Beguiling French vegetables

New Year’s in Paris

February 17, 2009

Over the winter holidays, we spent a week in Paris on the charming market street of Rue Cler, the Eiffel Tower sparkling outside our apartment window each evening on the hour.

While we ate out — take-out often — we also cooked. It was hard not to, given the tempting offerings on the street below.

Produce for a vegetable cook to swoon over. Cheese shops with piles of highly rustic cheeses, none of them wrapped in plastic and many never before seen by these eyes. Wine shops filled with bottles we don’t see in the States, many for just a few euros and all quite drinkable. A fish market with wooden crates of oysters flying out the door. A honey store, bakeries, and chocolate shops. And a florist, whose shopkeeper told us exactly how much water to let our tulips stand in to make them last the holiday week. (They did.)

While I usually hunt down outdoor markets wherever I am, this was a shared trip, and my artist husband had his own agenda. What this meant was that food would not rule — there was art to be seen. But given the location of our apartment, it was possible to work in some serious vegetable shopping.

One produce market was all “bio,” or organic. Across the street was its sister market, not bio. We shopped in them daily for tart fragrant apples, gray-green heads of broccoli with tight and firm blossoms, and the most delicate breakfast radishes imaginable.

Radishes go into radish sandwiches.

We decided to have a little party for our friends the last night we were in Paris. Given the previous week of rich foods, it would be a vegetable-centric evening, with my winter vegetable chowder serving as the main dish of our meal.

But radish sandwiches would come first. The greens were so tender that I used them to make a radish-leaf butter. The butter itself, from the cheese shop, was sweet and studded with salt crystals. It would be spread on Poilâne's hearty wheat bread and topped with sliced radishes — fancier than the usual radishes with butter and salt, but it was New Year’s Eve, after all.

A cheese course would follow the soup, and then we’d finish off with a lemon tart and chocolates. Plenty of Champagne throughout, of course.

There were only four of us, but I bought enough vegetables for two or three times as many. Faced with red arugula plus the green, watercress, frisée, and other gorgeous varieties of lettuce I didn’t know at all, I couldn’t stop. As I’m helpless in front of greens, I ended up with a very mixed green salad. Then there were the creamy-colored cauliflowers wrapped in their pale green leaves. And there were the carrots, which came packed in sand (had to try those!), the firm parsnips, and the full, crisp fennel bulbs.

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Only the rutabagas were on the soft and spongy side — they must not be a popular vegetable in Paris — and I would miss their buttery color in the soup. But there were many kinds of potatoes to choose from, pristine leeks, ruffled wedges of Savoy cabbage, and wedges of celeriac. (How practical to have wedges, given our tiny refrigerator.)

Best were the robust bunches of thyme surrounded with branches of bay leaves and tied with string, which not only flavored the soup but became a bouquet for the table, too. How I wish we had such herb bundles here, instead of pathetic leaves and branches encased in plastic coffins.

After a week of traipsing all over Paris, I had decided to give myself a leisurely amount of time for shopping and cooking. I confess that I often don’t make a stock for my vegetable soups, but with time enough and a plethora of gorgeous trimmings, I did this day, and by the time I had let it reduce, added salt, and stirred in a little crème fraîche, it was so good that I could have served it on its own and been proud.

Usually I add cream to this chowder, but I couldn’t find any cream at the supermarchés that didn’t have added chemicals. I thought maybe the cheese store would have cream, and it did. But when the cheese lady asked me what I was using it for and I described my soup, she said, “Ooo non! You want crème fraîche!”

I was about to protest, but then decided that maybe she knew something I didn’t, so I stood and watched as she ladled the most gorgeous crème fraîche — far more than I could ever use — into a container. Oh, that ivory-colored crème fraîche! It’s never like what we make with cream and buttermilk; it has a special tang from its culture and it pours like silk. The cheese lady was right; it was perfect.

On the way back from the cheese shop, I took one last peek in the vegetable store and spotted turnips that hadn’t been there before — tiny little ones with vibrant tender greens. Three euros. Even though I already had turnips, I wanted these, too.

Then there were radishes that hadn’t been there an hour earlier, not the red-and-white breakfast variety but little red balls. Oh, and a new batch of chanterelle mushrooms had appeared as well, and lethal-looking purple artichokes on long stems.

I just wanted to keep adding courses to my meal. I could have made endless little bites — chanterelles on toast, artichokes on toast — and crudités of raw turnips. But finally, I had run out of time.

I loved the meal we ended up having just as it was, but I saw that vegetables in Paris could offer quite an appealing adventure. And while vegetable chowder is the perfect vehicle for all of winter’s tubers and roots, the same vegetables make beautiful gratins, too.

In fact, the ingredients for vegetable chowders and vegetable gratins are pretty much the same: cream, Gruyère or Cantal cheese, and vegetables. Try my celery-root gratin with just the two vegetables given, or include others as well, such as fennel, turnips, or shredded cabbage.

A radish sandwich, a salad of mixed greens, a chowder or a gratin — all together, a very satisfying winter meal.

Deborah Madison is the author of numerous award-winning cookbooks, including Local Flavors. She lives in New Mexico.

Related recipe: Celery Root and Potato Gratin; recipe: Radish Sandwiches

There are 2 comments on this item
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1. by Sylvie, Rappahannock Cook & Kitchen Gardener on Feb 24, 2009 at 6:21 PM PST

Deborah - I just found this column of yours (I am the last one in the world?) I cherish and often use my Greens and Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone cookbooks. I am thrilled to be able to read this column now.

I have just planted my early radishes. I am in Northern Virginia Piedmont and it is still winter... sigh... I love them. I often use the leaves for a nice tangy spring-tonic like soup, and it’s delicious. Based on friends’ reaction to radish open faced sandwiches though, I wonder if they are an acquired taste?


2. by anonymous on Feb 25, 2009 at 6:46 AM PST

I have found that the key to radish open faced sandwiches is the butter and salt. If you use really nice butter, and really nice salt on the radishes, it is a whole different experience!

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Local Flavors

Deborah Madison, the celebrated cookbook author and local-food advocate, feeds us with her occasional reflections. Her latest book is Vegetable Literacy.

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