Friday, May 25, 2007
Asparagus, new potatoes and girolles
Some days I have to think, and even agonize, about what to cook. And some days the ingredients just seem to leap into the pots and cook themselves, leaving me feeling almost like a spectator. With the change in season this is happening more and more often.
Don't get me wrong, I love the produce that winter has to offer in Nice: citrus fruits straight off the tree, their shiny green leaves still clinging to the stems; big bunches of Swiss chard for cooking in a kind of frittata known as trouchia or adding to a lentil-and-sausage stew; bunches of violet-topped turnips barely the size of a baby's fist. I can even get excited about celery root at a push and one stallholder, Valérie, calls out to me across the market whenever she has raw beets (they are usually sold pre-cooked in France, but I prefer to roast them myself). Even so, winter cooking requires a certain amount of time and thought: the dishes rarely come together as quickly or spontaneously as in summer.
Yesterday, as so often happens, I set out to buy a couple of ingredients and came back with an overflowing basket. From Dominique, a small producer who spends every winter in Nepal, I bought a bunch of slim, purple spring onions known as cébettes, a few zucchini and some big, rustic-looking fava beans. Dominique isn't officially an organic producer, but she explained to me that because she doesn't use any products, chemical or otherwise, on her vegetables they have less bitterness. I tasted the fava beans at lunch, just peeling the raw beans and throwing them into a salad, and sure enough it's true.
From another producer's stall I chose green-and-purple mesclun salad leaves, a bunch of vivid pink-and-white radishes, small, deep-red cherries from near the town of St-Jeannet and a giant bunch of flat-leaf parsley. I picked up strawberries from Carpentras and the first apricots from Provence in the market's central aisle (none of the local producers had strawberries). Just as I was ready to leave, I spotted tiny orange girolles, known as chanterelles in English, at the stand of the mushroom lady, also known as Mathilde.
They were expensive, but girolles are such an unusual sight at the moment that I couldn't resist, especially when I saw that Mathilde also had bunches of deep purple asparagus from Italy. I'd been wanting to try this asparagus for a while and it seemed a natural match for the mushrooms. Back at home, I decided to match the asparagus and mushrooms with new potatoes from producer Gérard, good enough to rival those on the Ile de Ré - or should I say that the vegetables decided what to do and I watched.
The new potatoes demanded that I pot-roast them in my copper saucepan with olive oil and I obeyed. The asparagus jumped into some simmering salted water in a sauté pan. The mushrooms took a brief bath to rinse off their leaves and twigs, then dived into a frying pan with the purple spring onions and olive oil, asking for just a little butter and parsley at the end. I could have served any of these vegetables separately, but together they made a beautiful dish that speaks of the ease of spring cooking.
The plate that you see in this picture, by the way, is from Terre e Provence (7 rue Massena, 04 93 16 93 45), the shop of one of the oldest pottery manufacturers in Provence. Sadly, the shop is closing: it seems that few people want tasteful pottery these days. Everything is 40 per cent off and I bought ten dessert plates and a beautiful water pitcher for €80. If you live in Nice and appreciate good pottery, it's now or never.
Asparagus, girolles and pot-roasted new potatoes
Serves 2 as a main course, 4 as a starter
12 small new potatoes
Good quality olive oil
2 lbs green or purple asparagus (about 1 kg)
1/2 lb girolle (chanterelle) mushrooms (225 g)
2 spring onions
A handful flat parsley leaves
A knob of butter
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Heat a heavy saucepan over medium heat with enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan, at least 1/4 cup. When the oil is hot, place the scrubbed potatoes in the pan in one layer. Cover the pan and leave on medium-low heat for 20 mins without touching. You should hear the potatoes sizzling - if not, turn up the heat a little. After 20 mins the potatoes should be nearly soft and browned on one side. Turn them over with tongs, put the lid back on and cook for about 10 mins, until browned on the other side and soft all the way through.
Break off the hard part of the asparagus stems and discard. Pour about 1/2 inch (1 cm) water into a sauté pan and bring to a boil. Add 1 tsp of salt and the asparagus. Cover and lower the heat so that the water is gently bubbling. After about 5 mins, test the asparagus with the tip of a knife in the thickest part of the stem. Leave for another few minutes if necessary - the asparagus should not be crisp. When it's tender, drain and refresh briefly with cold water.
Brush the mushrooms and wash by sloshing them around in a big bowl of water if necessary (I could get away with doing this as the mushrooms didn't contain much moisture). If you've washed the mushrooms, drain well and dry in paper towels. Slice the spring onions thinly. Heat 1 tbsp olive oil in a frying pan over medium-high heat and add the spring onions. When they have softened, add the mushrooms and sauté until just cooked. Stir in a knob of fresh butter, the parsley and some salt and pepper to taste.
Assemble the potatoes, asparagus and mushrooms on a plate and drizzle with your best olive oil. Top with a little fleur de sel.