Sunday, September 23, 2007

Oh Lord, Wontcha Buy me a New Mandoline

Thick black runny tears were running down my face and I regretted having put on that mascara in the first place this morning. What was I thinking? Onions and mascara do not mix. But I wasn’t thinking that when I dollied up. We were to have a guest for lunch. Loïc had just called to let me know when they would be finished and arriving to the house, so I had to step up the pace. They would be here any time now and here I was looking like Janis Joplin on a bad trip with a pile of onions. I was really thankful for the mandolin after all. I am such a baby when it comes to chopping onions. Even slicing off the ends and peeling them has me a blubbering mess. The bells of the church began to ring just when I’d gotten them sliced, and I took it as a signal. I was running late.

Earlier this week, my butcher gave me a nice big sack of veal bones he’d set aside for me when he carved the animal, so I could make stock. I made your typical veal stock the other night, roasting the bones and long simmering them with a bouquet and some root vegetables. This morning I heated the stock back up slowly at the same time that I cooked the onions in another pot.

There was a huge mixing bowl full of onions after I chopped them, but within a few minutes on the heat, they began to reduce and release their juice, and after a little while I could transfer them to a smaller pan where I would allow them to simmer, reduce and caramelize. Once I had them stabilized over a nice low heat, I mixed in a spoonful of flour and picked up my basket to make my round at the market.

On Sundays, especially after church lets out, the market at Quai Saint Antoine is in a state of relative mayhem. I knew where I had to be going, but every 10 yards a couple of families had stopped in the middle of everything to greet each other. They had with big sacks in their hands and bouquets of flowers jutting out this way and that, children and dogs impatiently tugging off in various directions while the parents enjoyed catching up on the neighborhood gossip, completely oblivious to the fact that they were blocking traffic. I understand what it means to “fait les courses”. I was dodging back and forth as if in an obstacle course in order to get through to the vendors that had the things I needed for lunch.

One pass along the market and it was clear that not to profit from the many mushrooms in season at the moment would be a crime. I kept mental notes of the prices and condition of the offerings all the way down. You have to be careful when purchasing mushrooms. There are a few crooked vendors that soak their shrooms, completely saturating them with water before selling them by the gram weight. This not only gives a bad taste to the mushroom, makes them incubate bad germs and makes them even more difficult to clean, but is completely dishonest practice. Most mushrooms are very light, naturally, so a hundred grams is in most cases a nice big hand full. If you are dealing with a crook that soaks his mushrooms, the volume per 100 grams goes way down. After some experience, you can tell by the dark appearance if mushrooms have been soaked, and another way is to lift the dish where they’ve been set out. A little practice and you can identify the heavy soaked ones immediately.

What you’re looking for in a mushroom are the ones that were picked within the last 24 hours, if possible. They should be free of excess moisture, resilient and lively, and they should not have lost much of their natural fluid content due to being in the open air. Since the mushrooms are gathered from the wild after all, you will have some bits of moss, sand, dirt at the base, and maybe only a little bit of insect damage, it’s alright, since you’re going to be taking care of that at home. Pass over muddy mushrooms, say no to slime, and reject especially ones that have mud in the gills.

The best mushrooms are going to be whole and intact. When they get too dry, first they get limp and then naturally split. Pass on the pile of shavings. Think of them as flowers. You wouldn’t buy limp and lifeless roses, would you? You can expect them to be full of tender vigor when you choose fresh wild mushrooms at the market. Don’t accept anything less.

I got some thick cut pork chops from my friend who raises Black pigs in herds in the Bugey, and that ate up a good portion of the cash I had on hand. In addition, I got untreated lettuce, chives, parsley, duck necks, fat and gizzards which had been slow cooked in fat by my volailler's mother, as well as some Lyonnais style gratins and four guinea hen legs. I counted the coins I had left after I had given my weekly contribution to the man in the wheelchair and headed to the place that had the best mushrooms, where I got a fistful of each kind except chanterelles and morels, not enough cash.

I ran into Loïc and Osvani having a nice cold beer at a local café on the way home. They had spent the morning moving our old sofa out of our apartment to Seb’s room at his grandmother’s city place, on the 6th floor of a Belle Epoch building overlooking the Rhone on the other side of centre-ville. Her elevator can’t take anything more than people. They had to make three trips up all those stairs carrying pieces of a wrap-around sofa, so they deserved the beer. I told them to take their time, since I still had some things in the kitchen to do.

When I walked in the door with my market pickings, the heady smell of slow simmered onions had filled the house. What a heavenly perfume to come home to! I forgot the bad things about being pressed for time and just enjoyed making short work of the tasks required to get lunch on the table.

I mixed the onions into the veal stock, hiking up the heat a bit to let it reduce. I put the rice on, prepared a pan for the pork, and cleaned the mushrooms, rolling them into a clean dry linen when I was done. I sliced the bread for the toast, grated and sliced the Emmental, washed some dishes, and washed the lettuce. I put the gratons and the toast for the soup in the oven to crispen, and put the Aligoté on ice. When they walked in the door, the duck gratons were cooling, and the onion soup was in its bowls and topped with toast and thin sliced and grated cheese, ready to go under the broiler.

We talked about Osvani’s first months in France, French bureaucracy, and the beef situation in Cuba as we enjoyed a classic onion soup. This was followed by the pork chops tossed with Piquillo peppers, enjoyed with talk of Osvani’s life journey and his scientific work, and what life was like in Oslo. The pork and mixed wild mushrooms were served in a lovely shallow dish that Loïc’s uncle Philippe gave me for my birthday. There was the wild mushroom panaché piled high over the rice, and the nicely browned chops with their colorful peppers. It was a sight to behold and I would have taken photos but I didn’t want to ruin the moment with fiddling. This was followed by a cleansing salad and yogurt with New York State maple syrup, and coffee.

Osvani received an SMS in Spanish asking if he had been kidnapped. We laughed and savored our last moments together before he was out the door.



Blogger Katie Zeller said...

Your dinner sounds lovely! Thanks for the tip about the mushrooms...I had no idea that some vendors could/would do that! I'll watch...

10:39 AM, September 24, 2007  
Blogger winedeb said...

What a wonderful accounting of your day! Plus a great education on mushrooms. I know what you mean regarding the photos. They sometimes stop the flow of a wonderful time even though you want to capture it! My hubby hates it when we are ready to sit down to a hot meal and I hold him up due to photos. Oh well, what are we blogging journalists suppose to do!

8:54 PM, September 24, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just a lovely story Lucy!

11:02 PM, September 24, 2007  
Blogger Wendy Miller said...

Lucy how nice to read this just as I am making soup gratin also!!! indeed the smell of those onions is wonderful!

1:18 AM, September 25, 2007  
Blogger SteamyKitchen said...

Bah! to the mushroom vendor cheats

3:40 AM, September 25, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonderful reading and a mouthwatering menu! Not too mention the beautiful pictures I could enjoy while scrolling down reading...

11:05 PM, September 26, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You should consider using a pressure cooker for making stock from roasted bones. Far quicker, more energy efficient, produces a richer, more flavourful stock - all the rich aroma goes to waste when you simmer the bones for hours and finally allows you to make stock from chicken bones with minimal palaver. Ok, so it is one more item taking up space in your kitchen but the last justification alone is a good-enough reason for acquiring one.

5:43 PM, September 29, 2007  
Blogger L Vanel said...

Dear anonymous, thanks for stopping by. Although I'm sure your pressure cooker makes fine stock, I prefer the slow way. In my opinion, it tastes just fine.

6:59 PM, September 29, 2007  
Blogger Jann said...

What a great post today, so vivid I thought I was there with you, tasting and smelling!! You are a beautiful writer~ ....

3:21 AM, October 04, 2007  

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