The French have the best word for thick, velvety soups: velouté. Even the word is velvety. And we have been enjoying a velouté of white beans since the Carnivore picked up the recipe at a truffle market, where he got this beauty. They call truffles black diamonds for a reason.
It was velouté de haricots lingot et truffe–a thick, velvety white bean soup with truffles. OMG. Lingots are ingots, like the bars of gold, but in this case they refer to the special white beans grown just west of Carcassonne and used for cassoulet.
Here’s the recipe, handed out at the market. We didn’t follow it precisely because the box of lingots was 500g and we weren’t going to keep 100g sitting around lonely like that. Also, it calls for a 30g truffle, and ours had been whittled down to 13g. I tell you what, it was still fantastic.
We made it again, with rehydrated dried shiitake mushrooms–yummy. A good alternative when truffles aren’t available.
Like so many French recipes, you have to make it over two days. The night before, soak 400 g (14 oz.) of beans (or more!). Separately, chop up your truffle and infuse it in 10 cl (about 3.5 fluid oz.) of heavy cream. (You might want to keep a few shavings on the side for garnish.) If you don’t have a truffle, use about a half a cup of shiitake mushrooms that you soaked and put through the blender or food processor to get the effect of shavings.
Next day, cook the beans. Start with cold water and cook them for two hours.
Peel and mince half an onion and one carrot (I set out two carrots for the Carnivore to use and he fell for it. And the soup was divine despite double the vegetables.)
When the beans are done, drain them and rinse with fresh water.
In a casserole, heat a tablespoon of olive oil and cook the carrots and onion to soften them but not brown them. Then add the beans and half a liter (17 fluid oz. or just over a cup) of chicken stock. Bring to a boil and then drop the heat to low. Cook for 30 minutes.
Remove from the heat and add the truffle cream. Salt and pepper to taste. Use a soup mixer to turn it into a creamy, velvety, homogenous texture. If you use a blender, let the soup cool before blending–for safety–and then reheat.
Serve with a few shavings of truffle, if you have any left.
We have a mushroom hater in the house who devoured this because the mushrooms were reduced to tiny bits (we didn’t mention them, either). If you aren’t a fan of mushrooms, I guess you can go without, but since they’re so tiny here, you don’t notice them–you just get the depth of flavor that they add.
The French are particularly proud of their own cuisine–rightfully so–and the “foreign” section of supermarkets is slim and perplexing (you can find marshmallow fluff but no chocolate chips, not even from Nestlé, which is right next door in Switzerland; there are canned beans in some unnaturally colored sauce but good luck finding black beans, canned or dry). All the same, the top take-out food is pizza, a favorite for feeding a crowd is paella and everybody loves couscous.
As pizza comes from France’s neighbor to the east and paella from its neighbor to the south, couscous comes from its neighbors across the Mediterranean–North Africa–which also has a large representation among the immigrant community in France, the former colonial power. Lots of restaurants serve couscous and tajines, either traditional or given modern twists.
At home, the thing about couscous is that you can’t go wrong. Cook some vegetables into a soup, grill some meat, steam some couscous semolina–the grainy pasta that gives the dish its name. What you put in depends on what you have, but the usual suspects are popular: onions, garlic, carrots, turnips, tomatoes (canned stewed whole, in winter), potatoes, peppers red and/or green. Chickpeas always. Other options: zucchini, eggplant, celery, fava beans, cabbage, squash or pumpkin, beets, artichoke hearts, raisins….I’ve even snuck in broccoli stems (nutritious but not beautiful! trim the woody parts and dice small enough that the pieces can get soft). An opportunity to empty the fridge. You also can add fresh or dried herbs such as parsley, coriander, thyme….
For spices, you also get to pick and choose, though the dominant flavoring is ras el hanout, or “top of the shop”–a mix of the best spices the seller has on offer, and thus varying from vendor to vendor. Typical ingredients include cumin, ground coriander seeds, tumeric, ground ginger, cinnamon, cardamon, fenugreek, fennel, allspice, nutmeg, cloves, mace, and different kinds of pepper and chilies. If you don’t find it in a shop, you can make your own–and change it up so your couscous always delivers a bit of a surprise. I have no shortage of North African shops to turn to here and buy my ras el hanout in small quantities so I can always try different ones.
You’re supposed to cook the vegetables with a piece of mutton, often the neck, but I don’t appreciate the flavor of lamb and want to avoid meat altogether. After all, the chickpeas plus the couscous make a complete protein. A great meatless meal.
That doesn’t fly with the Carnivore, who wants lamb chops AND spicy merguez. You also can make couscous with chicken if you prefer. Couscous royale includes multiple cuts of lamb, merguez (which also is lamb but I guess doesn’t count because it’s always listed separately) and chicken. You can season the lamb and chicken with cumin and coriander powder or with herbes de Provence (thyme, rosemary, oregano, basil, marjoram).
Whenever I make soup, I like to brown the onions in some olive oil first, which adds a depth of flavor that you miss if you throw everything directly into a pot of water (if you are including a piece of meat in the soup, then brown it first, too). Then I add minced garlic and the hard vegetables like carrots and potato, which I’ve cut into chunks. You want the pieces to be small enough to cook through but not so small that they’ll fall apart into mush. I keep adding the vegetables, then the canned whole tomatoes, which I break up with a wooden spoon. I add a two or three can-fuls of water to rinse out the last juices and to bring up the liquid level. I also add a small can of tomato paste, which has a richer flavor, and rinse that can, too. You don’t need to completely cover the vegetables–you’ll see how the liquid rises as the vegetables cook. Don’t forget the chickpeas. Add the ras el hanout and any other spices you fancy–a few strands of saffron, or extra cumin or tumeric? Or maybe some grated fresh ginger or diced fresh green chilies? Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat to low and cover and let it simmer for a couple of hours. It’s one of those dishes that’s better the next day. If you’re making it for the same day, count on at least 1.5 hours for it to cook.
If you are cooking with dried chickpeas, you have to plan ahead to soak them the night before in cold, salted water.
Now, the traditional way to make couscous is with a couscoussier, a special kind of steamer in which the bottom holds the soup, and it’s the steam from the soup that cooks the couscous semoule–the tiny pasta that looks like grain or rice–in the top part.
On my trips to Morocco, I got to visit local homes and see couscous being made the traditional way. In the movie “Julie & Julia,” Julie tries to handle hot canneloni without using utensils in order to get used to it. Well, in Morocco, the women would take steaming couscous and, with red, calloused bare hands, spread it out on the table to massage in olive oil, then repeat maybe half an hour later with butter, and again later with olive oil, etc. D.I.V.I.N.E.
I tried to replicate–NOT with my bare hands–the steps of adding oil and butter to the couscous, but it never came out the same as in Morocco. It was lumpy, not fluffy. Finally, I gave up and followed the directions on the package: measure your dry couscous (it comes in kilogram packages here, which is 2.2 pounds, or almost seven cups…make it all–it reheats well, and you’ll have leftover soup, guaranteed). Bring the same volume of water to a boil. While the water heats up, in a large bowl mix the dry couscous with two tablespoons of olive oil per cup of couscous. Pour the boiling water over this oiled couscous. Cover and let it sit for three minutes. Fluff. Add a half teaspoon of butter per cup of couscous and microwave for two minutes. Fluff again to distribute the butter. Voilà.Before making the couscous semoule, cook the meat–you can grill it, weather permitting, or cook it in the oven, on the stovetop (we use a plancha when it’s raining) or broil it. A rotisserie chicken is another option….
Couscous Maison shopping checklist
1 large onion
2-3 garlic cloves (more always welcome–up to you)
2-3 carrots, cut into inch-long chunks
1-2 turnips, cut into half-inch chunks
1 large can (480 g/ about 3 cups) whole, peeled stewed tomatoes
1 small can (140 g, about half a cup) tomato paste
Other vegetables as you like, cut into chunks–I aim for a few others, like one or two small zucchini and maybe a small slice of squash (it’s sold by the slice at markets here). More vegetable variety = more vitamins, but also more volume; consider how much you want to make, though leftovers freeze nicely.
Herbs–fresh parsley or coriander
Couscous semolina, 500 grams (about 3.25 cups) for four people
Harissa is the wild card here. It’s easy to find here, but you might have to hunt for it in other countries. It’s a Tunisian hot pepper paste and not 100% necessary if you don’t like spicy food. You put a little into the soup ladle and drop the ladle into the soup to get some broth, then mix the paste into the broth with your spoon before pouring it over your personal serving, because some like it hot but others not. Beware of squirting harissa directly onto your food!
Have you had couscous? What are your favorite ingredients?
Liberté. Egalité. Fraternité. The motto of France. And another kind of fraternity–une confrérie–is more like a brotherhood, and in typical French logic, is a feminine noun. They started out being quasi-religious and charitable, but now are mostly based on promoting certain traditions, especially those having to do with gastronomy.
The confréries are a way for French foodies to indulge their gastronomic obsession along with their love of pomp and ceremony, tradition and regulation, seriousness and silliness. You name something to eat or drink and there’s a club devoted to it. They dress up in costumes and attend each other’s festivals.
The ones that really slay me are when they wear a cup around their necks. Be prepared!
There’s the Confrérie Gastronomique des Compagnons du Boudin Noir (the Gastronomic Brotherhood of the Friends of the Black Blood Sausage) and the Confrérie Gastronomique des Compagnons du Haricot de Soissons (the Gastronomic Brotherhood of the Friends of the Soissons Beans). There’s the Confrérie Gastronomique de l’Ordre de l’Echalote de Busnes (the Gastronomic Brotherhood of the Order of the Busnes Shallot) and the Chevaliers de la Poularde (Knights of the Hen). The Carnivore was in fact a member of la Confrérie du Taste-Cerise. Two groups are dedicated to cassoulet: the Academie Universelle du Cassoulet and the Grande Confrérie du Cassoulet. I wrote about the Academiehere. And la Confrérie Los Trufaïres de Vilanova de Menerbès (that’s Occitan–the ancient language of this region–for the truffle brotherhood of Villeneuve Minvervois) here.
Belonging to a gastronomic brotherhood involves dressing up in medieval costumes and getting together to eat your chosen dish regularly, as well as helping to promote it and preserve its purity and traditions in France and around the world. It’s the Chamber of Commerce, with a big dose of bons vivants. You can see a parade of various groups at the Toques et Clochers festival I wrote about here; toques are the hats worn by chefs, while clochers are church bells. The festival raises money via food and drink to restore a church belfry each year.
Anyway, French frats came to mind on Saturday, when, while buying locally grown cauliflower at the market, I was distracted by the dulcet tones of horns. How appropriate! Of course, I had to investigate. I didn’t figure the gilets jaunes had brought in a band.
By then, a men’s choir, le Choeur des Hommes des Corbières–a neighboring wine territory–had started singing. I can’t upload videos here, but you can see one on my Instagram. An elderly gentleman, wearing a long apron and a hat, poured little cups of wine for the crowd from a wooden cask hanging around his neck. It was 10 a.m.
It was the feast of Saint Vincent, patron saint of winegrowers. So the national gastronomic club of Prosper Montagné (hometown boy, born in Carcassonne, inventor of the food truck, writer of the original Larousse Gastronomique, which is the bible of French cuisine) organizes a march past Montagné’s childhood home to the Church of St. Vincent (of COURSE a church in the center of Carcassonne is dedicated to St. Vincent!) for a blessing of the wine. Then they paraded through the central Place Carnot and on around the corner to a former church (they were about one per block back in the Middle Ages and now only a couple of bigger ones are still used) that now is a temple to bullfighting, headquarters of the Cercle Taurin. You can see the local TV coverage here.It was all wrapped up with a gastronomic dinner. Of course.
One of the biggest differences between life in the U.S. and life in Europe is buying groceries. Don’t get me wrong–there are plenty of people who head to the hypermarché once a week and load up their shopping carts with everything from apples to zucchini, with socks and motor oil and kitchen appliances as well.
In fact, the hypermarket was not invented by Walmart (first Supercenter in 1988) or Target (SuperTarget introduced in 1995). It was born in France, when Carrefour opened a combined supermarket-department store combo near Paris in 1963. Like many firsts in history, this one is disputed–GB, a Belgian chain, had opened three hypermarkets in 1961, calling them SuperBazar, which is kind of funny, because un bazar not only is a market but it’s slang for a mess or disorder (GB stood for Grand Bazar). However, Carrefour is the one with the last laugh, because it bought GB in 2000.
We also have food-only supermarkets that don’t take a week to walk across, and épiceries, or small grocery stores. And there are a whole range of specialized stores, such as the Thiriet and Picard chains for frozen foods.
Many French still make separate trips to the fromagerie for cheese, the boucherie for meat, the poissonnerie for fish, the boulangerie for bread, the primeur for fresh produce.
Most towns and even larger villages have markets, along a street or in a square, usually two or three times a week. In tiny villages without an épicerie, itinerant vendors similar to food trucks arrive, one selling produce, another selling fish or cheese….it’s the moment for the little old ladies to get out and gossip. The mairie, or town hall, will make an announcement over loudspeakers set up through the village–the modern town crier–so nobody misses the vendors.
Farmers also set up stands at roundabouts, and not just in summer. Maybe it’s because the winters are mild–we are in the midst of a cold spell with highs in the low 40s and lows flirting with freezing. New England it isn’t. On offer: fresh eggs, fruits, vegetables, mussels and oysters, mushrooms, oranges from Spain sold by a poor Spanish fellow who lives in the truck until the load is sold and he can drive back….
The common thread is freshness. Everything is fresh, fresh, fresh.
Alas, one must go to the hypermarché from time to time for such necessities as laundry soap and toilet paper. Some surprises: The milk is UHT (ultra-high temperature, a treatment that allows it to be stored at room temperature until opened), so it isn’t in the refrigerated aisle and the biggest size is a liter, though you can buy packs of liters. Eggs aren’t washed so they aren’t refrigerated. There’s an entire aisle of emmental (like Swiss cheese, the French go-to cheese that’s on everything from crêpes to pizzas to croque-monsieurs). There are about three kinds of boxed cake mixes and no ready-made frosting. There are about a million kinds of yogurt. And butter. And cream. The industrial cookie aisle is called biscuits industriels–industrial cookies. It makes you think twice about taking anything off those shelves. Never fear–there’s usually a table with fresh-baked goods near the checkout.
Bring your own bags. And a €1 coin or token to unlock a shopping cart. It’s DIY–nobody will bag your stuff much less carry it to your car, and usually you have to weigh your produce yourself on a scale in the aisle that spits out a sticky ticket. Woe unto you if you have stood in line (because there are 36 checkouts but only three open) and haven’t weighed your carrots. You will spend more time standing in line to pay than you spent filling your cart because the people in front of you will inevitably huff and mutter about how slow the people in front of them are, and then they will play with their phones, and then, like the people before them, they will take their sweet time to carefully arrange their purchases in the carts after they’ve been passed through the scanner, and then, while the cashier is tapping her pen and everybody still in line tapping their feet in impatience, they will rummage through their purse to find their checkbook, because OMG what a surprise, they have to pay. Nobody ever fills out the check while standing in line. Nobody. And then they will empty their purse onto the conveyor belt in order to find their driver’s license for ID for the check. More people are paying with cards, but the French still love writing checks. More than once I have been in a checkout line that stretched all the way to the back of the store. Will the manager open more checkout lanes? Never. Unthinkable.
This is why the Carnivore goes to the hypermarket and I go to the outdoor market in the central square on Saturdays. Which would you choose?
Of all the mushrooms, nay, of all the ingredients, that impart a deep, complex flavor to foods, truffles reign. They magically multiply flavor, while adding a mysterious earthiness that’s almost addictive. And the perfume! It’s like a walk in the forest after the rain, but with a seductive muskiness as well.
Maybe because they’re rare, expensive and have a short season, truffles don’t often appear on lists of umami ingredients. (Umami is the Japanese term for the fifth taste, after sweet, salty, sour and bitter, which some people scoff doesn’t exist, but obviously I don’t agree with them.) This list does mention truffles, far below dried shiitake mushrooms, so consider them a substitute if you want to make these recipes and can’t get your hands on a truffle. Having grown up with rubbery canned, I hated all mushrooms for years, but I eventually learned to love fresh mushrooms and correctly cooked ones. And, minced and mixed and nearly invisible, they can add a sophisticated je ne sais quoi to recipes.
A little, golf-ball-size truffle goes a long way. We got one just before Christmas and used it on oeufs brouillés, risotto and, for the Carnivore, magret de canard–duck breast–in brandy sauce with truffles and mushrooms. It adorned our meals for over a week. Not bad for a €30 splurge (the price this year was €1,000 a kilogram, down from €1,200 three years ago!)
Just as the movie stars on the red carpet wear dresses that don’t hide the borrowed diamonds that are dripping from their necks, so, too, dishes that work best with truffles are ones that let the black diamonds, as they’re called, shine. Mild things–eggs, rice, potatoes, polenta…Usually the truffle market includes a huge iron pan–really huge, like three feet across–of brouillade, or oeufs brouillés, kind of like scrambled eggs. Very easy. For extra truffle flavor, put the eggs (in shell) and the truffle in a tightly sealed container–the eggs will absorb the perfume of the truffle.
An omelette, which is fine for one, maybe two, but not great in the face of a crowd. With a brouillade you can cook all the eggs at once. Drop them into a bowl or directly into a cold skillet with butter. Do not beat them! How many? Well, how many does each person want to eat? Two? Three? Dump them all in at once.Set the heat to low, very low, and break up the eggs gently with a spatula. Keep stirring IN ONE DIRECTION. If there is one thing to remember about French cooking, it’s that you must always stir in one direction–for cakes, for chocolate mousse, for whatever. A little salt and pepper. Keep stirring over low heat. It takes forever, like risotto. The traditional way to make brouillade is over a bain marie, or double boiler, which takes even longer, so don’t complain.If you have a truffle, then, before you get started, melt some butter. I made this several times, and (unintentionally) browning the butter was even better. Turn off the heat. Drop in some slivers of truffle and let it infuse while you cook the eggs. Don’t cook the truffle.When the eggs start to “take” or come together, they’re done. They aren’t drippy/snotty (such eggs are called baveux in French–drooling), nor are they fluffy or dry. Similar to risotto, they are creamy, yet there’s no cream.Then stir in the truffle-infused butter.Serve immediately with more truffle on top.Fresh local truffles are one of the more convincing reasons to travel here in winter. Yes, there are summer truffles, but the tuber melanosporum is far more pungent. Are you team truffle?
Eating fresh greens can be a challenge in winter, especially if you favor locally grown produce. Around here, even lettuce survives because we rarely get frost and almost never a hard freeze. But if you are in harsher climes and want to add some fresh crunch plus vitamins to your salads, consider growing sprouts.
Back in the hippy dippy days of the ’70s, my mom experimented with growing sprouts. The contraption was environmentally awful plastic and the process was way too complicated. I think it was for soybean sprouts, which were extremely exotic at the time. I think we did it once, maybe twice. Then it joined the yogurt maker and other good intentions in the basement.My all-natural sister-in-law presented me a sprout kit over a year ago, and it has gotten a good workout, especially in winter. It’s from Nature et Découvertes, and has a pleasing design–an elegant glass container with a metal mesh insert. That’s all. All it takes is a single teaspoon of alfalfa seeds (called luzerne in French). You can use other seeds as well–red cabbage, radish, cilantro…high in vitamins!You soak the seeds for half an hour in a cup of cold water.Then spread them over the mesh so they’re in a single layer.Fill the glass bowl with water up to the mesh.
Wait. You have to change the water every day until you’ve eaten all your sprouts.It takes only a couple of days to have a crop. We pull out what we need to add to salads or garnish a plate, and the rest keeps growing. We eat the whole thing, but some people cut off the roots.The process didn’t work so well in summer–it gets too hot and the water goes bad too quickly. But in summer there are so many other fresh things to eat.
I love having a microgarden of microgreens growing on my countertop. They make me smile. However, where did this word “microgreens” come from? What was wrong with “sprouts”?
I like knowing that no chemicals are used. Plus they’re about as fresh as you can get.
Have you grown sprouts? How do you keep your cooking fresh in winter? Do you have any tales of trends from decades ago that are back?
Last weekend, we had a bunch of friends over for a little party. Too many people to put around a table, but it’s fun to get everybody together and not just in summer, when there’s plenty of space outside.
We kept it smaller than the Fête de la Lumièrelast year, inviting about 20 people. The menu was similar but hey, we can’t rest on our laurels! Make new friends but keep the old…and that goes for recipes, too.As usual, I made a spreadsheet. This is so helpful for making a shopping list. I duplicated last year’s, and just deleted or added dishes as needed. So the big work is the first time, and then you just have to tweak.
This time, the big course was vegetarian chili. I used Jamie Oliver’s recipe and it was a hit. I did not, however, roast the sweet potatoes. Are you kidding? Everybody knows chili is better on Day 2, so I made it the day before. I feared the sweet potatoes would be cooked to mush even if they went in raw. I doubled the recipe, and while we had leftovers, there wasn’t all that much extra–lunch for me and the kid for just two days after. The French famously dislike spicy food, and this wasn’t spicy at all; we had a bottle of Tabasco on the side for those who were adventurous.We served the chili with cornbread (3/4 cup butter; 2 eggs, 1.5 cups buttermilk mixed/ 1 cup cornmeal, 3/4 cup white flour, 1/4 tsp baking powder; 1/2 tsp baking soda, 1/2 tsp salt; one can (a little more than a cup) of corn. Mix the dry, mix the wet, mix the two together. Bake at 400F/200C for about 25 minutes–check halfway in and turn if one side is browning faster than the other). Big hit.
As usual, there were deviled eggs, Thai chicken wings and drumsticks (baked in the oven at 400F/200C the day before, then reheated in batches) with peanut sauce, crudités with ranch dressing, and homemade hummus (1 big can of chickpeas, about 400 g, rinsed; one clove of garlic, some (maybe 1/4 cup?) olive oil, tahini (about 1/4 cup) and lemon juice to thin it out). The difference between homemade hummus and store-bought is night and day, and homemade is so easy.To go with the hummus, the kid made (at the last minute!) some rosemary cheese sablés. Kind of this recipe, but without the olives, which the kid hates, and instead with fresh rosemary from the garden. Doubled the recipe and they disappeared. They mostly were eaten plain, but they were available for the hummus, as were baguettes from the bakery.
I wanted to recreate the meatballs I made last year, which were a big hit, but I realized the recipe I had saved I didn’t use last time; I think I made something vaguely Italian. This time I had hoisin sauce, but I made up the recipe on the fly: ground pork, LOTS of fresh minced onion, a couple of eggs, some breadcrumbs to stick. The onion is essential for moist, tasty meatballs that don’t get hard. I baked the meatballs in the oven and didn’t even need to turn them. Bake them on a cookie sheet at 400F/200C only until they’re just cooked, then put them into a glass dish for reheating; they’ll brown up more. A hot oven is good for cooking them fast without drying them out.
Half the table was given over to charcuterie, per the Carnivore. The cheese assortment was barely touched in light of the rest of the bounty.Rather than cheese, people skipped straight to dessert: chocolate crinkle cookies, a nut sheet cake (cut into squares) and, of course, Christmas cookies. Our friend brought his grandma’s famous chocolate mousse. Quelle délice! And, when everybody could eat no more but didn’t want to leave, the clementines were passed around.
We do like to use real plates and silverware. It’s easier to hold, feels fancier and, after so many years with the same dishes, is more economical and environmental.I didn’t dress up, but I do have a fun dress that I got during the soldes a while back. It’s silk, so it’s light enough to wear in summer; it has sleeves, so it’s OK for winter. It’s so, so simple, yet…Do you see the pattern?Yes, tiny Eiffel towers and gold stars in a black sky of stars. So appropriate.
One of my favorite hostess gifts that people brought was this box of savory toast spreads. We already tested a couple of them and they are delicious. Bio, too (organic). I think I covered all the recipes, but if you have questions, let me know! Lots of good stuff, with big impact with little effort or budget.
Christmas was just yesterday but I am so over it already. It was lovely and quiet and cozy, but even though our celebration was low-key, I feel like I’m coming off a sugar high from the saccharine consumerism everywhere. It permeates the air. It’s like second-hand smoke.
Don’t get me wrong–I love the decorations, the carols, the food. We joined the no-gift movement, so there was no pressure for shopping. We spent Christmas afternoon baking cookies. For Christmas dinner (on Christmas Eve), we ate favorite dishes–ris de veau (veal sweetbread–the thalmus to be specific) in a mushroom cream sauce for the Carnivore and tofu turkey loaf with risotto for me and our kid. The Carnivore even flambéed his ris de veau. Cut no corners.
After dinner on Christmas Eve, we watched “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” AND the Charlie Brown Christmas special. Childrens’ shows were so classy in the 1960s, with jazz on the soundtracks. Even the Grinch song has a jazzy feel.
We are gearing up for a little party on Friday with our neighbors–about 18 people, so too many for a sit-down dinner. Instead, we are hosting an apéritif dinatoire, or appetizer buffet, as we did last year for the Fête de la Lumière, which came and went earlier this month without us getting our act together.
In fact, today I must get the chicken wings in their marinade and make a few dishes. I can do the crudités and the ranch dressing while our kid decorates the cookies that we made yesterday. Thinking about buffets I have known and loved, I realize that while cheesy potatoes or green bean casserole are delicious, they aren’t in the French style. For one thing, it’s hard to eat with a knife and fork from a plate perched on your lap. So almost everything in our buffet is cold (except the wings and meatballs) and made in single servings that are easy to pick up and eat with one’s fingers.
The plates are dessert size, which is easier to hold with one hand. They’re real china, not plastic, and have gotten a lot of use in the 20 years I’ve had them. We noticed a happy side effect–the small plates mean people get up to serve themselves again from the buffet. And they often sit down in a different spot, which encourages mingling. Only the eldest member of our gang stayed in one seat for the entire evening; everybody else played a kind of musical chairs.
I’ll try to get some photos and will share recipes next week, because it’s unlikely I’ll post on Friday.
How was your Christmas? Do you also feel overwhelmed by the consumerism?
Continuing my mission to try out the incredible cornucopia of winter vegetables available at the market, we come to parsnips. Panais in French (pah-nay). Have you had them?
As I noted last week, these white cousins of the carrot make regular appearances in baby food in France. Native to the Mediterranean region, these ancient vegetables are full of vitamins and minerals (especially potassium, calcium, vitamin C and Vitamin K1). They grow throughout the winter down here where the ground doesn’t freeze, and for folks up north, back in the pre-fridge days, they would be stored in a root cellar for months. Today, they are forgotten or ignored, though the French seem to still enjoy them.
The first thing that struck me about parsnips was the perfume–very strong yet pleasant. I wondered about the flavor, but that turned out to be mild and a little sweet, a bit like celery root. Parsnips can be served raw–sliced or grated in a salad, like carrots. They also can be roasted, boiled, sautéed, braised, you name it. They can be served whole, sliced or puréed. If you can do it to a carrot, you can do it to a parsnip.
However, they get bigger than carrots, and when they do, there’s sometimes a tough core that’s better to cut out. You can peel them but if you have a good vegetable brush, a scrubbing will do. Either douse them with lemon juice or cook them right away or they will oxidize and turn a bit brown, as potatoes and apples do, and similarly it doesn’t affect how edible they are but makes them not as appetizing. They don’t turn brown as fast as, say, avocados, and I skipped the lemon juice as it took little time to cut up three parsnips (one large per person) and toss them in oil.
I was serving them with a white bean gratin, so I wanted to cook both dishes in the oven. I cut them into sticks like fries, tossed them with some olive oil, salt and pepper, and spread them on a baking sheet on the upper rack in a 400 F/200 C oven. I considered adding garlic and parsley, but we already were having dishes with those. When they started to brown, I put in the dish of beans on the lower rack. I took the parsnips out to turn them but found I didn’t need to–they browned all around. It took about 15 minutes, but I waited longer, distracted by the sautéed spinach, and some got overdone.
In retrospect, although the parsnips were yummy and we all took second helpings, they would have looked better with something other than white bean gratin (a big can of white beans puréed with some of their liquid and one clove of garlic, spread out in a small glass baking dish and topped with grated parmesan). Two white foods in one meal! We also had spinach (green) and some hard-to-get mushrooms that I scored at the market. (I don’t know whether it’s because of the weather or overpicking, but wild mushrooms have been scarce at the market, and the price for lactaires is now €20 a kilogram, vs. €13 two years ago.)
Although they look like and have a similar texture to potatoes as oven fries, parsnips are very low in carbohydrates. I’m not looking to eliminate any food group (except refined sugar), but I do find that on my plate potatoes tend to turn into a butter and salt delivery system that I try to rein in.
In this case, the parsnips were lightly coated with olive oil, to help brown them and keep them from sticking. Butter no parsnips! Actually the phrase is fine words butter no parsnips–butter is the verb, like butter up somebody, and it means the same thing here, that flattery gets you nowhere.
If you serve parsnips, the compliments won’t be empty.
We recently enjoyed a visit from a Parisian friend and her 13-month-old, and the baby’s meals struck me as very French. Our own child was never so lucky. We moved here when our kid was three months old, and I pretty much relied on family and friends back in the U.S. for advice. When I started to make friends here, I realized that the whole baby thing was different, but this was many years ago and I had mostly forgotten about it.
The biggest difference is that French baby foods are marked by time of day. Protein is for midday and never in the evening. I vaguely recall French moms telling me this back in the day. I searched around a bit to see whether baby foods sold in, say, the U.S. were marked for evening or whether nutritional recommendations said anything about protein in the evening, but I found nothing (which doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist). I considered calling up a pediatrician, but (1) they don’t have time and (2) there’s a broad range of advice out there. My friend, in fact, was horrified at what her friends feed their children of the same age–cereal in the formula to get the kid to sleep at night, sweets, etc. All I can say is that if there were only one way to raise a child, there wouldn’t be 7 billion people on the Earth today.
There are two arguments about protein at night: that too much protein is taxing on the kidneys, which are delicate at such a young age, and that protein is hard to digest and will disturb sleep. The latter argument also applies to adults, and in fact quite a few of my friends have supper (souper) of soup. And that’s it. They eat a big meal at noon, not at night. All the ones who do this are very trim and fit, by the way, even though they are retired.
Another thing is that French kids don’t drink milk. Babies get formula in bottles, but when they get bigger, they might have hot chocolate with milk for breakfast and that’s it. In France, McDonald’s Happy Meals don’t have milk among the drink choices, but it’s typical in the U.S., even in school lunches. French kids are expected to drink water (and yes, there exist French parents who give their kids juice and sugary sodas).
And then there are the menus for babies. Get a load of these:
Navarin de petits légumes, agneau français–a kind of ragoût with lamb and “small vegetables”: carrots, potatoes, butternut squash and mushrooms. This was marked for lunch.
Patate douce, chataigne, pintade fermière du Poitou–sweet potato, chestnuts and guinea hen from the Poitou department. Also for lunch.