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Meeting up in Paris

Special to The Times

IMAGINE yourself in Paris, hungry, sans reservations, but with a serious hankering for veal blanquette. If such a happy fate befalls you -- and you can’t rustle up a Left Bank native for a bistro crawl -- you’d do well to have Daniel Young’s new book “The Bistros, Brasseries and Wine Bars of Paris” in your bag.

The former restaurant critic for the New York Daily News and author of “The Paris Cafe Cookbook,” Young has written a book that’s as casual and friendly as the eateries and food he describes. And, for those of us not out strolling in search of dinner along the Rue de la Bastille, the book -- part cultural guide, part cookbook -- provides recipes for about 100 bistro favorites.

But first Young asks the pivotal question: What exactly distinguishes a bistro, a brasserie and a wine bar? After discussing origin myths for all three and providing a handy checklist of questions to pose regarding the establishment in question (Does it serve oysters on the half shell? Do the waiters carry trays? Does it have a terrace?), Young concludes that the distinctions have been pretty much blurred. All three originated to meet the needs of the working class; all originally focused on serving drinks rather than food; and all saw the cachet of their humble institutions rise over the years to epically chic proportions.

There are, however, still some essential tenets. As Young writes in the introduction, “If the place under consideration has no plats du jour, no bar to speak of, no overcrowded tables, and no Parisian soul, chances are it’s only a restaurant.” At which point, presumably, the hungry diner should quickly flee, with his handy duck confit-detector, his soul intact, to find a real place to eat.

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But in the process of not finding a definitive answer to his question, Young brings up some good points. Times have changed, in Paris and elsewhere: People these days are drawn to comfort food, homey settings, affordable prices. Over the last 70 years -- Young dates this to the end of World War II -- bistros, brasseries and, more recently, wine bars have rushed in to fill that need. And when, in 1987, star chef Michel Rostang opened a bistro right next door to his haute cuisine flagship, the gulf between formal and casual cooking got a whole lot smaller. It was a successful move -- superstar chefs Guy Savoy and Alain Ducasse soon opened bistros, and Rostang branched out with three more -- and one that reflected the growing tastes of the public.

As for recipes, Young includes not only dishes from both Rostang’s and Ducasse’s newer bistros -- as well as many others that have opened in the last 20 years -- but also from the old eateries, the ones that fed the working classes and the Montparnasse artists. And the ground covered applies to place as well as time: The book includes recipes from 15 out of the 20 arrondissements.

But if budget or commitments prevent you from making your way to one of those arrondissements, just turn the pages of Young’s book. With recipes as varied as the bar mix at Willi’s Wine Bar, Chez Georges’ pan-fried steaks with mustard sauce and Rostang’s almond butter cakes, you’ll find enough here to make you want to open your own bistro. Or brasserie. Or wine bar.

And the food itself? Bistro fare is characteristically simple (according to French standards, that is), in terms of preparation and ingredients. No elaborate dishes; no foie gras nor truffles. Historically, this was due to economic restrictions, as well as restrictions of space: Bistro kitchens were generally tiny; much of the bistro’s space was devoted to the cases of wine and barrels of beer that drew the original patrons.

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The traditional dishes reflect these original restrictions as well as the informal tastes: croque monsieur, beef bourguignon, onion soup and cassoulet were all standards and so remain.

Young’s recipes hit all the highlights, with clear and very specific instructions. From a salad of pan-fried goat cheese with hazelnut vinaigrette from Bofinger, the brasserie that opened in 1864 near the Bastille, to garlic soup with mussels from Le Bistrot des Capucins, chef Gerard Fouche’s spot near the Pere Lachaise cemetery, the methods are simple and direct, the food decidedly homey, yet elegant in its way -- and absolutely delicious.

From La Muse Vin in the 11th arrondissement, there’s Guillaume Dubois’ dish of pan-seared cod with potato and smoked sausage puree, which is peasant food elevated to glorious heights. The spicy chorizo infuses the mashed potato and plays off the silkiness of the seared cod, creating a heady, soul-satisfying meal. Dubois calls for skin-on cod -- which is difficult to find in this country (even true cod can be elusive) -- and you can see why. The fish can fall apart easily if skinless, so be sure to sear it in a very hot pan, which will hold the fish together as well as give it some good color. From Le Bistrot Paul Bert, also in the 11th arrondissement, come Thierry Laurent’s pan-seared rib steaks, served with a traditional bearnaise sauce and twice-fried pommes frites, which are simple but positively stunning. And the classic whole roast chicken, from Chez Michel, is paired with cauliflower and hazelnuts that, after an hour or two in the oven, create an incredible nutty flavor -- chef Thierry Breton’s paean to the nutty taste of the chickens from his native Brittany.

The desserts are also classic takes on favorite dishes -- cakes and beignets and creme caramel -- but also interesting riffs on less predictable fare. The dessert chapter, however, is the most hit-or-miss of the book. Warm chocolate blinis from Brasserie Wepler, for example, burned repeatedly. And the warm apple tart from Le Dauphin was a disappointment, dry and somewhat flavorless. But the pineapple brochettes with saffron caramel, from L’Avant-Gout in the 13th arrondissement, were incredibly simple -- and just divine. Skewers of fresh pineapple were transformed by just a pan of caramelizing sugar and a few threads of saffron. All you need is a demitasse of espresso for your soul to be exactly where it should be: right there on rue Bobillot.

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**

Pan-fried goat cheese salad with hazelnut vinaigrette

Total time: 30 minutes

Servings: 4

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Note: From “The Bistros, Brasseries and Wine Bars of Paris,” by Daniel Young. The easiest way to cut goat cheese is to chill the logs, then use dental floss to cut from top to bottom.

6 ounces goat cheese

1 egg, beaten

4 tablespoons peanut oil, divided

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1/2 cup bread crumbs

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

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1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar, plus 2 teaspoons for garnish

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon hazelnut oil

4 to 6 cups mixed salad greens

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1/4 cup chopped walnuts

1/4 cup fresh chives, cut into 1-inch pieces

1. Carefully slice the goat cheese into 12 small rounds about one-third-inch thick.

2. Combine the egg, 1 tablespoon peanut oil and 1 tablespoon cold water in a small bowl and mix with a whisk. Spread the bread crumbs over a plate and season with salt and pepper. Dunk the cheese rounds, one at a time, into the egg mixture, letting the excess drip back into the bowl, then roll in the bread crumbs to fully coat on both sides. Refrigerate for about 15 minutes.

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3. Heat the butter and the remaining 3 tablespoons peanut oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Carefully place the breaded cheese rounds in the pan and fry until light brown, about 2 to 3 minutes on each side. Drain on paper towels.

4. For the vinaigrette: Place 1 tablespoon vinegar in a bowl, season with salt and pepper, and slowly beat in the olive oil and hazelnut oil.

5. To serve, combine the salad greens, vinaigrette and chopped walnuts in a bowl. Place a small mound of salad greens in the center of 4 plates, surround each with 3 cheese rounds, drizzle the outside of the plate with balsamic vinegar, and garnish with the chives.

Each serving: 535 calories; 14 grams protein; 14 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 48 grams fat; 16 grams saturated fat; 95 mg. cholesterol; 293 mg. sodium.

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**

Garlic soup with mussels

Total time: 30 minutes

Servings: 4

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Note: From “The Bistros, Brasseries and Wine Bars of Paris,” by Daniel Young.

2 pounds mussels, scrubbed and bearded

1 cup dry white wine

3 tablespoons olive oil

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6 garlic cloves, minced

1 baguette, cut into 12 (half-inch) slices

1 egg yolk

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

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1 cup (4 ounces) grated Gruyere

1 to 2 teaspoons piment d’Espelette (you may substitute medium-hot chili powder)

1. Place the mussels, wine and 1 cup cold water in a large saucepan over moderately high heat. Cover and cook until the shells open, 4 to 6 minutes. Strain the mussels into a colander, collecting the juices in a bowl placed below.

2. Heat the olive oil in a saucepan over low heat, add the garlic, and cook, stirring constantly, until pale gold, 3 to 4 minutes (do not let brown).

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3. Add the mussel juice to the garlic, raise the heat to medium and bring to a boil. Cover, lower the heat to very low, and simmer for 10 minutes.

4. Meanwhile, remove the mussels from the shells. Lightly toast the bread.

5. Remove the soup from the heat. Combine the egg yolk, vinegar and a couple of tablespoons of the soup in a mixing bowl and beat vigorously with a whisk until the mixture gets foamy. Slowly pour the mixture back into the remaining soup, continuing to beat with a whisk.

6. To serve, place a few baguette slices, 3 to 4 tablespoons of grated cheese and some mussels on the bottom of 4 wide soup bowls, cover with soup, and dust with piment d’Espelette.

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Each serving: 493 calories; 24 grams protein; 35 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 24 grams fat; 8 grams saturated fat; 105 mg. cholesterol; 695 mg. sodium.

**

Pan-seared cod with potato and smoked sausage puree

Total time: 1 hour

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Servings: 6

Note: From “The Bistros, Brasseries and Wine Bars of Paris,” by Daniel Young. Young calls for skin-on cod fillets but The Times’ Test Kitchen used the more widely available skinless. Bristol Farms markets usually carry cod fillets.

2 pounds potatoes

7 tablespoons unsalted butter (about 3/4 stick), divided

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1 small red onion, finely chopped

3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 tablespoons shallots, finely chopped

1/2 cup dry white wine

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1/2 pound smoked sausage, thinly sliced

Sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

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2 teaspoons grated lemon zest

6 (6-ounce) cod fillets

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons chopped chives.

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1. Heat the oven to 300 degrees. Peel the potatoes, cut them into small cubes, place in a saucepan, cover with cold water, heat to a boil and cook until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain the potatoes, place in a baking dish or pan and set in the oven to dry out and stay warm, 10 to 15 minutes.

2. Heat 3 tablespoons of butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic and shallots and cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is translucent, 7 to 9 minutes.

3. Raise the heat, add the wine and cook, stirring occasionally, until the liquid has evaporated, about 5 minutes. Add the sausage and cook, stirring frequently, 5 minutes.

4. Combine with the potatoes in a large bowl, season generously with salt and pepper, and mash with a potato masher until the potatoes are fairly smooth. Cover and keep warm.

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5. Combine the lemon juice, zest and 2 teaspoons of water in a saucepan over moderately high heat and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and whisk in the remaining 4 tablespoons butter, 1 tablespoon at a time, until all the butter is incorporated and the sauce coats the back of a spoon. Remove from heat and cover.

6. Rinse and pat dry the cod fillets and season on both sides with salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over high heat, add the fillets, and cook until one side is crisp and browned, 3 to 4 minutes. Turn the fillets and cook until just cooked through, about 3 minutes. Remove the bones.

7. To serve, place a mound of the potatoes and sausage in the center of six plates, flatten each with a spatula, top with a cod fillet, browned side up, sprinkle with chives and drizzle with lemon butter sauce.

Each serving: 559 calories; 34 grams protein; 30 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 32 grams fat; 13 grams saturated fat; 122 mg. cholesterol; 445 mg. sodium.

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**

Pineapple brochettes with saffron caramel

Total time: 25 minutes

Servings: 4

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Notes: From “The Bistros, Brasseries and Wine Bars of Paris” by Daniel Young.

1 pineapple

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/2 teaspoon powdered saffron

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1. Peel and slice the pineapple into rounds three-fourths-inch thick. Cut the core out of each with a knife or small cookie cutter. Cut the pineapple slices into three-quarter-inch cubes. Thread the cubes onto 8 wood skewers.

2. Place the sugar in a saute pan large enough to hold the skewers flat in one layer over the low heat and heat until melted. Stir in the saffron with a wooden spoon and raise the heat to medium-high. Place the skewers in the melted sugar and cook, turning often, until the syrup turns a deep caramel color and the pineapple chunks are lightly caramelized on all sides, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat (be careful, they’re hot) and serve.

Each serving: 105 calories; 1 gram protein; 27 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 0 fat; 0 saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 1 mg. sodium


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