A few pretty things from Saturday’s market in Carcassonne.
Like the amazing collections of pumpkins, squash and gourds.
The sign says “edible squash.” In case anybody has doubts. I love the ones that are shaped like acorns.
The florists are gearing up for Nov. 1. It’s a holiday here–no school, everything closed–and not because Halloween is the night before. Everybody is busy cleaning up the cemetery plots of loved ones, and getting fresh flowers. I wish I could do it for my parents.
There also are lots of pansies and cyclamens, which resist frost and tend to bloom all winter here.
The market is often animated by bands or musical groups of one sort or another. And we get buskers, too. This is the first time I’ve seen this cellist.
After the market, we headed to our apartments, just down the street, for a weekend stay. Have to test drive it before we start having visitors! Lots of updates coming. The renovation is nearly wrapped up.
September is when the market is full of big, ugly tomatoes. The best kind. The inside is solid flesh. They have flavors, each variety contributing a different perfume.
September is also when the weather cools down so that indoor cooking again becomes possible. We don’t have air conditioning nor do we want it. But when it’s 95 degrees outside and 75 inside because of careful juggling of shutters and opening of windows at night, you don’t want to mess up your hard-won coolness. With day temperatures in the upper 70s and nights in the 60s, the stove can be used again.
The abundance of tomatoes at the season’s lowest prices (about €1 per kilo) coincides with ideal conditions for cooking. We have a number of gardens where fresh produce is sold out of a barn or hangar daily—no need to wait for the market. This is sometimes a good option, but then, we don’t go to the market just for vegetables but also for the social aspect.
However, the market involves a long walk back to the car, dragging the shopping cart. If 10 kg of tomatoes were in the cart, they’d be sauce before arriving at the car. So for the large quantities we head to the garden source.
Once you have homemade tomato sauce, the industrial version tastes strangely…industrial. I haven’t canned—you need to maintain a certain level of acidity to prevent botulism, and my resistance to following instructions makes me leery of risking food poisoning. Instead, I put the sauce in zipper bags and freeze them.
Also, I put a lot more than tomatoes in my sauce. It’s an opportunity to toss in extra nutrients from other vegetables. So besides lots of onions and garlic, I add carrots, red peppers, beets, butternut squash—whatever’s on offer at the garden. Squash and beets make the sauce sweet without added sugar.
An aside here about stoves. We had gas but a few years ago got rid of our propane tank and switched to induction. What a dream! The first time we used it, to make pasta, we turned it on and off like kids, amazed at how it went from not boiling to a rolling boil to not boiling in a second.
I raved about it to French friends, who informed me they had induction for years. Count on the French to be on top of the best cooking technology. Induction is as quick and versatile as gas, but with advantages: it works via magnets, so anything nonmagnetic on the stovetop doesn’t heat up, even if the stove is turned on.
I did have to replace my nonmagnetic copper pans with new ones. They are Cristel, a French brand, whose ads say “buy once for life.” There’s a removable handle so they stack very compactly, yet the lips for the handle are big enough that I often don’t even need the longer handle. An excellent investment.
Here’s a recipe of sorts:
10 kg of tomatoes (about 22 pounds). Go for real ones: UGLY. Not the perfect, tasteless hybrids that are raised on chemicals.
10 cloves of garlic
A nice handful of fresh herbs (I cut some from my garden: mostly thyme that I rip off the stems, but also parsley, basil and oregano).
4 red peppers
1 butternut squash
1-2 big beets
Cut out the core of the tomatoes and chop them roughly. Some people peel them but that is just too much work!
Chop up everything else into about half-inch pieces. You want them to cook through.
Brown the onion and garlic in a tiny big of olive oil. Then dump everything else into a gigantic pot (I have to use two), cover and bring to a boil. I don’t add water—the tomatoes will let out plenty of liquid.
Reduce the heat to a simmer. This is where induction shines. You can put a pot on at the lowest temperature to simmer and it won’t burn on the bottom. Love it. Stir a few times per hour.
Let it cook for several hours, until the volume has reduced by at least half. Cook longer if you like thicker sauce.
Use an immersion blender to purée it, or else let it cool completely before running it in batches through the blender or food processor. Anyway, you need the sauce to be cool before it goes into the freezer.
To put it in bags: put your bag in a plastic container that’s about the right size. This will keep the bag from flopping over as you’re trying to fill it. Use a measuring cup to ladle the sauce so you have an idea of how much is in each bag. Ideally, enough for a dinner.
Cherries are a big deal around here. The town of Ceret, a bit to the south, is not only a bastion of the Fauvist movement of painting but also has a microclimate that allows it to be among the first to bring cherries to market. Thank goodness.
Because strawberries are dandy but everybody knows life is a fleeting bowl of cherries.
The towns of Trausse-Minervois and Caunes-Minervois hold their own in the cherry stakes. Trausse just celebrated the Cherry Festival, which we missed for absolutely unforgivable reasons too boring to go into here.
Many, many years ago, when we had one of those cute kids in a stroller, we went to the cherry festival, which that year was in Caunes. We immediately bought a bag of cherries, because that is what one does at a cherry festival. So the kid, who was big enough to swallow competently but small enough to complain about walking all afternoon, asked for some cherries. We just handed over the bag to this little person, who sat back in the stroller and casually popped a cherry in the mouth and, shortly after, expertly flicked out the pit. We were mostly too busy looking at things to notice, and there were no choking incidents, so there. (Before that, I actually cut single cherries into nearly microscopic morsels–well, into eighths. But think about how tiny an eighth of a cherry is. And they were picked up meticulously by fat little fingers and consumed with nothing left behind.)
Eventually, said child presented a limp, empty paper bag. “More!” was the command. Never refuse a kid who wants to eat fruit or vegetables. With a fresh supply, we continued to enjoy the festival and escaped while there were still plenty of cherries in bag No. 2.
I won’t begin to describe the diaper that ensued. Those were the days.
Anyway, Caunes and Trausse have awesome cherries. I was on a little errand recently that took me in that vicinity. Turning off the main road to appreciate the countryside, I spied a sign: “Cherries 1 km.” Figuring that it had been there for 10 years, I didn’t get my hopes up. But about a kilometer farther, I saw another sign: “Cherries for sale from the producer.”
I didn’t even pull off to the side of the road, because that’s what kind of path/road it was. Not a place to worry about traffic. The proprietor saw me–duh! nobody comes down this road and he heard me already 2 kms away–and strode toward the table to greet me. I asked for a kilo of cherries. Then I asked for another kilo. Good thing. As soon as I got home I had some. OMG. And some more. And that was the end of one kilo.
I will be back.
BTW, his cherries were cheaper than the market, which are cheaper than the supermarket. And they had just been picked. He had climbed down from a ladder in a tree. I soon noticed there were half a dozen other people busy picking.
Miam miam miam
This is where I should give a recipe, but seriously I think it’s borderline sacrilege to do anything to these cherries but to eat them straight. Maybe with a few drops of water from rinsing them. One of the sweetest memories of my youth was eating Bing cherries at my grandma’s house, in certain plastic/fake wood bowls that my brother somehow got (!!!!!!!!). Proust moment.
Now for the French lesson: The title is “the time of cherries,” which is “le Temps des Cerises.” It was a famous song written in 1866. Here is the Yves Montand version. And more recently the name was adopted by a brand of jeans and other clothing.
As for the pits, the cushion above is filled with cherry stones. You put it in the microwave at 700W for 2.5 minutes and use it as a heating pad. (I bought it–not a DIY, but you probably could).
We are leaving matters of French fashion taste to those who specialize in it. But something caught my eye over the past few months: Men wearing orange pants.
All the way back in winter, we were having lunch at a tiny restaurant in the center of Carcassonne and here comes the owner, in orange pants. Then a diner entered, in orange pants. And another one. What?
I started seeing men in orange pants everywhere, in shades ranging from a washed-out burnt orange to vivid tangerine and almost red. These pictures were taken on two different days, once in April and then last Saturday, at the market in Carcassonne.
There also were more women in orange pants.
The one that got away: a woman in lavender, head to toe. A flowing shirt or jacket over a top, pants, socks, sandals (yes both), necklace of chunky beads, glasses–all lavender. And the best part: her hair, in a sort of David Bowie cut, also tinted lavender. I marveled at her commitment to one color. I fumbled for my camera, but she was swallowed up by the crowd before I could get off a shot, and I was too weighed down by vegetables to run after her.
I first ate this at the now-defunct Piano Bar restaurant in Nairobi. It’s so good that everything else in the meal can be very understated. A good dish to wow guests.
A glass of white, this time for the dish
Cut the strawberries into quarters
Grate the parmesan
Thinly slice the mushrooms
Time: 45 minutes
1.5 cups arborio rice (or round rice—NOT basmati)
1 onion, minced
2 TBS butter
2 cups grated parmesan—the good stuff you grate yourself, not the fakey powder
1 cup white wine (not sweet)
4 cups chicken broth—homemade, from a can, or from 2 cubes in 4 cups of water
2 threads of saffron (optional)
2 cups fresh strawberries, cut in quarters (not too small or they’ll get mushy)
2 cups fresh mushrooms, sliced thinly
Plan of Attack:
Bring the chicken bouillon to a boil, then reduce the heat to simmer.
Melt the butter in a big pot (big enough to hold 8 cups. I use a Dutch oven). Add the onion and cook on very low heat until the onion is transparent but not brown. Add the rice and saffron and stir so the rice starts to brown a little.
Stir in the wine.
When the liquid is absorbed, stir in about a cup of bouillon. Stir the risotto frequently. When that liquid is absorbed, add another cup.
Stir that risotto. Add another cup (#3) of broth when the liquid has been soaked up.
Put in any more liquid, give it a good stir. Sometimes the risotto looks nice and creamy without using all the liquid.
Turn off the heat. Stir in the parmesan, strawberries and mushrooms. Cover. Serve immediately. DO NOT COOK!
The steam from the risotto will partially cook the strawberries and mushrooms without overdoing it.
Bonus: This goes really well with the other star of the season, asparagus. Since risotto requires a lot of attention, cook the asparagus the no-brainer way:
In the microwave, on high, for 6-7 minutes (depends on the quantity). Pick off the rosemary and drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper.
Here is a typical spring recipe using one of the greatest delights of spring: wild asparagus.
Wild asparagus grows in the garrigue, an area that’s hard to describe. The closest is what in Africa would be called the bush. It isn’t really a forest, though there may be wooded parts, notably stands of pines that make the garrigue seem to sing as the wind whistles through their needles. There’s a lot of low brush, and amid it, the telltale feathery ferns of asparagus that indicate a succulent sprout will be weaving through the branches nearby. They are so fine, they are nearly impossible to see.
A friend took me aparagus picking in the garrigue and I was completely nul. I couldn’t make out the ferns, let alone the sprouts. There would have been no asparagus omelette were it not for the generosity of my guide.
If you can’t get to the garrigue, you can sometimes find wild asparagus at the market, at least in Carcassonne. Look for the small tables selling things like almonds, herbs and garlic.
The stems can be tougher than regular asparagus, so use the bend and snap method to get as much as possible of the tender stalk. Chop into half-inch lengths. It’s easier to cut raw than cooked. Plus, by cutting it up, you can layer the stems on the bottom of the steamer basket so they get cooked more than the tops.
Steam a few minutes—just enough so the asparagus will melt in your mouth. Another alternative is microwaving. Arrange on a plate, lay a sprig or two of fresh rosemary on top, cover with microwavable film and cook on high for 2-3 minutes—less if you have a little asparagus; more if you have a lot.
The omelette is one of those fluid recipes where everything depends on what you want. Some in our household prefer three or four eggs, very runny inside. Some prefer two eggs, well-cooked. Everything is possible, because you make them one at a time.
a swig (1/4 cup or less if 2 eggs; 1/3 cup if 4 eggs) of milk, cream or even yogurt (cream is best for fluffiness)
1/4-1/2 cup grated cheese (I use the ubiquitous emmental, but go with what you like or have on hand)
glass of wine (red or white, depending on your preference)
Beat the eggs, milk, salt and pepper. Melt the butter over medium-high heat in a skillet with low sides (easier to get your spatula in for turning). When the butter has browned and the bottom of the pan is well-covered, pour in the eggs. Use a fork to work the runny top toward the bottom, but don’t do it too much or you’ll have scrambled eggs.
If you don’t like runny eggs, make little vents in the omelette for the liquid to seep down to the pan. You also can lift the edges and tilt the pan so the uncooked egg slides over. But don’t overcook, because you still have to let the cheese melt.
Have a sip of wine while you’re waiting….it’s time for aperitif!
Sprinkle the cheese over half the omelette, then the asparagus.
Let the omelette cook for a minute. Do nothing to it! This makes the bottom cook enough to hold together so you can fold it. You can peek by lifting an edge, to make sure you aren’t overcooking, but don’t try to move the whole thing too soon.
Now get your spatula under the ungarnished half of the omelette and gently fold it over the garnished part. Let it cook another minute, so the cheese melts.
You should be able to just slide the omelette out onto a plate, no lifting necessary.
There’s another part of the Saturday market, on the Boulevard Barbès, along the former rampart of la Bastide, a couple more blocks down from les Halles. Here, aside from spices, you’ll find just about anything that would be in the non-food aisles of Wal-Mart.
It’s called the marché aux fripes, which means the used-clothes market, but it’s so much more than just second-hand clothes.
Socks, underwear (my brothers loved the euro briefs I got them a few years ago as a joke), shoes, adult clothes, kids’ clothes, hats, sunglasses, jewelry, watches, bags, phone cases, toys, every manner of hair accessories, makeup, nail polish, housewares from pots and pans to mops and pails, hardware from small tools to screws and nails, carpets, mattresses, pillows, sheets and blankets, curtains, tablecloths……you name it. I didn’t see a kitchen sink, but I did see a faucet.
What do you do with this?
A lot of the bargains require a hunt, with the goods lumped in big piles on tables. But that’s the thrill, right?
It’s the second rule of parenting, right after “Never wake a sleeping baby.”
I love vegetables, but beets never made the list of my favorites. However, when your kid declares that beets are delicious and is excited when they’re on the school lunch menu, it’s time to give them another try.
I did the diced and steamed version, like they serve at school. The kid ate them up. The adults, not so thrilled.
I did beet slaw, similar to carrottes râpées often served in restaurants and at school, though I dressed it with vinegar and oil rather than mayonnaise. It was OK, but very…beety.
I decided to try something else. We often have a very American kind of chopped salad, which my kid and I love but not my husband. Like many people here, he has an aversion to raw vegetables. To him (and judging by restaurant menus, he isn’t alone), a salad is a bowl of lettuce. You can garnish it with slices of dried duck breast, goose gizzards, foie gras, ham, hard sausage and/or bacon chunks, but DO NOT add other raw vegetables! Maybe a wedge or two of tomato. A thin slice of cucumber, peeled and seeded, might pass, or, more likely, be shoved to the side of the plate like a limp leaf of parsley.
When we entertain, I always do a plate of crudités with ranch dip. It’s a huge hit. But it’s true that French guests stick to the carrots and cherry tomatoes while the peppers and cucumbers languish. It’s mind-boggling because the vegetables here are fantastic.
Anyway, I decided to do a chopped salad with with beets, along with other vegetables that wouldn’t look disgusting once tinted with beet juice. Speaking of beet juice, wear an apron so you don’t ruin your clothes!
I use a shallot—milder than onion. Green onions or scallions also could work. You’ll see that I consider recipes to be general suggestions and not at all something to follow to the letter.
The secret ingredient is Maggi seasoning sauce. I was introduced to it recently at the home of a Belgian friend who’s a fabulous cook. She used it in her salad dressing and it gave a little hit of umami. It’s one of those things where a tiny bit has a big effect. It looks like you can get it on Amazon.
Here’s the recipe:
Beet and veggie salad
1 beet a little bigger than fist-size
1 red pepper (optional)
1 cup corn (we don’t have frozen around here so I use a small can)
2 cups red kidney beans
Red wine vinegar
Maggi arome saveur
Peel the beet and carrots. Grate them with a box grater or a food processor.
Mince the shallot and pepper.
Drain and rinse the beans.
Drain the corn.
Put everything in a big bowl and toss. Season with a little sea salt and pepper. I circle three times quickly with the olive oil, and once with the vinegar (I never measure). Then I give two or three shakes of Maggi seasoning sauce.
I also make a version substituting red quinoa for the corn and beans. Either one gives you protein and lots of fiber.
The market isn’t limited to fruits and vegetables. A block away from the produce at Place Carnot are les Halles Prosper Montagné, named after the Carcassonne native who wrote the first Larousse Gastronomique, the bible of French cooking.
Les Halles are indoors, built in 1768 next to les Halles aux Grains—the former grain market, today a public library for youth. Les Halles are for not for vegans.
For example, there are several butcher stands selling all kinds of meats. There are big hunks of beef, waiting to be carved on order into steaks. Thin? Thick? Extra thick?
There are dozens of varieties of pâtés.
And sausages (saucisse), below left, not to be confused with hard sausages (saucissons), below right.
Poultry is in a class by itself. You have whole birds—chickens, geese, ducks, turkeys—always with the head on because it shows whether the bird is young and tender or old and not. They’ll cut it off for you if you aren’t up for doing it yourself.
There are birds of every size, down to little quail and pigeons.
Duck breasts, left; quail, center; pigeons, right
The seafood stands are another marvel. They don’t stink at all—proof that the goods are fresh from the nearby sea.
There are plenty of dishes ready to pop into the oven: escargot, cassoulet, lasagne and more.
Cassoulet for a crowd
And let’s not forget the cheese. There are several cheese merchants at Place Carnot, and in rue de Verdun, as well as vendors of yogurt, goat’s milk, and other specialties.