Let’s start with ugly. These knobby little fellows were unknown to me before my last trip to Paris, but I appreciated them so much then that I found them in the market at home and even started to grow them. In French they are topinambours. In English, they seem strangely misnamed Jerusalem artichokes, for they have nothing to do with artichokes, nor the Holy Land from what I can tell. They are sweet, nutty little tubers that are, together with parsnips and salsify, part of the holy trinity of Parisian winter vegetables for roasting. So that is what to do. Peel, roast and serve. Or, you could puree them after roasting and toss in herbes de provence, truffle oil, or other flavoring. Given a good supply of topinambours you could get through anything, even a Canadian winter.
On to the good, if weird.
I first came acrss lardons in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. In Julia Child’s Coq au Vin and Boeuf Bourgignon, they are the starting point for building up a mellifluous symphony of flavors in the style of traditional French food. I make my own lardons at home from good old Canadian bacon. But you do not see bacon here. You see handi-paks of lardons. And these little babies sure come in handy. They are part of my budget and health plan, believe it or not. See, fry up and toss in a few (just a very few) lardons with a pan of roasted veggies and voila, you have a savoury dinner your husband is not going to complain about because he thinks he’s eating bacon.
More good. As we have discussed, the French care deeply about scent and taste, but they are also appreciative of the cute (see previous post), so many familiar foods come in adorable round shapes (see zucchini) or in baby format (see irresistable baby cauliflowers). Normally, I am fully capable of resisting cauliflower, believe me. But when it is this cute? Zut!
Still with the good, check out that package of meat. This is French budget food par excellence. It also has the cute factor. About the size of a large osso bucco, bound with string into a cohesive round, it is queue de veau, veal tail. Why turn this part of the beast into dogfood, or what ever they do at home with it? It is delicious. For, as Ruth Reichl says, meat is tender at the bone. And bone delivers a lot of flavour when browned and then slowly braised in the cheap red wine of our grocer, on low heat, for a couple of hours. As you go, toss in what ever you would normally – carrots, leeks or onions, maybe fennel. Serve in a bowl with that crusty baguette you see on the counter.
Now for the bad. One of the changes I’ve noticed is the growing presence of this item in the bakeries of Paris. OK, Laduree was one thing. This sweet and elegant shop in St. Germain-des-Pres with its baroque and feminine decor was the right place for these, and besides they have much more in the way of sweets that are worthy of your attention. Perhaps the American interest in macaroons has spurred the Parisians on, but the bald truth is that these little objets are not very good. They are, in fact bad. The outer disks are like a stale ice cream cone or a communion wafer with suger added. Inside, is a gummy, sugary wad of something that would do better as an insulation than as a confection. Why eat this when there is so much good stuff? And what’s with the dayglow colours? A shocking lapse of taste. It just shows us that the Parisians CAN sometimes get it wrong.