My thoughts have been drifting over to Paris quite a bit lately. I think it’s the travel bug that’s been itching in me all winter. This year also marks five years since I studied there. I spent a good part of this afternoon following Google street view around my old Paris haunts, amazed at how much is still the same (assuming Google’s photos are up to date).
The five months I spent in Paris were fabulous, and every once in a while I wish I could be transported back to that time. I learned so much there, a lot of it about food. If I were to go back in time, knowing what I know now, I would surely choose to eat a lot better. As a student, I was on a tight budget. I also knew much less about food than I do now. I cooked a lot of weird meals for myself and ate at a lot of weird places (usually only once).
But one place I know I would go back to is a little sandwich shop that was around the corner from my school. Pictured above, Le Ventilo is just a little lunch window on a quiet street. If you went inside, it like someone’s homey kitchen. There was a small seating area for maybe 3 people. You would sit behind whoever was making sandwiches that day and watch through the window as other people got their lunches. It was a lovely place, but there must have been many more remarkable sandwicheries across the city.
The menu at the time had cutely named sandwiches. I think there was one called “Le Austin Powers,” and of course, they sold the requisite Nutella panini. My favorite one, which I must have ordered a dozen times while I was there, was the “Ali Baba.” It wasn’t always available, but I remember treating myself to one whenever it was. It was 3.20 euros, I think. It was the simplest sandwich – a soft baguette pressed with moist ground beef and chopped cooked tomatoes. Simple, but somehow perfect. I would wait a few minutes for it to cool down and then nibble it for as long as I could while the meaty juices soaked into the meat and occasionally dripped down my fingers.
The first time I tried to recreate it at home, something was missing. A briny moistness to the meat. For some reason, I was able to replicate the flavor by including some brine from a jar of hearts of palms while sauteing the meat and tomatoes. I have no idea if this is even close to what they did at Le Ventilo, but it sure is delicious. If you’ve got some hearts of palm along with the brine, chop some up and include them as well.
Recipe: “Ali Baba” Ground Beef Sandwich
Makes 2 to 4 sandwiches depending on the bread
- 1/2 lb ground beef
- 1 tomato, roughly chopped, about 1/2 cup
- 1/4 cup liquid from hearts of palm
- 1/4 cup hearts of palm, chopped (optional)
- salt and pepper
- either 2 approximately foot-long baguettes, or 4 sandwich rolls/smallish pitas
- Season ground meat with salt and pepper. Saute with tomato and hearts of palm liquid. Break up the meat into small crumbles. Cook on high, stirring occasionally, for about 8 minutes until meat is done, tomatoes have disintegrated and some of the liquid cooked out. The meat will be gray because it wasn’t browned first – that’s okay. Add chopped hearts of palm if you are including them.
- Spoon the mixture, juices and all, into the bread of your choice, in a thin layer.
- If you would like to press and toast the sandwich panini-style, feel free to do so.
Enjoy as a nice midday snack or lunch with a small Nutella sandwich for dessert for a particularly decadent American-in-Paris treat.
About this author: I'm a New Yorker who would rather cook than go out to restaurants. Sometimes I think I may be in the wrong city for that. Then I remember the exotic ingredients I'd be hard-pressed to find if I lived somewhere else. My cooking style is an eclectic range of everyday-American, Italian, middle-eastern, with extensive forays into Japanese cuisine, and some pit-stops into Indian and African cuisines. I love to try my hand at recreating dishes I taste. While I enjoy most anything with a flavor, from high cuisine to instant junk food, I have a soft spot in my belly for home-style cooking no matter the geographic or ethnic origin. Read more from this author...