We just got back from three weeks in Europe.

A few days in Stockholm:

A few days in Amsterdam:

A quick trip through the Burgundy wine country:

Then two weeks in a Paris apartment 15 minutes from the Eiffel Tower:

I love spending time in other countries. I particularly love cooking in them. I always come home with a pocketful of inspirations and lessons learned.

Here are my takeaways from this year’s trip:

1. Don’t buy cheap butter. I’m a sucker for a supermarket’s brand of unsalted butter. It’s cheap! But after sinking my teeth into and cooking with more expensive European brands, I’m changing my ways. The flavor of high-quality butter is deeper. The texture is smoother. You end up using less than you would of an inferior brand.

This is the butter to use when finishing a pan sauce, gilding a risotto or dressing up a baguette. It’s the butter I used to crisp up the green beans and French radishes we ate one evening:

I’m partial to Beurre President, which I can get at my stateside grocer.

2. Ditto cheap cheese. Whether it’s gouda, brie, manchego or cheddar, the flavor and texture of small-batch cheeses are far superior to their industrially produced cousins. I’d rather invest in smaller amounts of really good cheese than huge bricks of marginal ones.

3. Reconsider “garbage.” Our Paris apartment had no garbage disposal, and our Airbnb host asked us to limit the amount of refuse we deposited in the building’s garbage bin. That meant looking for ways to reuse things I’d normally toss on the compost pile.

A case in point: One night we ate pasta with shrimp and leeks:

I had shrimp heads and leek tops scattered across my cutting board. While my first inclination was to throw them in the garbage bag, I put them in a saucepan instead. Added some smashed garlic cloves, some peppercorns and salt, and a little wine and water. I brought the whole thing to a boil, then simmered it for 30 minutes or so. After straining out the solids (and putting them in the garbage bag), I refrigerated the quick stock I’d made and used it to poach salmon the following night.

Voila! A new use for something I normally throw away.

4. Redefine sandwiches. A picnic at the Eiffel Tower required food for five, and all I had in the fridge were a couple of pieces of salami and some chunks of brie. No way would that fill five hungry tummies.

But …

The previous night’s salad, dressed and layered on a split baguette with that salami and cheese, made a lovely pan bagnat:

We noshed on a sandwich studded with fennel, green beans, radishes and cherry tomatoes, spread with kicky Dijon mustard and dabbed with those few pieces of meat and cheese. It was lovely.

5. Make meat secondary. Every day, we visited an outdoor market. Every day, we marveled at the abundance of fruits and vegetables:

With all that bounty, meat became a bit player in our nightly meals. Great big salads, pan-roasted alliums and hand-chopped sauces took center stage:

In fact, meat sometimes didn’t make an appearance at all. Our first night in France, we picked up leeks, fennel, potatoes and tomatoes at the local market. Thinly sliced, sauteed in layers, then braised in a bit of red wine, the dish was hearty, filling and healthful — a pretty good description of how we ate our entire trip.

Layered Vegetable Saute

Add chicken or fish to this dish, or enjoy it as a vegetarian main.

  • 1 large leek, white and pale green part only, halved and thinly sliced
  • 1 large fennel bulb, halved and thinly sliced
  • Olive oil
  • 2 cups new potatoes, thinly sliced
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
  • 2 cups cherry tomatoes
  • Juice from 1 lemon
  • 1/2-3/4 cup red or white wine
  • 2 tablespoons butter (use the good stuff!)
  • Fleur de sel

Wash the leek slices thoroughly to remove any grit, then dry them well.

Glaze a large saute pan with olive oil. Add the leeks and fennel. Season with salt and pepper, then saute until the vegetables begin to soften:

Add the potatoes. Stir well to coat and season with a bit more salt and pepper:

Cover your pan and cook for 5 minutes to slightly soften the tubers.

Uncover your pan. Add the garlic and saute for a minute or so.

Add the tomatoes:

Stir in the lemon juice and red wine. Cover your pan and cook for 30 minutes.

Uncover the pan and lightly crush the tomatoes. Check to make sure the potatoes are tender, then stir in the butter until it melts.

Taste the dish for balance, adding more lemon juice or salt and pepper if needed.

Plate the vegetables and sprinkle with fleur de sel.