Monday, 20 April 2009

Les Meilleurs Legumes du Paris (The Best Vegetables in Paris)

Sometimes I get a bit tired of visitors to Paris waxing rhapsodic about the fruits and vegetables found in the city’s markets. True, at nearly every one (and there are upwards of 75 held each week), good—even spectacular produce—is easy to find. And there’s little doubt that even the most rumpled vendors often possess a decorator’s gift for arrangement. Excepting such seasonal specialities as white asparagus or morels, prices are often very low too.

What can be disappointing is the conformity. Even the appealingly dirt-speckled carrots at my favourite stand are bought wholesale from the Rungis market, just like their counterparts all over town. And while heritage varietals of tomatoes and potatoes have become increasingly commonplace at British and American farmers’ markets, the supply system for Paris’ markets ensures high standards but (relatively limited) selection. Only two markets—both organic and high-end—have from-the-farm producers, known as “maraichers” or “producteurs.”

Perhaps Parisians get their fill of field-to-table food during their long summer holidays in the countryside. Or maybe, despite the obvious discernment of many market customers, they don’t attach the same importance as their food-conscious Anglophone counterparts to cutting out the middleman, or to meeting the person who harvested their food. It could even be—and here I tread very carefully into the realm of total bullshit—that contemporary French identity has retained some kind of cultural connection with the land (terroir), thus obviating the necessity of “reclaiming” it through a middle-class affectation for expensive, wormy apples.

I suspect that Rungis, the heir to the historic central market at Les Halles, will continue to be the “stomach of Paris” for many years to come. But Joël Thiébault’s produce, grown just 7 kilometres from the Eiffel Tower and sold weekly to some of the city’s best restaurants, has developed the same kind of cult status as Anne-Marie Cantin’s unpasteurised cheese, or Hugo Desnoyer’s meat. And in a city like Paris, that’s not faint praise.

A third-generation farmer, Thiébault reputedly cultivates up to 1500 varieties of vegetables and herbs (a bit of fruit is grown in high summer). About 100 of them are sold at his weekly market stand in the tony 16th arrondissment. Arriving mid-morning this past Saturday my choices including flowering chives, five varieties of carrots and three of beets, heaps of compact lettuces and herbs which I could not identify by sight or smell. Prices are curiously low. At 70 centimes apiece, salads cost no more than the half-rotten ones sold at the far end of my market; choosing with care, it’s possible to assemble a week’s worth of vegetables for about 10 euros.

It was only by exercising extreme restraint that I managed to come home with just two varieties of herbs, a head of lettuce, bunches of golf ball-sized new onions and radishes, waxy salad potatoes, a multicolour array of carrots and an enormous candy-striped beet. In the past 36 hours, the carrots and radishes have been eaten as crudités, with the remainder of the carrots braised with some of the onions and herbs. More of the herbs were chopped into an egg salad, and the lettuce, tossed with a simple vinaigrette, anchored a oozing disk of milky goats cheese.

I have some work to do in perfecting the salad du chevre chaud, but the other dishes—while both exceptionally simple—are ready to be shared. And while great produce will make these simple preparations shine, a trip to Paris is not required. (Though it may be for some of Cantin’s legendary unpasteurised cheese.)

Herbed Egg Salad (adapted from Amanda Hesser)

In this recipe from her first book, The Cook and the Gardener, Hesser deconstructs the classic egg salad, serving it over greens dressed with heavy cream, mustard, tarragon, chervil and chives. I put the dish back together again, substituting good store-bought mayonnaise for the cream, omitting the mustard (which appears in small quantities in French mayonnaise) and using good quantities of fresh chervil and thyme. Served slightly warm, alongside a hunk of coarse bread and some peppery radishes, it was both rich and sprightly.

Total time 15 minutes; Active time 5 minutes
Serves 2

4 eggs
1 tablespoon or more good mayonnaise
At least 5 healthy sprigs chervil
1-2 sprigs fresh, leafy thyme (don’t use it if it has begun to dry out or become gritty)

Boil the eggs until they are moulleux (creamy in the centre, but no longer oozing). Chop the herbs finely. Peel the eggs and crush coarsely, mixing through the mayonnaise. Add the herbs and season well with salt and pepper.

Braised Young Carrots and Onions (adapted from Mark Bittman)

New York Times food writer Mark Bittman is currently spending a few months here in Paris. Last week he wrote about braising some carrots purchased at his local market with shallots, tarragon and a bit of butter. It was, he concluded, “an amazing dish, almost but not quite too sweet, simple, easy, and honest.” I swapped the shallots for new onions and the tarragon for chervil (which subtly echoes tarragon’s aniseed notes). Since I had some mild, homemade chicken stock, I used that instead of water.

Bittman’s original post didn’t include a precise recipe. Saturday night I made the dish just for myself and drank wine instead of watching the clock. So please take quantities and timing as approximate only. But while I like the vegetables soft, the one really important thing is to get the liquid to reduce into a sweet glaze.

Total time: 45 minutes; Active time: 10 minutes
Serves 2

Tasty carrots, enough to feed two amply
About 2/3 the quantity of new onions
A generous sprinkling of chervil
1 tbsp of butter
A few tablespoons of gentle stock (or water)

Cut the carrots into bite-sized batons. If any of the onions are bigger than a golf ball, cut them in half. Place the vegetables in a heavy-bottomed pot or lidded sauté pan, add the butter and a bit of liquid. If you’d like, include some of the chervil now. Season, cover and cook on a gentle heat, checking liquid levels occasionally, until the vegetables are soft (particularly the onions), but not falling apart. If needed, you can add extra liquid in very small quantities. If there is extra stock in the pan at the end of cooking, reduce it for several minutes on a medium heat, or until the vegetables are lightly glazed. Adjust seasoning, add the reserved chervil and serve warm, perhaps alongside roasted chicken.


כנרת said...

Thank you, Shira, that looks great. Can you be more specific in explaining the whereabouts of the stand?

Shira said...

Sure, let me try:

In addition to an (expensive) home delivery service, Thiebault has stands at 2 markets in the 16th: Avenue du Président Wilson: Wednesday and Saturday, and Rue Gros: Tuesday and Friday. For the former, get off at the Iena metro stop. Thiebault's stand is on the right-hand side towards the end of the market. I'm not sure if it's marked, but you can ID it by the fact that it only has things which are seasonal for Northern France, and a lot of lettuce varieties for 70 centimes a piece.

Let me know what you find!

כנרת said...

Looks like the next Palais de Tokyo Saturday will probably end up in some grade A veggies.