Culinary triumphs

posted 2 February 2005 (happy Groundhog Day)

The 20th arrondissement of Paris, where we once had an apartment for three weeks, gave me a very dim view of French supermarkets, but I must say that Beaulieu and Nice have entirely redeemed their reputation. In Beaulieu on Saturday mornings, we visit the chain supermarket Marché U; l'Entrecôte, an extremely upscale little food store (it's name means "The Rib Steak," but it's also a pun on "Between Two Coasts," an apt name for an establishment on the neck of Cap Ferrat); and the open-air "Provençal" market (just vegetables on weekdays but larger and more varied on Saturdays, though it stops short of live chickens, which I saw in the Saturday market in Nice)--as always, it's a three-way balance among convenience, price, and availability.

ABT at market, BeaulieuOn our first visit to the open-air market, the fish-monger had a very meagre selection--disappointing but not too important. We weren't even buying that day because Laurence was coming by later to take us to the market in Nice. The second time, though, I took a more serious look at the fish selection, and there it was--a conger eel (Conger conger), and I mean a serious conger eel, about a foot in diameter and six feet long--my chance to try that recipe from the Two Fat Ladies cookbook! They got out a cleaver and whacked me off a about a 4-inch cross section. While they were wrapping it up, another item caught my eye--the disembodied head of a "colin," maybe 3/4 lb--the rest had already been sold. I had no idea what a "colin" was--some sort of vicious predator, from the look of the teeth--but fish heads make good soup, so I asked the fish ladies about it, explaining that I was American and didn't know any of the local species. They assured me that it was a nice, mild white fish and would make great soup--but would I rather have the head of the conger? (no, I don't have a pot that big)--so I had them wrap that up, too. I'm sure David noticed that I kept describing dinner in uncharacteristically generic terms as "roasted fish," but not really wanting to know the answer, he didn't ask what kind. Anyway, I surrounded my conger slab with onions and herbs, poured dry, sparkling, hard cider over it as directed, and roasted it uncovered, basting from now and then with the cider, which is acid enough to help cut the richness of the eel. At the appointed time, I took it out and served it up with tiny green beans and braised baby fennels from the market and a crisp baguette to soak up the sauce, and it was terrific! David declared it delicious, even after learning what it was. The meat was snowy white and very mild, with a texture like very tender lobster. None of the bones was smaller than my little finger, a big plus in David's eyes.

Meanwhile, the colin head was simmering gently and, once skinned and deboned, formed the base of an excellent soup, with herbes de provence, saffron, tomatoes, onions, and garlic. I mixed some mayo with chopped garlic and powdered saffron and let it chill overnight, then served it up with rounds of toasted baguette. We spread the garlic mayo (a not-very-authentic but extremely tasty version of "aioli") on the toasts, put them in the bowls, then ladeled the hot soup over. Yum! (When I went back to the fish stand the following week, this time for a nice filet of cod, the fish ladies actually remembered me and wanted to hear how the soup had come out and how I had cooked the conger. It's going to be fun working my way through their assortment of species.)

In the Marché U, I was delighted to find "magret de canard," whole duck breasts with the skin on. The cooking instructions, in minuscule print, were a model of economy (unlike American instructions, which start by telling you to remove the meat from the plastic tray)--cook in a skillet 10 min on the scored skin side, then 5 minutes on the other side. I did so, and wow, was it good--rare duck steak with crisp skin on one side, amazingly like what you get in restaurants. Excellent with potatoes sautéed in the duck fat . . . .

This week, the find was rabbit, again in Marché U. I bought the "rable" (the saddle or double loin, together with the kidneys) and the legs, dusted them with flour, browned them in duck fat, added some of the left-over cider and fresh thyme from the open market, and simmered them covered for a few minutes, until tender. Then I whisked cream and mustard to taste into the sauce. I don't know what Publix does to its rabbits to make them so tough and dry, but I wish they'd quit; this rabbit was tender and moist, maybe because it had a little fat on it (unlike American rabbits, which are painfully lean).

Market dogThe vegetables are wonderful, too, both in the supermarket and at the open market, and the open market has the additional charm of this fine dog (looking rather sleepy here; David must have waked him up to take the picture), who spends most of each morning in his cardboard box. According to the vegetable lady, he started off as a puppy sleeping in an old banana box and still prefers it to any other bed; unfortunately, she doesn't have any larger boxes.

Of course, a few vegetables are the same--for example, those clusters of five tomatoes sold on the vine seem to be traded on a world market without borders. But in general, French vegetables just seem to involve a lot less cellulose. Even the normal green beans in the supermarket are so much less tough than the ones at Publix, and the tiny ones in the open market are wonderful, even now in the dead of winter. I look forward to trying them in season when they will still have their downy surfaces and the "fresh" taste that real green beans lose so quickly after being picked. Baby leeks are available, as a specialty item, but the run-of-the-market leeks are about an inch and a half in diameter, and the white part is 16 inches long. They're clean and plentiful and cost about half what we pay for those runty four-inch ones at Publix whose outer leaves are rotting inside the plastic wrap. Big, green, cooking pumpkins are in the markets now, so I made a garlic pumpkin soup with crême fraiche that I didn't have to culture myself. Next, I'll try "courge de Nice," a large winter squash that's a specialty of the region. They look like giant butternuts, with very long necks, and the vendor will chop off a chunk for you, of the length you specify. Fennel bulbs are also common now in the markets, smaller, tenderer, and sweeter than the ones we get in Tallahassee. They're good raw in salads but even better braised in a little olive oil (Several stalls in the market sell home-pressed olive oil, in a range of colors and grades, so I'm trying a variety.) Large beets are sold already cooked, in individually sealed pouches. I cut up part of one to go in our salad tonight--big success, very tender and sweet. The new potatoes are also especially good right now; my favorite are the little white "fingerlings," with very thin, transparent skins and in better condition than the ones that have recently showed up in Tallahassee. Finally, the salad greens--just as I've described them many times in the past--the last heads of lettuce at the end of the market, the ones that didn't sell and that the vendors throw in the gutters when they leave, are nicer than the best ones I can buy in Tallahassee. Mache (lamb's lettuce), which American grocers describe as so exquisitely fragile that no supermarket could possible carry it, is sold in sacks at Marché U and in bulk from flats in the open market, in two or three different age/size classes. It keeps just fine for days in a plastic bag in the fridge.

But I digress. Laurence's husband (who actually lives and works in Brussels; they have a complicated life) is an EEU fisheries inspector, so when I told Laurence about my "colin" soup, and because my box containing my book of French fishes hadn't yet arrived (it has since), she promised to find out for me what the fish is called in English. His reply was that, if it was from the Atlantic, it would be called a "saithe" in English (a what?), but in the Mediterranean regions, the common "merlu" (hake) was often called "colin." So I got on the web and looked up saithe (Pollachius virens), which turns out to be what we call pollock, and compared some pictures, which made it abundantly clear that I had made hake (Merluccius sp., probably M. merluccius) soup. I recommend it.

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