Many years before moving to France I was lucky enough to be offered the birthday gift of a weekend in Paris. The friends who took me were staying with some terribly chic Parisiens in a beautiful suburb ( the name, ah age, escapes me now,) somewhere on the way to Fontainebleau. We arrived in the early evening, were shown to our rooms and invited to wash up before meeting in the garden for dinner. The gorgeous house, ( I seem to remember our host was an architect,) and then the amazing walled enchantment of a garden had me feeling just a mite overwhelmed and more than a little out of my depth.
The table, simply elegant, with it’s Vichy cloth and linen napkins, was candlelit and surrounded by the equally beautiful family. As I sat, accepting a glass of wine – easy in any language – Monsieur, to my right, handed me a large bowl of radishes and gestured for me to serve myself. I placed a couple on my plate and attempted to pass the bowl on to Madame, to my left. Error ! Madame pushed the bowl back saying something earnestly in French. Seized by panic, understanding nothing, I employed my only gallic word and merci, mercying, pushed the bowl firmly back into her grip. I was incredibly hungry and eager for whatever was due to join the two miserable radishes on my plate. Madame shrugged, plunged her hand into the bowl and dropped a mini mountain of crisp red roots onto her plate. I watched open mouthed as the bowl made the tour of the table, every plate piled in turn. When it finally made it’s way back to my host he promptly scooped the last remaining dozen onto his plate, grabbed a hunk of crisp baguette, a wedge of butter and tucked in.
That was my very first introduction to the French and the crudité. And a mistake I have successfully avoided since ! Now I don’t know about you, but I had the idea that French food was all meat and sauce, wine and cream, truffles and fois gras. My French family have happily taught me otherwise. Though the meat or fish is generally still the star at most tables in this corner of the world, the vegetables are taken pretty damned seriously too!
Rare is the meal that doesn’t begin with a legume in some shape or form. Often raw but not always. Usually extremely simple and frequently a salad of some kind; the entrée at a family table, school canteen or corner bistro serves to open the appetite, kick start the digestion and load up on all that veggie goodness. And quite honestly this simple grub is some of my favourite fare.
So let’s get back to the humble radish, which serves beautifully to illustrate an entrée à la croque au sel , literally, salt pot style. Take a mountain of celery, or radishes, or an artichoke or two, some fresh bread, butter and a little mound of salt. Dip the veg in the salt and crunch, follow with torn morsels of bread topped with a little nugget of butter and some good conversation and you have an excellent start to any meal. Funny how simple is so often perfect. Before trying this for myself, I couldn’t have imagined just how pleasing a plateload of celery could be ! Try it with lightly boiled semi mature broad beans ( shelled on the plate before dipping.) Since being introduced to this little delicacy by my other half, I’ve become such a fan that my broad bean patch ( not phenomenally cost efficient in terms of space/ yield) has tripled in size and still can’t meet the family’s demand !
But that’s all spring stuff, so I thought, what with the weather being as dreary as it is, I’d share a few French entrées using winter veg. After a summer of salads the thing I most miss through the cold season is the crunch. Here are three ideas that will bring some crisp winter sunshine back to your plates.
I’ll begin with Grandmère Simone’s beetroot, apple and walnut salad. Christophe’s grandmother was a wonderful woman whom I had the priviledge of knowing for many years before she died at the grand old age of 100 a while back. A superb cook who was still wielding pots at her stove and delighting us with her creations until just a few years before she left us. This salad was one of her winter classics, a great way of using that bottled beetroot in the larder.(Check out our bottling beetroot video if you don’t already know how to!) The beets may be cooked, but the apples, walnuts and parsley in a light vinaigrette make for a zingy entrée that lifts the spirits and brightens the table.
Next up is Jaqueline’s celariac and smoked herring salad. I’m inclined to think that my other halfs disinclination for all things cuisine has more to do with laziness than lack of aptitude. He has the gourmet genes on both sides of the family. My mother-in-law is a marvellous cook and this winter delight caught me from the first delicious bite. I’d not tried much celariac before moving to France, and it hadn’t left a terribly favourable impression. But wow ! Raw, enlivened with cider vinegar and plenty of seasoning, this salad is now a firm favourite in our house and though my homegrown bulbs aren’t nearly as fat as those found in the supermarket, I just grow more ! So simple… grated celariac, finely chopped shallots, parsley and slivers of smoked herring in a light vinaigrette. Ah voilà… perfection on a plate !
The last is my own variation on the classic carrottes râpé – quite simply, grated carrots in a vinaigrette. A winter staple all over france, you can find it with parsley or shallots or garlic, but that is basically it. I’ve been in the habit of making it with an orange vinaigrette, or occasionally ringing the changes with a good shake of cumin, but this year I’ve grown the wonderful (if appallingly named) ‘Burpee’ beetroot. A fabulously juicy yellow beet, that grated and mixed with equal quantities of carrots makes for sunshine on a plate. Throw in some toasted sunflower seeds, diced red onion and a good ‘n’ garlicky vinaigrette and whehey you can send those winter blues packing !
We wonder how come the French, with their reputation for rich food are so low on the list of heart attack nations – well I’m firmly convinced that their little known and less praised vegetable passion has plenty to do with it. That and the red wine of course !
’til next week,