Sunday, 18 November 2007

New in the Kitchen

Cooking, marketing—even eating—have all been a bit quotidian of late. The market is in a state of transition. Tomatoes, figs and courgettes have been relegated to the cheaper vendors of non-French produce, while at the upmarket stands, the mushrooms have curiously disappeared, the (Spanish) citrus still has a greenish tinge and little besides pumpkin seems at its prime. At home, along with the citrouille and potimaron (two squash varietals), there has been lots of bowl food: ragout, rice pudding, endless soup and applesauce. Though comforting on these longer, chillier nights, it’s a bit too reminiscent of invalid fare. More than that, though, my palate and I both seem to be suffering from ennui. Certain things which should be great—the marron glacé ice cream from Berthillon, Cambodian curry from perhaps the best South Asian place in town—have merely been very good, and no amount of salt, pepper or ras al hanout has succeeded in giving the food coming out of my kitchen a real savour.

In the meantime, though, I’ve indulged in a bit of retail therapy. The expeditions have spanned food halls at two major department stores (Gallerie Lafayette and Le Bon Marche), a vast, two-story Chinese supermarket and a restaurant-supply store hidden near Les Halles. Takings have been modest—my frugal genes generally kick in when faced with luxurious condiments or shiny cookware—but nonetheless included a bottle of walnut oil from Huilerie Artisanale LeBlanc and a small, non-stick DeBuyer frying pan. The most exciting purchase cost only 10 euros but probably weighs half as many kilos: a green-grey stone mortier et pilon (mortar and pestle) carried home with great care from Chinatown on a wet, blustery Sunday afternoon.

The oil has already enlivened a simple bowl of haricot verts and toasted walnuts, while the pan has enabled the most component omelette ever to grace my stovetop. In less time than it took to cook the pasta, the mortar and pestle beat the ingredients for a sage pesto into submission.

I first tried this pesto a few years ago, using my then-roommate’s enormous mortar and pestle. The taste was intense and almost spicy, though the memory is marred by the knowledge that I spoiled it by the (recommended!) addition of water. This time, I chose it over the more traditional basil variety simply because I had a surplus of walnuts in the freezer. Though perhaps less versatile, it could provide a tasty topping for roasted root vegetables. In a recent article for The Times , Gordon Ramsay also puts a dollop of a similar paste atop his vegetable soup.

Sage Walnut Pesto (adapted from Epicurious)
Total time: 15 minutes
Active time: 15 minutes
Serves 4-6, although extra portions can be frozen sans fromage

1/3 cup (1 small handful) fresh parsley
3-4 tablespoons fresh sage leaves
1/2 garlic clove
large pinch salt
1 cup walnuts
ample 1/3 cup olive oil
the same quantity of freshly-grated Parmesan or Pecorino

Lightly toast the walnuts in a dry pan or warm oven until they begin to change colour, about 5 minutes. In a mortar and pestle or small food processor bowl, combine the herbs, garlic and salt, mixing until they form an even-textured paste. (In the mortar and pestle, the salt should be added first, to help "grip" the other ingredients.) Once the walnuts are slightly cooled, add them, in batches if necessary, to the herb paste, blending until the nuts have fully broken down. Add olive oil until the mixture is thick but flowing, then grate in the cheese and taste seasoning.

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