly go through the cathedral and give ourselves a workout heading up the steep hill to the center of town.

Lausanne is smack dab on Lake Geneva. Peaceful surrounds, nearby terraced vineyards dotting the hillside leading down to quiet waters, with the Alps rising as a backdrop – to me, one of the prettiest parts of Europe.

Arriving in Geneva was like entering another country. Compared to German Switzerland (where our town of St. Gallen is located), the French part of the country is diverse, lusty, busy, and a little dirty – with an attitude to boot. A welcome change from the sometimes rigid, often perfect, and always deserted atmosphere in our neck of the woods. Plus, we were surprised that everywhere we went, whether it be on the train, at a bar or restaurant, or even on the street, EVERYWHERE, you could overhear someone speaking English. It almost felt like we were in an extremely well-dressed version of a major American city… almost. European-ness is just oozing from every corner of Geneva, from the impeccably dressed important-looking politicians and businessmen, to the cobblestone streets, to the Alps and lake framing the city, to the late-night dining and the outrageous prices. Geneva is really my kind of place (except for the outrageous price thing).

As soon as our train arrived we headed for La Clèmence wine bar, located on the city’s prettiest square.

We certainly can’t run with the moneyed crowd that seems to dominate the city, but we can definitely pretend like we can roll. Phil ordered a couple of glasses of the cheapest wine on the menu and we settled into an outside table to enjoy the atmosphere and the view …

… and the people-watching as the sun slowly went down (we did our best to ignore the cigar smoke wafting into our faces from the old dude sitting at the table next to us – ew – was so distracting that Phil couldn’t keep the camera steady).

After we finished our wine and began to shiver from sitting for too long in the cold drizzle, we headed to Place du Molard for dinner.

Café du Centre is a mirrored café of the likes you see on many street corners in Paris. But a peak in the front window screams that this is a café with a difference – mounds of oysters, heaps of fresh fish, and piles of escargots beckon passerby.

We started with roasted scallops on a bed of greens tossed with a pistachio vinaigrette and garnished with edible flowers - all surrounded by a mint lime sauce. Pistachios added a nice crunch and the mint lime sauce was a brilliant and innovative addition that complemented the rich scallops.

I don’t often eat cod, so I ordered it roasted on a bed of olive oil mash with a side of herbed carrots. Everything required salt and pepper, but the freshness of the cod was obvious. And you can’t go wrong with glazed carrots.

Phil’s sea bass on a bed of spinach with basmati rice was overwhelmed by the lemony drawn butter drizzled under, around, and on top of everything…

But he didn’t let it spoil the experience.

The service was impeccable and the local sauvignon blanc hit the spot. We left the restaurant around 10:30pm, just as things were getting hopping… on a Sunday night. When do these people sleep?

We tried to keep up with the locals by heading to an American sports bar… and drinking Leffe. Yes, this seemed an appropriately Genevan experience. Watching European soccer on a big screen television late on a Sunday night in an American bar, drinking a Belgium beer surrounded by a multilingual crowd. I guess we fit right in.

The next day Phil headed off for visits with his class to the World Trade Organization and Nestlé. I decided to sleep in and do some sightseeing. I discovered that Geneva is home to some impressive world records, such as the tallest fountain in the world at 140 meters…

… and also home to some not so impressive world records, such as the longest park bench in the world.

It also has some of the smallest artichokes I’d ever seen…

And the cutest (and most expensive at around $35 each) patriotic chocolate/marshmallow creations EVER.

All of the sightseeing made me hungry. Chez ma Cousine was the perfect spot for me to affordably quench my appetite.

A half a spit roasted chicken, a heaping plateful of provençale potatoes, a bowl of salad with Dijon dressing, two glasses of a local Gamay and a two hour nap. Priceless. Actually, it cost 21.50 francs and was the best deal in town.

You can probably guess that Geneva is one of the world’s most international cities, since it houses a large number of global headquarters and governmental agencies. Some estimates claim that foreigners account for almost 50% of the populace! There is no better place to witness this international hodgepodge than the Paquis neighborhood (the location of our hotel). There’s an edge to the neighborhood, with colorful, attractively dilapidated architecture.

And most of all an endless range of ethnic restaurants, shops, and people. The Olé Olé tapas and wine bar was indicative of the flavor of the city. A modern space with high ceilings tucked down an unassuming side street in Paquis, it was an unexpected find in the area of the train station.

Our mixed tapas platter was truly a world on a plate – smoked meats, shaved parmesan, roasted poblanos, pissaladiere with anchovies, eggrolls, roasted potatoes, teriyaki chicken, tartlets, and Thai chicken skewers, washed down first with a 2003 Castilla la Mancha then a recent vintage Rioja. The platter was big enough to be a dinner for two and at 30 francs an excellent way to pinch pennies while still hanging in the cool joints around town.

The next day, after an illuminating and refreshing (?!) trip to the Evian factory in neighboring France, we stayed in Paquis for a quick, hip lunch at the Indian and Sri Lankan Piment Vert. One serving of Kukulmas pisuma, chicken in coconut milk sauce with daal, tomatoes, basmati, and papad, was plenty to fill us both for the train ride home.