Fridge Raiding at Muriel's: Pasta with Lemon-Mascarpone Sauce

First things first.

Today, I saw a dog wearing a helmet. 
dog wearing helmet
Yes, it also had little doggie pilot goggles.
Don’t worry, it wasn't an epileptic helmet. This was actually a case of a canine motorcyclist.  

But back to yesterday's travels...

Arriving at Muriel’s (our first couchsurfing host), we first encountered her 13-year-old son and his friend. The friend, in perfect English, asked me if I spoke English? (yes) French? (no…) Spanish? (yes) Italian? (no…) He sighed, then walked away.

Had I just been curtly rejected by a 13-year-old?

Then the wonderful Muriel showed up and graciously pretended to ignore the fact that John and I smelled like trash. I made a mental note to remember to kiss both cheeks on greetings and farewells so as to avoid making my foreign interactions even more awkward. I then promptly forgot the mental note. We chatted, and then John & I banished ourselves to showers. Later, we somehow didn’t have to work hard to convince Muriel to let us raid her fridge and cook dinner for her and her sons. Working off whatever we could find, I’d say we pulled together a pretty tasty meal. Ahhh, the beauty of a lightly but efficiently stocked French kitchen!

Go ahead, imagine it: baby artichokes with a lemon-butter dipping sauce, a fresh salad with tomatoes, fresh chevre, and cucumber, julienned carrots with a disturbingly wonderful anchovy-garlic dipping sauce (made by Muriel), crusty dark country bread, and pappardelle with a mascarpone-zucchini-lemon sauce.
pasta with cream sauce recipe
Pasta with Lemon-Mascarpone Sauce
If you have mascarpone (or cream cheese), some pasta, lemon, and veggies, you can basically throw this together with whatever’s on hand. The lemon flavor is pretty clutch, and I would say that garlic and onion are essential, but I say that about most things...
pasta with mascarpone
1 lb pasta (a wider type like tagliatelle or pappardelle is best to hold the creamy mascarpone)
10-12oz mascarpone
3-4 medium zucchinis, sliced very thin with mandolin or by hand (really any vegetable will do. I would’ve liked to add a julienned red bell pepper or artichoke hearts as well)
10 oz sliced prosciutto di parma (or something similar—cooked pancetta or bacon, for example), coarsely chopped
1 large onion, julienned (we used yellow, but red would’ve been nice, too)
3-4 hefty cloves garlic, minced
3 tbs capers (optional)
1 tbs lemon zest
1 sprig rosemary, chopped
2 tsp oregano
1 tsp sage or savory
1 tsp red cayenne pepper or harissa
1/4 tsp nutmeg (a must-have for creamy sauce)
Salt & pepper to taste
EVOO, fresh lemon juice, and parmigiano-reggiano to taste

Saute onion over medium heat until soft & translucent, 10 mins. Add garlic and spices, 2 minutes. Add zucchini* and lemon zest.

Start well-salted water to boil for the pasta, and continue to sauté the veggies over medium-low heat until translucent.

Cook pasta until al-dente. Drain, reserving some of the water (we had leftover water from boiling the artichokes, so we used this instead for added flavor). Transfer pasta to serving bowl.

Immediately throw in mascarpone, capers (if using), and sautéed veggies, stirring to melt the mascarpone to a creamy consistency. Add reserved pasta water as-needed if it seems a bit dry and sticky, or throw in some milk or cream.

Most importantly, finish the dish, meaning add a few drizzles of EVOO, squeeze some lemon over the top (some zest wouldn’t hurt, either), and freshly grate some parmigiano-reggiano. Finishing, of course, is what brings all the flavors together and makes the dish pop. Then, set the dish on the table and actually finish it.

*I typically add my main veggies (not onion or garlic) in stages because I like varying levels of softness, i.e. some of the zucchini I didn’t add until I threw the pasta in the water.

I happily found that Muriel’s anchovy-garlic sauce was an amazingly good addition to the pasta. I tend to love briny flavors added to nearly any pasta sauce, so if you’re interested in making this, here’s a rough guide:

couchsurf marseille
La Muriel Fantastique
Anchovy-Garlic Sauce
This is a traditional dipping sauce found all over Europe. Ours was served with sliced carrots. Nonetheless, I ended up adding it to literally everything we ate that night (except for the, um, chocolate & biscoff cookies), and especially liked it with the pasta sauce.

Heat a small pan and then add a good dollop of EVOO. Very finely mince 2 medium cloves of garlic (here’s where a garlic press is very handy), and add once EVOO is heated. Sautee 1 min, then add about 3 salt-packed anchovies that have been rinsed of the brine and de-spined (they will break up naturally with heat). Add a couple more liberal dollops of EVOO. There should be enough oil that you can dip bread in it, but so that it’s thick enough for you to get the chunks of anchovy. Cook over low heat until all the flavors are emulsified and anchovies break up easily after prodding and stirring a bit. Voila!

As John and I had been becoming increasingly zombie-like since our arrival, we had some light conversation after dinner, descended to our room, and quickly passed out. Would you believe we had been tired if I told you we slept 12 hours? Well, I’m not going to tell you that because it would be embarrassing, but I’m not going to tell you otherwise, either...

This morning, after a wonderfully strong stove-top-brewed coffee, John and I packed up and Muriel kindly took us to the bus station where we caught a bus to another bus that took us toward our next couchsurfing host in Vienne. By the way, the Vienne hosts are AWESOME…but more on that in the next post…
couchsurf marseille
A couchsurfer's dream...

Hitchhiking in France...Our First Foray

And so it begins! John and I had the pleasure of three hours of sleep last night before waking up at three in the morning to catch a taxi to London Luton Airport. About three (lucky number three, I suppose) hours later, we stumbled onto the plane, which, judging by the sound of things, contained only children. Being the only two people present over 10-years-old, John & I whispered wistful farewells to any notions of a restful flight.

And boy, did we need that rest.
autostop france

We arrived safely in Montpellier, quickly passing through customs, and then readied ourselves for my first true foray into hitchhiking! But not after first grabbing a café au lait, where I found that when I don’t know how to respond to something in French, my technique, apparently, is to tilt my head and lightly smile at the person, as speechless as (and visually comparable to) a dog.

france airportWe managed to quickly exit the airport with a Moroccan woman who brought us to Nimes by about 9:45am, about 104km away from our final destination of Vitrolles, a town just outside of Marseille. I believe that the only word we managed to mutually understand was “Big Ben,” which was fine, because who doesn't like Big Ben? Once we were dropped off along the highway, we stood on the road, and found ourselves unable to resist an obligatory high-five. John and I felt assured that hitching that day would be a breeze.

The people of Nimes, however, had other plans for the two cheeky Americans. 

Even though we had a great sign made on the back of a shoe box found road-side, we evinced nary a second-thought from the passing traffic. Once high noon rolled around (southern France is hot), I began scouting for napping spots (surely you aren’t surprised that I don’t mind napping on the side of a road?), and managed to find a delightful spot hidden behind some shrubbery. Lulled to sleep by the sound of passing trucks and cars, we later woke around 2pm. I wish I could say that we awoke more energized, hopeful….but we didn’t. I didn’t, at least. Where was this national enthusiasm toward hitchers I had heard about? It had been over four hours!!

And finally we gained the pity of another Moroccan. He and I were able to speak Spanish as we drove closer to Aix en Provence. Dropped off after about 15 minutes, we stood by the highway (a bustling one at that), and then hit the jackpot: Xavier! This French engineering student (who even spoke English!) took us the next 45 minutes all the way to our destination in Vitrolles! That angel in the bright blue tiny car even went about 20 minutes out of his way to get us settled, and it made the whole day worthwhile.

autostop france

Tonight, we couchsurf with Muriel, who [thank god] speaks Spanish. Today was hard. I can be a baby because it’s the first day, and I really really just want to be able to communicate before the next days of confusing hitchhiking ensue, and my French is embarrassingly horrible.

There’s something wildly exhilarating about benefitting from the pure generosity of strangers. It’s not the adrenaline of a skydive, to be sure; it’s something…happier. This is going to be a good trip.



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