Paris

White Asparagus Part 2

By | Paris, white asparagus | No Comments
As I said in White Asparagus Part 1, I’d always just boiled my white asparagus. Well this asparagus season we went to Spring restaurant in Paris. My favourite taste in the meal was the grapefruit jelly for many reasons, but the white asparagus were delicious too and a revelation. Obviously  chef Daniel Rose shares my opinion that white asparagus should be big and fat, look at these beauties in the photo. You can read about Daniel and his restaurant in an article written by my friend Lesley Chesterman.
The asparagus at Spring were roasted, you can see their brown colouration and served in a shellfish sauce with sorrel leaves and toasted buckwheat. It was a great combination, however it was the idea of roasting them that hooked me. Of course I’d roasted green asparagus in the oven and even put them on the barbecue, but that was before I became an asparagus snob.
I talked to a couple of Parisian friends who pointed out that this was how Alain Passard cooked them at L’Arpège. I’ve eaten there twice, but never in the spring and perhaps never again, given the prices. Well I began with a heavy cast iron pan and butter. My husband did the trimming and peeling and I could only fit 6 fat asparagus in my pan. I added butter to the pan with a drizzle of olive oil and when the butter melted I added the asparagus. I “roasted” them turning them in the pan until they were nicely coloured, with the heat on medium. It took about  12 minutes. At this point my asparagus weren’t completely cooked, so I reduced the heat to low and covered the pan. After another 5 minutes or so, my asparagus were cooked, I tested them with a cake tester. I seasoned them with salt and pepper, added more butter to the pan, and when it began to melt, I served them with the butter and pan juices.
They were delicious, so much so I’m going to have to buy a bigger pan so I can share this treat with friends. And I guess I really pan-roasted and steamed them, if we want to be exact.

White Asparagus Part 1

By | Paris, white asparagus | 2 Comments
I’m an asparagus snob. For me asparagus are white and fat. You have to peel white asparagus, so you want something left when you finish and I’d rather eat three fat ones than half a dozen skinny ones.  When I first came to France eons ago, green asparagus, the only ones I was familiar with at the time, were no where to be found. You could find skinny wild green asparagus, but everything else is white. Today green are everywhere. To my taste white asparagus are superior to green. They are the same plant except the white ones are buried under a mound of sandy soil. This protects them from the light and stops the formation of chlorophyl resulting in a pure asparagus taste, free of the grassiness of the green ones.
One of the main reasons we come to Paris in the spring is to eat white asparagus. I just cook them, my husband does all the work. They must be trimmed at the base and carefully peeled, a small knife is the best tool. You can see how much of the stringy outside he removes, that’s why you buy fat ones.

Now there are always instructions to tie asparagus into neat bundles and steam them standing up. Well bundles are a good idea if you are cooking large numbers, and as for standing them up, how many people own a special steamer for asparagus? I usually cook 12 to 16 at a time so I let them float around in my roasting pan. The roasting pan, on an oval burner, is ideal. You can move the pan so most of the heat is concentrated to one side. (You can also do this with frying pan on a regular burner if you’re careful). Then you place the asparagus in the pan so their bases are over the heat and the tips are further away.  The tips of white asparagus are more robust than green and the stalks are uniform, which makes them easier to cook.

Put the asparagus in the pan to make sure they fit in a single layer and cover with cold water. Remove the asparagus, add about 1 teaspoon of salt and a good pinch of sugar to the pan. Bring the water to a boil, add the asparagus, bases towards the heat and lower the heat so that the water simmers. No matter what you read you need to cook white asparagus longer than green, at least 15 and maybe 25 minutes. The fatter and the older they are the longer they’ll take to cook.

Test by piercing the base of the asparagus with a cake tester, or a fine skewer. You want them cooked NOT crunchy. You also don’t want them overcooked and mushy. Pay attention.  Drain them well on a towel, to help absorb the water, and keep them warm if you plan to serve them hot. You can cook them ahead of time and reheat them in the oven.

Asparagus are often served cold with mayonnaise, or a vinaigrette. My friend Caroline makes a sauce with an egg yolk, mustard and crème fraîche, which she often “lightens” with a stiffly beaten egg white. I prefer them hot and I make a sauce maltaise, a variation on hollandaise with blood orange juice. The blood orange and white asparagus seasons overlap and they match brilliantly. This photo show another good mach for asparagus – scallops Here they are both served with a blood orange butter sauce. Just reduce the zest and juice of a blood orange down to a couple of tablespoons, add 1 tablespoon whipping cream and then whisk in about 100g of unsalted butter, making sure it emulsifies into the sauce and does not melt in.

Simmering asparagus is my main method for cooking this fabulous vegetable, but this spring I discovered another thanks to a dinner at Spring restaurant. More soon.

Cardoons

By | Cardoons, Paris | 2 Comments
One of my favourite places in Paris is the Luxembourg Gardens. This photo was taken in the autumn when cardoons were part of the flower borders, I’ve also seen them in Parc Montsouris. I wanted to sneak back late in the evening to harvest a few stalks, but the gardens, wisely,  are closed at night.
As you can see from the cardoon flowers they’re a close relative of the artichoke. The cardoon heads, before they flower, are edible, however cardoons are grown for their large fleshy stalks. I love their earthy, artichoke taste. The dried flowers provide a vegetarian rennet for making cheese. 

Cardoons are not easy to find, but at the beginning of the month, they turned up in my market right there next to the puntarelle, I love living in an Italian neighbourhood, and of course they came from California. Now there’s no denying cardoons take work. While the big outside leaves, that can have prickles, and the tops are trimmed, the remaining leaves, which are very bitter, must be removed. Then the coarse strings on the outside of the stems need to be pulled off, use a knife or a vegetable peeler, it’s just like stringing celery. As cardoons brown quickly, place the prepared stems in a bowl of acidulated water.

Then cook them in boiling salted water until tender, they take about 25 minutes, depending on their size and age. Once cooked, drain them and dress them with a vinaigrette, add to a potato salad, or cover them with cheese sauce and make a gratin. A good way for a novice to try them.

In Piedmont cardoons are served raw with bagna calda, a dip made with lots of garlic, anchovies, olive oil and butter. The cardoons in North America are larger and more bitter so most people prefer them cooked. It’s not the bitterness that stops me, I love bitter melon, it’s the texture of the larger stems that are often hollow in the centre. The small, velvety, centre stems, if you take the time to peel them completely, are crunchy, juicy and pleasantly bitter. Perfect to dip in bagna calda.


Cardoons deserve to be more popular. If you see them in your market give them a try, they may look like celery on steroids, but they’re a much more interesting and complex vegetable.

Tripe Truck

By | Offal, Paris, tripe | 2 Comments
I was excited when I learnt that the Tripe Truck would be in my Paris neighbourhood in November. It was scheduled to be at Montparnasse twice in the same week: Monday and Wednesday. Monday arrived and I jumped on the 58 bus and headed to the station. I walked around and around the square in front of the station – no tripe truck.
Major disappointment. However, perhaps I’d made a mistake. Why would they come twice to my part of town? After all they didn’t know I lived there.  On Wednesday I set off again and again no tripe truck. I was not only disappointed, I was annoyed. I fired off a couple of angry Tweets implying that the French were hopeless at organizing anything. On Thursday I left for Zurich, more about that soon, and forgot all about the Tripe Truck. The following Wednesday by chance I  happened to be at Montparnasse and low and behold there was the shiny blue Tripe Truck.  I’d made a mistake with the dates. If I’d bothered to check my calendar where I had marked the passage of the Tripe Truck before I left for Paris I’d have realised my mistake the week before. So I now officially withdraw all my negative comments about the French, but just those concerning the Tripe Truck.
 
The truck was, in reality, a fancy Airstream caravan, or as I learnt a “travel trailer”. The advertised tripe burgers were indeed gratuit (free), but they didn’t contain any tripe. I’d imagined  pieces of cow’s stomach breaded and fried in a bun. Instead, the mini burger buns were filled with slices tongue, liver or cheek, garnished with beetroot, radish and mayonnaise. Not really a burger, but tasty nonetheless.
Every city should have a tripe truck to introduce people to offal. If it’s free people will try it. Imagine  fried testicles, braised tripe, breadcrumbed brains, sautéed heart, and liver, cheek and tongue in a bun with toppings. I bet we’d convert the populace to nose to tail eating.

Sweetbreads

By | Offal, Paris | 12 Comments
I love being in Paris for lots of reasons, one of them being the ready availability of offal. In my local market we spied sweetbreads, ris de veau in French. I would like to bust several myths concerning sweetbreads –
 #1 sweetbreads are testicles – they are not. Testicles are testicles. I just read on a blog this week that sweetbreads is another term in English for testicles, it is not! Sweetbread is an old term from the sixteenth century, “sweet” refers to the this odd bits’s prized status and bread comes from the Old English word broed meaning flesh.
#2 sweetbreads include the pancreas – they do not. Unfortunately, in North America the pancreas is often sold as a sweetbread, even by butchers who should know better.
Sweetbreads are the thymus gland which consists of two parts, the throat sweetbread and the heart sweetbread. They are only found in young animals as the animal ages the thymus gland atrophies, which explains why sweetbreads are in short supply and expensive.
The sweetbreads in my market were the desirable veal heart sweetbreads, bigger and more compact.
The first step is to soak the sweetbread in cold salted water. Then poach it in a court bouillon, a fancy name for a liquid flavoured with vegetables, herbs and spices, see Odd Bits. This takes about 5 to 15 minutes depending on the size of the sweetbread. Test by pressing with your finger tip, they should be firm but still springy. You can see that the sweetbread becomes more compact. Slide the sweetbread into ice water to stop the cooking. When it is just cool enough to handle, remove any fat, gristle and as much of the membrane as you can.
Place the sweetbread in a pie dish lined with a clean towel, fold the cloth over the sweetbread and place another pie plate on top. Add a weight to lightly press the sweetbread and refrigerate for 2 to 3 hours to firm up. Normally my sweetbread would fall into small pieces as I usually only find the throat ones in Toronto. The heart sweetbread stays intact so I decided to sauté it whole. I seasoned it with salt and pepper, browned it gently in butter turning and basting until it had a good colour, but was still springy, about 12 minutes.

You could add a sauce, but when the sweetbread is this good it needs nothing else at all.