Original article written for The Vancouver Sun.
When it comes to gastronomy, Paris is often seen as the motherland. Holding the most Michelin stars than any other city, culinary talents are on full display with spectacles of sauces, vegetables showing off precise knife skills, gloating pomme de terre soufflé, all atop fine squares of foie gras or surrounded by perfect droplets of caviar. The pâtisseries and salon du thé are even more elaborate, where the furnishings are as ancient as the Ancien Regimé and the desserts just as intricate.
And to me, Paris is very much about this opulent eating, about this rare convergence of history and taste, where it plays an important role. (It seems UNESCO also agrees as the French gastronomic meal was inscribed as an intangible heritage in 2010.) But I must admit that, while I began to learn the language and culture in restaurants when I first came to Paris, it was actually in the markets where I first started to understand the language and culture.
Marché de la Bastille was my local market, one of the largest, and every Sunday morning I would walk through the dozens of vendors selling hundreds of cheeses, tasting for the first time Rocomadour and fromage blanc, a fresh, creamy cheese similar to yogurt often eaten as a dessert with fruit. I would learn the basics of French by talking to fishmongers, reading signs next to each fruit and vegetable and listening to the pronunciations. I soaked in the varietals of mushrooms, leafy greens and the smells of roasting chicken, their fat basting a pan of potatoes below them. This is where I first began to feel at home in France.
Since then, each time I have visitors in Paris, I take them to the market, an introduction to the Paris I love. I force-feed them Lebanese breads, buckwheat crepes, olives and dried fruits. I parade them around arrays of fresh herbs and green almonds, oyster stands and flower stalls, until they are full of inspiration and a hunger to take it all home to cook and feast.
For most staying in hotel rooms or tiny Parisian rentals with meager kitchens, it’s often not possible. And each time, I’m always disappointed that one of the most intimate Parisian experiences is missed: the market meal. It’s the satisfying culmination of a good market day, cravings satiated with a table full of the season’s freshest, enjoyed leisurely with some cheese, baguette and wine to the sounds of busy Parisian streets below.
So, in contrast to Paris’ haute-cuisine, I’ve created “fond-cuisine”, flexible, no-cook, no-need-to-measure dishes from market finds that can be done with simple tools found in a hotel room: a dull knife, plates, a few wine glasses and an appetite for fine dining.
A note on the recipes: don’t worry about precision, as these recipes are meant to be simple and eyeballed to taste. They are not meant to be measured, there is no right or wrong, just enjoy the process and if it tastes delicious to you, it’s perfect. With flavourful ingredients, it doesn’t need to be more complicated than that.
Salade de Tomate Coeur de Boeuf
This simple summer tomato salad is made of a special varietal of tomato translated as “beef heart tomato” because of its size and shape. It’s juicy, sweet and makes a perfect salad. In other parts of the world, choose an heirloom varietal with thin skin and sweet flesh. The important part is to enjoy the simplicity of the tomato at its best.
1 large Tomate Coeur de Boeuf
1 oignon frais violet (can be substituted with shallot)
Juice of 1 lemon
Healthy drizzle of olive oil
Healthy sprinkling of coarse sea salt (I like the kind from Guérande)
1 bunch of fresh basil
Cut the tomato into thick slices about half an inch or a centimeter, and spread out onto a plate. Cut the onion into thin slices and sprinkle over the tomato. Drizzle lemon juice and olive oil over the dish, top with whole basil leaves plucked off the stems by hand, and sprinkle with sea salt to serve.
Market Roast Chicken with Prune Vinaigrette
I love the juicy rotisserie chickens found at the markets all over Paris. The skins are crispy and caramelized and the scent is irresistible. Frankly, it can be eaten plain but if you’re wanting a twist, this prune and chive vinaigrette adds a bit of sweetness and acidity to the savoury chicken. The prunes in France tend to be much juicier and more tender, so if you are making this elsewhere, soak the prunes in a touch of hot water for five minutes first to replicate the same texture.
1 roast chicken
Juice of 2 lemons
A large spoonful of honey
A bunch of chives
About 20 prunes
Coarse sea salt
Ground black pepper
Take the juices of the chicken and place into a bowl and put the chicken on a plate. Garnish the chicken with about 15 prunes and half a bunch of chives to the side. In the bowl of chicken juices, add the lemon juice and honey, whisk with a fork until dissolved. Tear the other half of the chives by hand into the bowl and add about 5 prunes, also torn my hand, pits removed. Smash and muddle the mixture together using the fork, add salt and pepper to taste and drizzle over the chicken to serve.
Fromage Blanc with Seasonal Fruit
This can be found at the cheesemongers in large pails and sold by weight. There are two types: one with curds, called faisselle, which is similar to cottage cheese, and a smooth one, lisse, which is more similar in texture to yogurt. The latter is what you want.
1 container of fromage blanc lisse (about 1 cup or 500ml)
A few handfuls of fruit in season (I’ve used cherries, though any fruit is possible. Strawberries are a classic but even just a drizzle of honey is delicious)
A few sprigs of an herb (I’ve used chervil, which has a faint anise note, but thyme flowers and basil work well with fruit)
Divide the fromage blanc into two bowls and top with seasonal fruit, cut into bite size pieces. Sprinkle with fresh herbs and serve. For those making this recipe at home, the addition of vanilla bean seeds to the fromage is heavenly.