Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Winter Foods

Cabbages and potatoes, hard-skinned squash and hardy greens, chestnuts and walnuts and fresh citrus from the south of France and beyond; I'm so used to thinking of Morocco and Algeria and Italy as far away that it still startles me to see those countries listed on the signs stuck to each bin, and to remember that Mexican imports are the exotic ones over here. But much of the market is local produce, and some is organic, though most growers don't go for that certification. The roast-chicken vendor has branched out and is now offering fresh hot paella, and bottles of heavy cream have joined the cheeses, ready for use in holiday baking.

It's the season for wild mushrooms, and they're piled in crates near the usual button variety and the other "farmed" mushrooms like oyster and shitake. Last Saturday there were yellow-foot chanterelles, which I didn't buy because they looked like they'd be a pain to clean, and "blue foot" mushrooms that I didn't buy because I'd never seen them before, but now that I've read about them I might pick up a few this week and see what they're like. There was a big box labeled "pieds de mouton", or "sheep's feet," and I told the vendor those mushrooms were called "hedgehog" (hérisson) where I came from, because of the little spiny teeth under the cap, and asked him the reason for the French name. He looked down at the box and picked up a large specimen and said, "Because it looks like a sheep's foot?" We both studied the mushroom. "Maybe if I turn it over ...?"

I bought some trompettes de la mort instead, remembering my own forays into the woods with my friend Larry so many years ago, as we wandered through the woods along the Pistol River looking for mushrooms. And sometimes we found very interesting mushrooms indeed. I was a vegetarian back then, and remember making a mock chicken soup out of black chanterelles that was really quite delicious; I'll have to see if I can recreate that some time. I think I used soy sauce and sesame oil, so it's a good thing that Seb and I are going to the Asian market this weekend. I'll have to buy more mushrooms as well that morning, since I've already used the last batch.

While there are Golden Delicious and Gala and other familiar apple varieties on offer, sometimes I see a name I don't know, and I usually buy a few to try. The Belchard (or Chantecler) is a recent variety, developed in 1958 in Angers, about 75 miles away. The sign says "perfumed, sweet, tart" and that's it exactly, a crisp but very slightly mealy apple with a complex flavor, very fragrant and almost floral. It's supposed to be a good cooking apple too, and I think that if I find a good gluten-free and butter-free substitute for pastry dough there will be a tarte Tatin underway fairly soon.

The French use the Japanese (and Chinese) name for persimmon, kaki, and the fruit is fairly widely cultivated here, though I haven't seen any of the Hachiya variety, just the Fuyu. On the other hand, since the Hachiya have to be rotten-ripe in order to be edible, maybe they just aren't ready yet. You can eat Fuyu at any stage from hard (like eating an apple) to soft (like eating custard). I bought four nice firm ones, thinking that they would also make a nice baked dessert. I'm not sure why I'm suddenly drawn to sweet things - I'm usually more of a salt/savory person - but perhaps it's because the holidays are coming closer, or because some hindbrain impulse is urging me to get ready to hibernate.

Cold weather brings out the big cabbages, and the potatoes freshly dug out of the fields, and heads of bright white cauliflower surrounded by thick curling leaves. I bought a celery root the size of a bowling ball (another vegetable that is much cheaper here; I remember one Thanksgiving in Oregon when the bag of celery root I'd bought at the farmer's market for stuffing ending up costing more than the turkey). I bought a large dusty potato and a small clean cauliflower, and went over to a stall where I'd seen wedges of winter squash for sale.

I picked out a long narrow wedge of an unidentified variety - the word potiron is a generic term for "winter squash" so that wasn't any help - but when I did a little internet research later I decided that what I bought is a piece of Sucrine du Berry. One of the French catalogs describes it as "tender, sweet, and a little watery ... best used for a gratin, in soup, a pie, or jam." The kitchen in the apartment isn't very big, nor is it furnished with decent knives (something I may remedy when I go to IKEA today), and so I asked the vendor if he would please cut the squash into chunks for me. He took the wedge and braced it on the edge of the table, but another vendor bumped into him and he dropped the squash and the knife on the ground. To my somewhat horrified astonishment, he then picked up the wedge, wiped the knife off on his dirty jeans, and proceeded to cut and bag the squash, which he handed to me. I wasn't sure if this was some French thing, the antithesis to American hyper-sanitized life, where people are afraid to go anywhere without their bottles of hand cleanser, so I didn't say anything. However, when I told Seb about the incident he was equally horrified and astonished and said no, it wasn't a French thing, but very poor hygiene, and personally he would have walked away and found another vendor. Well, I washed the squash thoroughly in extremely hot water and then roasted the hell out of it, so with luck I won't enjoy another trip to the doctor any time soon. I haven't done anything with it yet, but I believe I will make a custard tart with it this afternoon, topped with sliced persimmons. I'll post the recipe if it turns out well. I roasted the cauliflower too, and chopped some of it up for a quick dinner salad.

Roasted Cauliflower and Chickpea Salad With Pesto Dressing

2 Tbs basil pesto
2 tsp white wine vinegar
1 tsp olive oil
2 cups roughly-chopped roasted cauliflower
1 can chickpeas, well rinsed (until there is no more foam on them)
2 tomatoes, diced
a big handful of fresh baby arugula

In a large bowl, mix the pesto, vinegar, and oil together. Taste for seasoning - if you've used pesto with parmesan (which I didn't) you might not need to add any salt. When the dressing tastes good, add the rest of the ingredients and toss to coat the vegetables with the dressing.

Note: To roast cauliflower, toss slices/florets with a little olive oil (and salt and pepper if you like), spread it in one layer on a baking sheet (nonstick or lined with parchment paper), and put it in a 400°F (200°C) oven for 20-30 minutes, stirring once to flip the cauliflower over, or until tender and starting to brown.

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