You won’t often find much in the way of vegetables on the menus of many cafés in Paris. I don’t mean the over-hyped restaurants with the fancy chef names attached that the slick food magazines tend to worship. There you might find a coin of grilled zucchini, a dot of sauce, and perhaps a leaf of parsley as a carefully-draped garnish. But most of the time, those places are filled with Americans with Zagat guides sticking out of their pockets. What I mean are the places where most Parisians actually eat lunch.
Many French workers get financial help footing the bill, courtesy of le Ticket Resto, a program that allows employees to buy discount coupons via their employer to dine out. The advantage to that is that it keeps many small restaurants thriving, so most of them offer a prix-fixe menu that anyone’s welcome to enjoy, usually costing less than 15 euros for a 2- or 3-course meal.
Another advantage is that it gives workers time to have a proper lunch with co-workers and friends.
(Sidenote: Having worked in restaurants all my life, I was once at a dinner party and mentioned that I never had a job where I got a true a break. All conversation stopped, forks in mid-air, and everyone turned and looked at me in disbelief. When I left the restaurant business I vowed I would never eat standing up again. And I haven’t!)
What that also means is that the food must be quick and relatively easy to prepare. Menus offer steaks or long-cooked stews, and perhaps a sauteed piece of fish. But since vegetables require washing, peeling, slicing, pre-cooking, and a bit of finesse, it’s quite difficult to find freshly-cooked vegetables on menus of ordinary restaurants. The most popular side dish is les frites; all that’s needed is a quick drop-in-the-deep-fryer, and they’re done. Sadly, most of the time, they’re the pre-frozen frites, which arrive undercooked and insipid. I make it a point to find restaurants with real, honest French fries.
And I go back as much as possible, as a show of support.
Even ratatouille, that famous vegetable dish from Provence is just a big bowl of overcooked, soft vegetables. And please don’t tell me that I haven’t had a good version of ratatouille…I have, and I still don’t like it.
There is one vegetable dish that’s so popular that it ranks right up there with foie gras and le baguette as classics of modern French cuisine. That’s carottes rapées, a crisp pile of freshly-grated carrots. There’s well-known aversion in France to undercooked vegetables (or as they say, ‘American-style’) and you almost never find raw vegetables offered in Paris.
Corn is always served spooned right from the can onto a salad, or worse, on pizza (with a sunny-side up egg cooked in the middle.) Tiny haricots verts are always cooked until tender. And the little pointed end of the green bean is always removed…and I’ve heard various compelling arguements why.
“C’est indigestable” (I hate lying awake all night trying to digest all the green bean ends I’ve consumed), or “It gets stuck in your teeth” (that is the worst, isn’t it?)
But my favorite reason, “That’s where all the radiation concentrates.”
…um, okay…so now like a good Parisian I remove the end of the green bean, or the “boot”, as it’s called.
To limit my exposure to radiation.
Anyhow…les carottes rapées is simply grated carrots tossed in fresh lemon juice, a bit of salt, and sometimes a little olive oil. If you want to get fancy, you can add a bit of chopped flat-leaf parsley. But it’s one of those things, the simpler the better. Simple restaurants like Chartier just toss a plate of carrots at you with a wedge of lemon. Other places arrange les carottes rapées on a plate with tangy celery rémoulade and beets.
I make it often when I’m home by myself, since it’s nice to have something easy to prepare and fresh, and I always seem to have carrots around. I make a plate of carottes rapées, and eat it with a few chunks of Tradigrains baguette from my local boulanger, a nice wedge of soft, fresh, ooaing cheese like a ripe brie de Meaux or a goaty Selles-Sur-Cher, and perhaps a slice of pâte from my local charcuterie.
Here’s my how-to guide for making your own Grated Carrot Salad, French-style.