Archive for the ‘recipe’ Tag

Parsnips are evil   2 comments

The train of thought has just pulled in to a station called Non Sequitur.
Out steps – a parsnip. Alone on the platform, and looking round anxiously for a context.

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Well – I am able to provide it with one, but that’s all this lonely stranger is going to find in France. It will not be greeted by eager cooks or consumers. It’s not out of favour. It’s not out of season. It’s an unter-vegetable – fit only for ruminants of the most unthinking kind. And what was once deemed suitable only for cattle, can never grace the plate of a proper Frenchman élévé dans la tradition.

I’ll probably never get to the bottom of this tradition – it all seems tangled up with the transition from feudalism towards the emergence of the Nation State: it’s the need for all these newly-constructed ‘countries’ to assert their difference.
It involves Louis X1V – ‘le Roi Soleil’ – and the influence of his sumptuous & sophisticated court on all the other little tuppeny-ha’penny countries of Europe. And of course the Academie Française – its thoughtpolice – declaring what is, and is not proper & correct.
An example of its influence: spices. It declared that the strong spices that mediaeval Europe used to enliven its meat (and mask its gamey taste) were unfit for France: henceforth only herbs were acceptable in proper cuisine. The fact that France had lost control of the Spice Route, first to the Portuguese then to the navies of Holland, and later England – was dismissed as irrelevant . . . Naturellement the idea that France’s eating habits (and spending budget) could be held ransom to these uncouth foreigners, was insupportable.
It is worth noting that the dominant theme in English cooking is the use of spices for their own sake, especially in pursuit of effects that combine the sour and the sweet. The records of spice consumption, from the time of the amalgamation of the ‘Sopers Lane Pepperers’ and the ‘Cheap Spicers’ in 1345, shows a binge lasting nearly a millenium. [National dish of England? Chicken Tikka Massala. Somehow shameful? Not in the least : utterly traditional. Spices R Us !]

Pardonnez-moi. We must go back and save the puzzled parsnip on the platform – the whole point of this post. When asked for some panais at the supermarket, the manager had to be called: Non – never heard of it. Other people remembered some such thing – like a carrot? but bigger? and sweeter? and white, you say? C’est possible . . .
Our Larousse Chambers Advanced French-English dictionary is silent on the word panais – no entry at all. But says this for parsnip: ‘panais – légume courante dans l’alimentation britannique’ (‘an everyday vegetable of the British food-trade’) So – they have a tradition de cuisine  while we just eat off the back of trucks?
French Provincial Cooking by Elizabeth David has just one entry: ‘Used in very small quantities as a flavouring in pot au feu.’

We finally tracked some down on a small market stall in Carcassonne last Christmas. An elderly farmer had grown them as a curiosity: he thought they might be mediaeval, but – hélas – he could not tell us how they should be cooked …

Now. At a dinner party given by an eminent medical man living in our village, we enjoyed classic cuisine du terroir (aka cuisine de grande-mère) and learnt that he could not abide curries. Moreover: curries, and anything sucré-salé (sweet&sour) was an abomination, and that no shelf-space should be given to spices in a right-thinking cook’s kitchen: they could only spoil the palette, and ruin a dish. This was a fairly young, fairly cultured modern Frenchman, who will never savour the joys of a parsnip, quartered and tossed in an emulsion of olive oil and shoyu, and roasted ’til meltingly caramelised. And most emphatically not steamed parsnips, mashed with butter and roast cumin seeds, with the Christmas turkey. ‘ Ah, non: Quel horreur!’

Posted December 23, 2007 by Richard Williams in food & drink, france

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cows and carp – eros and thanatos   Leave a comment

When Alice B. Toklas met Gertrude Stein, she heard bells ring. They went on to have one of the happiest marriages of the 20th century. They agreed that a life worth living should include plenty of food and the company of artists and writers. For the 39 years that followed their first meeting, that is the life they lived.toklas1.jpg

Such bands of steel are forged by sex, and Gertrude wrote a great deal about the delights of it with Alice. Gertrude’s work included many private references to her love for Alice – “my delicious dish, my little wife” – as well as many references to cows, which Steinian scholars have suggested are orgasms, given that, according to Gertrude,” cows are between legs” and are given to wives:

I am fondest of all of lifting belly
Lifting belly is in bed
And the bed has been made comfortable
Lifting belly
So high
And aiming.
Exactly and making a cow come out.

Gertrude, who was the genius, stayed up all night writing her strange, lovely prose; while Alice, the mistress of the house, woke early to supervise the servants, collected recipes and typed Gertrude’s manuscripts.
While Gertrude proffered sex in prose, Alice prepared suggestive dishes. In the ‘Alice B. Toklas Cookbook’, she writes, “In the menu, there should be a climax and a culmination. Come to it gently. One will suffice.”
Later in the book we come to : Murder In The Kitchen
‘ Cookbooks have always intrigued and seduced me, the way crime and murder stories did Gertrude Stein. And so it is in the kitchen. Murder and sudden death seem as unnatural there as they should be anywhere else. They can’t, they can never become acceptable facts. Food is far too pleasant to combine with horror. All the same, facts, even distasteful facts, must be accepted and we shall see how, before any story of cooking begins, crime is inevitable. That is why cooking is not an entirely agreeable pastime. There is too much that must happen in advance of the actual cooking.
The only way to cook is to cook, and for me it suddenly became a disagreeable necessity to have to do it when war came and Occupation followed. It was then, that I learned to cook seriously. It was at this time, that murder in the kitchen began.
The first victim was a lively carp brought to the kitchen in a covered basket from which nothing could escape. The fish man who sold me the carp said he had no time to kill, scale or clean it. It wasn’t difficult to know which was the most repellent. So quickly to the murder and have it over with. A heavy sharp knife came to my mind as the classic, the perfect choice, so I carefully, deliberately found the base of its vertebral column and plunged the knife in it. Horror of horrors. The carp was dead, killed, assassinated, murdered in the first, second and third degree. Limp, I fell into a chair, with my hands still unwashed reached for a cigarette, lighted it, and waited for the police to come to take me into custody. After another cigarette my courage returned and I went to prepare poor Mr Carp for the table. I scraped off the scales, cut off the fins, cut open the underside and emptied out a great deal of what I did not care to look at, and put it aside while I prepared . . .
Carp Stuffed With Chestnuts
For a 3-lb. carp, chop a medium-sized onion and cook it gently in 3 tablespoons butter. Add a 2-inch slice of bread cut into small cubes which have previously been soaked in dry, white wine and squeezed dry, 1 tablespoon chopped parsley, 2 chopped shallots, 1 clove pressed garlic, 1 teaspoon salt,1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, 3/4 teaspoon powdered mace, the same laurel (bay) and of tyme and 12 peeled chestnuts.
Stuff the cavity and head of the fish, carefully snare with skewers, tie the head so that nothing will escape while cooking. Put aside for at least a couple hours. Put 2 cups dry white wine into an earthenware dish, place the fish in the dish, salt to taste. Cook in the oven for 20 minutes at 375 . Baste, and cover the fish with a thick coating of very fine cracker crumbs, dot with 3 tablespoons melted butter and cook for 20 minutes more. Serves 4. The head of a carp is enormous. Many continentals consider it the most delectable morsel. ‘

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