From apples to herring…

March 17th, 2009

After an enlightening morning tromping around a commercial apple orchard in the Périgord, the vagabond will hit the trail, heading north. Very far north. The quest this time leads to the southern coast of Finland, to explore “eating local” on the Gulf of Finland, to sample the best pulla (more to follow on this) in Helsinki, revisit favorite markets, and hunt for almonds in the “Easter grass”.  Tune in for reports in early April on a mix of cross-cultural apple recipes, the scoop on herring, and lots more on almonds.

Black Friday at Rungis

March 13th, 2009

Before dawn today, thick, billowing clouds of smoke filled the skies over the vast Rungis market, the world’s largest wholesale food market near Paris.  Over a hundred firemen battled the blaze from 23 fire engines, and brought it under control in three hours.  The 1,600 square meter warehouse storing citrus fruits, engulfed in flames, was completely destroyed.  The good news was that there were no deaths, and the fire was contained; an adjacent warehouse/garage for semi trucks and fork lifts was spared. No cause for the Rungis fire has yet been established.  Spokesmen assured us that there will be fruit today at Rungis for weekend shoppers.

Spring is stirring in the potager

March 12th, 2009

Arugula Blossom
Rhubarb Shoots
Sorrel Leaves Bay Leaf & Berries
Rosemary Blossoms Sage Leaves

Blossoms on the arugula, the roquette now going to seed just doesn’t want to give up, its veined petals stirring in the morning breeze. Taking a closer look, I rake leaves off a mound of dirt to find rhubarb nosing through, then lift more leaves covering uniform sorrel leaves. Encouraged, I study the glossy bay leaves and note tiny berries forming on the stem. The new rosemary plant has made it through the winter and sports fragile lavender petals, while its neighboring sage bush shoots leaves, as soft as felted wool.  I watch closely…. more signs of a new season appear every day.

As basic as beets

March 5th, 2009
Basic ruby roots

Basic ruby roots

A need for variety grips me in March, the bridge month that spans a season of slush underfoot in northern climates, or fickle sun and sudden winds during les giboulées de mars in our corner of Aquitaine. Potatoes and turnips, celeriac and rutabagas (or “swedes”) are great comfort food, but in these overcast, chilly days I hunger for color.  So, in the market this morning, I filled my basket with beets and carrots, celery stalks and some red apples. Very basic color, very comforting flavors are at hand for our soup and suppers this week-end.  Buying baked beets in the market saves cooking time, as all they need is a quick peeling, then sliced or cubed the ruby globes go into salads with lamb’s lettuce, a hearty borscht or a hot skillet dish with smoked bacon.

But before digging into recipes and trucs, the vagabond’s curiosity about beetroot has to be satisfied. It seems that the earliest mention of a domesticated beta vulgaris dates back to the third century B.C. Though the Babylonians probably were first to domesticate this nourishing root, evolved from the scrawny root of the wild sea beet, the ancient Greeks definitely used it to cure stomach ailments. Some notes on the red root vegetable appear in the 18th century, but it didn’t come under widespread use across Europe until the 19th and early 20th century. A high-energy cousin, the sugar beet, was by then a major crop as a sugar source in northern Europe, where beetroot was fed to livestock. But farmers noted that it kept well over winter, providing a source of minerals when their own food was scarce. So, the adaptable beetroot found its way onto the table – pickled to spark up Nordic meals of codfish and potatoes, stirred into Polish soups with cabbage, and grated with cabbage for Baltic salads.

What’s so good about the basic, humble beet?  Begin with the seed-sprouts, sweet and nourishing, as a crunchy topping for grilled fish or beet and apple salads.  If you use a sprouter-box, be vigilant and mist them as they dry out more quickly than radish or other seed sprouts.  Raw, young beets are easily grated into an apple cider vinaigrette with a little mustard, as a side salad for cold roast pork or chicken; toss in paper-thin apple slices, too. Juiced, beets mixed with apple juice recall the wise old Greek remedies for anemic convalescents. As a refreshing appetizer, beet juice with a drop of lime juice and twist of black pepper begins a meal with color, in addition to multiple benefits that range from stimulation of digestion and liver function, to lowering high blood pressure and generally aiding metabolism.  Add to all this a bevvy of minerals, from boron, potassium, phosphorus and magnesium to folic acid and fibre.

If your beets are straight from the ground or root cellar, just scrub them under cold running water, leave the root end and skin on (it will slip off after cooking). Boil beets or bake them wrapped in foil – pierce with a knitting needle (does anyone else have one with their kitchen tools to turn aebleskiver?) or knife to test, lift and drain. Then the beets are ready to keep for a week in the fridge.  Closer to Easter, some families reserve beet water to boil eggs pink for a festive lunch.  For a quick Beets & Bacon supper, heat a cast iron skillet, dry-toast a teaspoon of fennel or cumin seeds, add a tablespoon or 2 of oil or duck fat, 1 sliced red onion and cook until transparent , sprinkle with 1 teaspoon sugar and a grating of pepper and nutmeg, stir it around and make a space in the center, add 2 strips of smoked bacon (or ham or Canadian bacon) cut into 1″ pieces, cook over medium heat and heap the onions on top, add 1 or 2 peeled and sliced cooked beets, stir and add 1/2 cup chopped parsley, cover and heat through. Pour crème fraîche or smetana into a bowl as topping at the table.  Stir, season with sea salt and cracked pepper, to serve (2 or 3) with boiled Roseval or firm red-skinned potatoes, and raise a toast to the adaptable, basic beet.