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Winter Fruits

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Pears

Good pears are in danger of disappearing. The best-tasting varieties (Comice, Bartlett, and French Butter) become easily bruised as they ripen, so large stores are reluctant to carry them. So what can you do? Buy them when you see them. Don’t be afraid to purchase rock-hard pears of these varieties: unlike most other fruits, pears don’t ripen well on the tree and should be ripened at home for the most succulent, juicy flavor. I carefully cradle my pears when I carry them home, then let them rest on the countertop, standing upright on a kitchen towel, until slightly soft to the touch.

Bartlett pears are amazingly aromatic, and in Normandy, folks who distill Calvados add a few along with the apples (about 10%) to heighten the aroma. Pear eau-de-vie, or Pear William (sometimes recognized as the clear liquor with the whole pear in the bottle) is a distillation of Bartlett pears. It takes about 60 pounds of pears to make a small, precious bottle of Pear William. The steam of the cooking pears is captured and that little trickle of liquid is bottled as eau-de-vie.
So stop complaining about the price.

Most pears can also be checked for ripeness by sniffing the stem end. I bought some perfectly-ripe Comice pears last week that were as perfumed as the most divine roses (which are relatives of apples and pears.) Each time I passed them on my countertop, I couldn’t resist picking one up for a sniff.

For cooking and poaching, Bosc and Winter Nellis pears are the best choice as they hold their shape once cooked. These varieties have little fragrance. Although other cooks use them, I’ve never tasted an Anjou pear that was any good.

(And don’t curse those little plastic labels that are stuck on pears. Without those, many of the supermarkets wouldn’t sell the lesser-known varieties of pears, since it’s difficult for the cashiers to know which are which. )

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Dried Apricots

When I visit the United States, I always return loaded down with at least three or four pounds of California dried apricots (right). I’m not xenophobic, but the Turkish apricots (left) are tasteless, bland, and sugary-sweet. If you come visit me, that’s what I ask my friends to pack for me.

I grew up snacking on California dried apricots and I used to call them ‘dried monkey ears’. Their puckery tang makes them ideal when simmered in a light sugar syrup until soft (1 part sugar or honey to 4 parts water, perhaps with a stick of cinnamon or vanilla bean) and served alongside a savory meat or chicken stew. I love them in desserts and I’ll often make a simple (and healthy) soufflé of dried apricots plumped in white wine. Once cooked, I puree them, fold in some whipped egg whites and sugar, and minutes later I pull from the oven a tray of apricot soufflés.

Although the Turkish (and Chinese) varieties are less than half the price, they’re no bargain. If you substitute them in a recipe that calls for dried apricots, you’ll be sadly disappointed. The California growers are having a hard time competing, since so many people seem to shop solely on price, not quality.
So have one less Vente Mocchachino a year and splurge on good-tasting dried fruit. Please.

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Limes

The most widely available lime in the US is the Persian lime. Since it’s seedless, it’s the one most commercial growers cultivate. Often found solidly green and bullet-hard (they’re picked underripe and gassed to preserve their unripe green color), they yield little juice.

As with all citrus, select limes that feel heavy for their size. If you live in France, where they vendors don’t like it when you handle the produce, you risk getting scolded with, “Monseur! Ne touchez pas!” (and in the old days, they would add a petit slap if you were in striking distance). So to avoid the humiliation, I scout around ethnic markets and root around the citrus bins, elbowing aside the Arabic and Chinese women, touching every fruit, and tossing back those that don’t feel hefty and full of juice.

If you pick one up and it feels light, that’s an indication there’s little juice inside. Look for limes that are yellow-golden with a greenish hue. As mentioned, ethnic markets seem to offer golden limes that are valued for their taste, not their looks. And don’t be put of by appearances: older, punky-looking citrus often tastes best since it’s spent the maximum time ripening on the tree rather than sitting in cold storage.

To get the most juice from limes, make sure your limes are at room temperature. Roll them firmly on the countertop with your hand to rupture the juice sacs, then squeeze. While some cookbook authors advise popping them in the microwave for a few seconds, I’d feel funny about heating fresh limes. It jus doesn’t seem right.

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Pineapples

While everyone loves pineapple, no one seems to remember the last time they actually bought one. They seem to make an appearance only for special occasions. So next time you’re at the market, why not pick one up? Personally, it makes me feel better to have something around the house that’s a reminder of the tropics during the long, grey days of winter. (Especially if I pick up a bottle of dark rum at the same time!)

I buy pineapples often during the winter. I like to cut them up and keep pieces in the refrigerator for snacking or to add to a fruit salad with grapes and tangerines. And blended with some dark rum and lime juice, served in a nice glass with some chips and guacamole, I don’t know of a better way to beat the winter blahs. (Luckily, for some reason, they have the best tortilla chips in France. Avocados are plentiful as well.)

The most common varieties of pineapple are the Cayenne and Esmerelda, although you’ll rarely find pineapples listed by variety. Harold McGee suggests buying pineapples grown as close to the equator as possible, although I’ve had exceptional pineapples from Hawaii, the Ivory Coast of Africa, and Costa Rica.

Contrary to popular belief, there’s nothing that plucking out the center leaf of a pineapple will tell you about ripeness. Pineapples don’t ripen after picking so buy one labeled Jet-Fresh, or with a ticket stating that it’s been picked ripe, if possible. Take a sniff: a good pineapple will reveal if it’s ripe by a tropical aroma at the stem end. Lots of yellow on the skin is another indication of ripeness. Avoid fruits with soft spots and mold.

Les Fromages du Jour

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Yes, that’s a few slices of my pain aux ceriales from Le Grenier à Pain paired with some delightful cheeses that I discovered when visiting one of my absolute favorite fromagers here in Paris this morning.

Disclaimer: I confess to a secret and unfulfilled ambition.

Except for working outside in the icy-cold winter and freezing my bourse off, getting up at a godawful hour, and lifting heavy wheels of cheese, my fantasy job is to work as a fromager. Being surrounded by big wheels of cheese and small pyramids of goat cheese, the smell of all those gooey, runny, and nutty cheeses…it all makes me delirious with pleasure
Ok, I guess I could deal with lifting the wheels of cheese, but getting up at 4am?
Now that’s another story…

As a fromager, I would make recommendations to les clients. “Qu’est-ce que vous desirez, madame?”, I would ask, ready to council the customer. (Using my perfect French, of course…this is my fantasy, remember?) I’d slice and wrap a fine selection of cheeses to serve to her her family after a well-prepared supper of roast pintade and pommes des terres rôti with a fine, crisp Sancerre or gravely, full-flavored Pomerol.

We’d make witty banter about Johnny Halliday and socks with whimsical cartoon figures on them while I selected a few fine cheeses, perhaps a dead-ripe Camembert de Normandie and a Corsican Brin d’Amour, covered with fragrant mountain herbs.

Ah, je rêve

I visit many cheese shops, oops, I mean fromageries here in Paris. I search for shops that have unusual cheeses, since many of the best ones seem to focus on a particular region or type of cheese like les chèvres or fine mountain cheeses from the Savoie.

Although many of the outdoor markets have people selling cheese, I’ve found none better than N. Caillère at the Popincourt Market in the 11th arrondissement on the Boulevard Richard Lenoir. Twice a week, the two cheery women who run their stand never fail to prompt me to discover a cheese I’ve never tasted.
Such as this triple-crème Délice de Saint-Cyr

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Triple-cream means the cheese has a minimum fat content of a whopping 75% (although that percentage refers to the amount of fat in the solids, and most cheeses are about 50% water and 50% solids…still, it ain’t no rice cake.)
Although I ate it at it gooiest best, at room temperature, the cheese left a sweet, suprisingly cool aftertaste.

They also had a lovely, and well-aged Comté de Jura, a marvelously-nutty, full-flavored cheese made from raw cow’s milk and is the most widely-produced cheese in France.
And it’s popular for good reason; it’s always excellent and pairs well with most other cheeses on a cheese plate as well as both white and red wines.

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I’m in love most goat cheeses; I seem to like them all. With their smooth, dreamy-white interior and their soft, gentle aroma of the farm, it doesn’t matter to me whether they’re fresh or aged. It’s a rare day at the market for me if I don’t have one tucked into my market basket.

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This Tomme de Chèvre is from a small farm and is called Vendômois. Although the outside has the fine crust of mold, I was told the cheese is rather young and the elasticity and suppleness of the p&acurc;te indeed suggests less affinage, or cave ripening.

N. Caillère
Fromager

-Popincourt Market
(Tuesday and Friday)

-Place Réunion Market
(Sunday)

The Simple Life: Paris

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“Adam knows what he did, and that’s all I’m ever going to say about it.”
-David ‘Paris’ Lebovitz

Watch David and Adam à Paris…

Santa Monica Farmer’s Market

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Tiny little heads of cauliflower, no bigger than a dolls-head. These were the most colorful I’d ever seen in magnificent shades of vivid purple and deep orange.

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Although America is known as the land of HUGE food, these tiny baby carrots are tender and very sweet. My first week as a cook at Chez Panisse, I spent a few hours peeling a case of them…only to discover later they were going to be blended up and made into soup!

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The actresses (and wannabes) trolling around Hollywood aren’t the only things nicely stacked in LA…

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Potatoes

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These are Improved Meyer lemons. The original Meyer lemons were disease-prone so they were re-hybridized, hence the name Improved Meyer lemon. They’re often mistakenly called a cross between an orange and a Eureka lemon since they’re as sweet, juicy, and aromatic as an orange, but with a lemony tang. But they’re not.

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Beautiful winter squash

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Stinging Nettles, which have lots of tiny prickers…ne touchez pas!

For more information on the market, visit the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market web site.

At the Market in Paris

At my local marché this week…

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Grown in Brittany, one of the weirdest vegetables found in France is Romanesco, a relative of broccoli. It’s cooked the same way, a la vapeur, simply steamed and tossed with a pad of rich French butter.

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Sand-grown carrots are sweeter (and dirtier) than ordinary carrots.

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French (and American) cooks can find lots of thyme at the markets, which is much stronger than the thyme I’m used to. When I moved to France, I’d add big handfuls of thyme to everything I could since it’s so abundant and fragrant. It’s my favorite herb. Eventually a regular dinner guest bluntly told me I put too much thyme in things. (French people believe they’re doing you a favor when they criticize you, and I’ve had to explain to a few of them that Americans are a bit more subtle in our approach.)

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The wonderful, sparkling-fresh seafood at the markets is something I’ve always stop and take a good look at. I’m always fascinated (and sometimes a bit freaked out) by bizarre sea life; slithery eels, shark meat displayed alongside the toothy shark head, bulots or little sea whelks that you pop from the shells with a pin, octopus (which some day I will work up the nerve to try…or perhaps not), and tiny grey shrimp, known as grises that are simply boiled in aromatic fish stock known as court bouillon then eaten cold, like popcorn. I really admire the fish people I shop from at the market, since I think their job is the most difficult and gruesome (although last week I saw an enormous wild boar, larger than I was, hanging upside down at the boucherie, which was soon to be evicerated for Civet de Sanglier, a long-cooked savory stew of wild boar, the sauce thickened with red wine and blood.)

Come Christmas the fish mongers are especially busy folks, since French people are insane for fresh oysters and buy them by the crate. Almost all the oysters come from Brittany, and before motorized transportation, horses would gallop wildly towards Paris from the coastal regions until they collapsed from exhaustion. Then there’d be another horse along the route to take over from there. This ensured that the briny oysters made it to Paris fresh and cold. My favorite oysters are the flat Belons, which I like with a bit of shallot-vinegar sauce wiht a few grinds of black pepper, sauce mignonette, along with a well-chilled glass, or two, of Sancerre and tangy rye bread smeared with lots of salted butter. It makes the cold, grey winter that’s quickly approaching us here in Paris bearable.

Quince…revisited

A week or so I wrote about one of my favorite fruits; the quince.

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After all the poached quince slices were eaten (at about the same rate as the batch of homemade vanilla ice cream which I made to go alongside), I reduced the delicious syrup on the stovetop until it was thick and the bubbles became large. Once removed from the heat, as the syrup cooled, the pectin in the fruit encouraged the liquid to be transformed into a lovely quince jelly riddled with dark and aromatic vanilla seeds.

I found a beautiful and tangy bleu cheese at my favorite fromagerie; it’s a perfect pairing.

Ph. Langlet
Fromager
Marché Beauvais
Tel: 01 43 45 35 09

Brie de Meaux

In summertime, I follow Parisians who’re making a mass exodus from the city. We scurry from the city, jamming crowded autoroutes and packing the train stations. The city offers few trees or shade, and the sunlight reflecting off the white buildings means little respite from the withering heat no matter how hard you look-and there’s only so much icy-cold rosé that I can drink!

So I often make weekend trips to the village of Coulommiers, where there’s a lively outdoor market selling the most famous cheese in the world: Brie.
Brie is not a town, but a region to the east about one hour away by car or train. The sunday market in Coulommiers is one of my favorites because no where else in the world will you find so many cheese vendors selling all kinds of Brie, many unavailable anywhere else.

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There are two true Brie cheeses. The classic is Brie de Meaux (Bree-du-Mohw), about 14-inches across, each disk weighing approximately 5 pounds. Brie de Melun (Brie-du-Meh-Lahn) is slightly smaller, a tad higher, and doesn’t ripen all the way to make a creamy pâte, like Brie de Meaux. Often you’ll cut open Brie de Melun and discover a drier layer of underripe cheese in the middle (at left). These cheeses have the most superb flavor in the late spring-to-early summer, when the cows feast on mustard blossoms, giving the cheese a musty, complex flavor and slight golden tinge.

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Brie de Melun is aged longer than Brie de Meaux. It has a firmer texture and many aficionados prefer it because of it’s stronger and more aggressive flavor. Both cheeses can be made with raw or pasteurized milk, although I prefer the raw versions, which are rarely available in the United States due to regulations in the US (where you’re allowed to drive at high-speeds on freeways while talking on a cell phone and drinking a giant latté, but prohibited from eating cheese that has been prepared the same way for centuries.)

These two Brie cheeses are AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) as of 1990, a product designation given by the French authorities, which states that these specific cheeses meet certain criterion for heating, coagulating, and salting the milk, the subsequent ripening, as well as being fabricated within the specific region. Most cheeses you’ll find labeled Brie are not a true Brie unless the AOC label is affixed to the exterior. In the US, you’ll only find it at a specialty cheese store…if you’re lucky to find it at all. In France, a notable exception is Brie de Nangis, which is a young, milder Brie from the region but does not carry the AOC label, but it’s good. The AOC designation has also been given to 34 cheeses as well as other products like the tasty green lentils from Puy, Haricot Tarbais (the dried beans used to make cassoulet), and the free-range Poulet de Bresse.

Although AOC is often a sign of quality, other products don’t carry the appellation, since they may be made in a neighboring region, or a slightly larger size, or stirred a few more times than the regulations allow during production. So as with anything, let your nose and the taste be your guide. No matter where you live, always seek out a good cheese shop and ask the fromager for advice: they’re a wealth of knowledge and should be proud of their cheeses and happy to help you.

Coulommiers is another excellent cheese from the region, and not AOC. It’s a smaller round, about 6-inches in diameter, and not widely known outside of France. Coulommiers has the same barnyard-like smell that is delectably appetizing in Camembert and indicative of a truly ripe Brie, but is a bit more pungent.

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Locals in Brie are perhaps the only ones who have developed an appreciation for Brie Noir. Normally Brie cheeses are ripened for between one and two months. Brie Noir is ripened much longer, often 8 to 10 months. It’s such a regional specialty, and only appreciated by people of the region, that you’re likely never to see it anywhere else.

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As you can see, Brie Noir is dark, brown, and crumbly. It’s covered with dusty powder and it tastes, well…horrid. After my first eaglerly-anticipated bite, I could not get the vile taste out of my mouth. It’s bitter and acidic. A friend from Coulommiers suggested I dip it into my café au lait at breakfast, which I suspiciously tried, which actually moderated the flavor and made it more palatable. Who knew?

Brie Q & A’s

But my supermarket cheese says Brie…isn’t that Brie?

Real Brie is almost always Brie de Melun or Brie de Meaux. Most of the other cheeses labeled ‘Brie’ are not true Brie. They often won’t ripen properly and taste worlds apart from real Brie.

Should you eat the rind?

The general rule for eating the rind of any cheese is that you may eat it as long as it won’t interfere with the taste or experience of the cheese. For example, something with a lot of mold growth obviously wouldn’t taste very good. A tough rind, like the rind of Parmesan, you wouldn’t want to eat either.

How do I cut Brie?

Think of any round wheel of cheese like a pie or cake. You should slice a triangular wedge out, so that you have a nice portion of cheese.
When presented with a full cheese plate to serve yourself, never cut the ‘nose’ off the cheese, the pointy end: It’s very bad manners!

Can I bring back raw milk cheese into the US?

That depends. Most of the time, I’ve found Customs Officers (oops…I mean ‘Department of Homeland Security’) officers will look the other way as long as you’re bringing in cheese that’s for personal consumption. Obviously if you have 60 wheels of Brie, you will likely get busted. Many fromageries in France will Cryo-vac (sous vide) cheese for transport to contain the fragrance, which I recommend. I once traveled with cheese in zip-top bags and by the end of the flight, the overhead bin totally reeked of cheese.
Luckily the other passengers were French…and for some reason, the US officials quickly waved me through customs.

I’m Nuts For This Sausage

A friend of mine, another David L (who also worked at Chez Panisse with me and is now a chef in Switzerland) comes to visit me often, and it’s one of the few times I let someone else into my tiny kitchen. He’s a terrific cook, and perhaps the only person who is more picky about the way things should be in a kitchen than I am.
David and I like to roam about town looking for things to eat but we always we have a falafel at L’As du Falafel on the rue des Rosiers, in the Marais when he arrives. I usually insist visitors to Paris go there during their trip, since I would rank their 3.5 euro falafel as good as many 3-star dining experiences (and better, and cheaper, than one I recently had.)

Recently we were at the Richard Lenoir market, off the Bastille, and on sunday (the market is thursday and sunday) there are two of the nicest young women from the Savoie selling products from their region. They’ve got everything from buckwheat squares of pasta, rugged mountain cheeses, and cured meats. David (the other one) was excited to see this sausage which is studded with nuts!

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It seemed pretty wacky to me to put nuts in sausage, isn’t it? But the nutty, crunchy almonds are terrific and I can’t wait until next sunday since, as you can see, I’m almost at the end of my, er, sausage.