One of the true joys of traveling in France is shopping at the outdoor markets. Our guidebook called them “a barrage of color, sight, and sound.”The abundance and beauty of the produce is astounding–for me, it is Christmas Day. Stalls overflow with vegetables and fruits, nuts and olives, mushrooms and truffles, dried and fresh herbs and spices, cheeses, breads, sausages and cured meats, fish, chickens and ducks, and fresh meat. And then there’s the rotisserie chickens and grilled sausages… Lebanese specialties such as felafel, flatbreads with za’atar, and tabouleh…giant pans of paella, coq au vin…or trays of fresh pasta and ravioli. You can snack on galettes or pommes frites, or perhaps a bowl of onion soup. Oh, and take home roasted beets–what a great idea! One of our favorite markets included a van full of country bread, driven straight from the wood-fired bake oven located on a nearby farm.
These are traveling markets. In rural France, the small towns host street markets on different days of the week, and various venders make a circuit to augment the more local and seasonal fare. The fall specialties include an array of wild mushrooms, fresh walnuts, chestnuts, and hazelnuts, freshly pressed nut oils, juicy dried prunes, figs and pears, and the most gorgeous garlic I have ever seen. Southwest France is a land of small, traditional, family farms that is overflowing with the good things of the earth–food that is flavored with a benevolent climate, rich soil, and careful tending. This is the home of cuisine du terroir, country cooking seasoned with the flavor of the land.
Our home away from home in Dordogne was in a beautifully converted ancient stone barn, looking out over softly rolling hills toward the river valley and surrounded by fields of just-harvested tobacco, ripening walnut orchards, pasture, and forests of oak and chestnut trees. It felt like home, complete with a rusting vehicle in the field across the way. Each day we foraged at the markets and brought the loot home to our tiny kitchen. We emptied our shopping bags like Christmas stockings, and reveled in the riches. It was truly hard to know what to cook first. When the ingredients are so good, why get fancy? Simple is best.
Roast Fingerling Potatoes
The markets were full of freshly dug potatoes, full of flavor and smelling of the earth. Fingerlings or other small, smooth-skinned yellow potatoes are first choice. Look for Red Gold, Yukon Gold, German Butterball, French Fingerling, or Russian Banana. They are best when not long out of the ground.
Wash the potatoes and dry them well. Cut fingerlings in half and larger potatoes into quarters so that the pieces are of equal size. Place the potatoes on a roasting pan that is large enough to hold them all in one layer. Drizzle them with a flavorful olive oil (2 Tbs per pound of potatoes) and toss well. Sprinkle on a generous 1/4-teaspoon sea salt and 1/2- tsp chopped fresh rosemary per pound.
Roast the potatoes in the hot oven for 50 to 60 minutes, rotating the pan and flipping the potatoes every 10 to 15 minutes so that all sides turn a toasty brown. They are done when the outside is crisp and the inside tender.
On our very first day in France we stopped at a small bistro outside the railroad station where I got to eat what turned out to be the signature salad of southwest France. It was sublime.
Fill a bowl with bite-size pieces of red and green loose leaf lettuce (the most common variety we saw in the region was soft, frilly head of green-shading-to-red leaves) and curly endive. Dress the greens with a vinaigrette made with 4 Tbs mild olive oil, 2 Tbs walnut oil, and 2 Tbs wine or cider vinegar. Season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
Top the salad with toasted walnuts and slices of toasted baguette with rounds of goat cheese, placed under the broiler to melt the cheese.
It still felt like summer in the south of France in late September, and the deep purple eggplant, vibrant red and orange peppers, ruby-red onions, vine-ripe tomatoes, and shiny green zucchini were irresistible. Add some fat lavender-striped garlic cloves and a bundle of fresh thyme…it’s a lovely way to bake a summer garden. We had this dish as a filling for lasagne at the little railroad station bistro.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Ingredients: 1 large red onion, 1 beautiful shiny-skinned eggplant –12 to 16 oz.(or 2 smaller ones), 1 or 2 red or orange sweet peppers, 2 slender zucchini, 2 medium tomatoes (or 5 or 6 canned plum tomatoes), 3 to 4 tsp. chopped fresh thyme leaves, 1 tsp. sea salt or Kosher salt, 1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper, 3 fat garlic cloves, 3 to 4 Tbs fruity olive oil
Extras: fresh mint leaves, pitted green olives, splash of sherry vinegar
Slice the onion from top to bottom into thin wedges. Cut the eggplant into 3/4-inch cubes. Cut the peppers into 1/2-inch strips, then each strip into 3 or 4 pieces, slice the zucchini into 1/4-inch rounds. Slice the tomatoes 1/4-inch thick. Thinly slice the garlic.
Combine the onion, eggplant, peppers, zucchini, and garlic in a large roasting pan. Toss to mix. Sprinkle with thyme, salt, and pepper. Drizzle with olive oil and toss again. Distribute the tomato slices over the top (or squeeze the canned tomatoes with your hand over the other vegetables.
Bake for 40 to 60 minutes, stirring once or twice, until the vegetables are tender and beginning to brown on the edges. Serve warm or at room temperature, sprinkled with fresh mint leaves and chopped green olives. A splash of sherry or balsamic vinegar is nice.
Smoky Grilled Fish and Beet Salsa
Our farmhouse in Dordogne had a patio and outdoor grill where the barnyard used to be. We brought home fresh fish from the market, and Joe fired up the grill with a bag of grapevine trimmings. The fire turned out to be quite smoky, rather alarming to our host, but the fish was delicious and greatly enhanced by a beet-orange salsa borrowed from a recipe by Yotam Ottalenghi. It’s surprising how many ways you can find to eat beets when they come ready-roasted from the market! The salsa was spiced with piment d’Espelette, a dried pepper from the Basque region. It is medium spicy and very flavorful–somewhat like Aleppo pepper, only brighter and fruitier.
Build a big, smoky fire and grill skin-on fish, whole or fillets, until cooked through–3 to 4 minutes per side. If you don’t like smoke, use a normal grill fire. While someone else deals with the fire, make the salsa.
Ingredients: 1 roasted or boiled medium-large red or yellow beet, 1 medium orange, 1 small red onion, 1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley, 1/4 cup chopped kalamata olives, juice of 1 small lemon, 1/2 tsp toasted and crushed coriander seeds, 3/4 tsp toasted and crushed cumin seeds, 1/2 tsp red chile flakes, salt, 1 Tbs walnut oil, sea salt or kosher salt, vinegar
Peel and cut the beet into 1/4-inch dice. Peel the orange and remove all pith and tough membranes from the segments. Chop into small pieces. Finely chop the onion. Combine the beet, orange, onion, olives and parsley in a mixing bowl. Whisk together the spices, lemon juice, and walnut oil and pour over the mixture in the bowl. Mix well and season with salt to taste. Add some toasted walnuts and a splash of cider or sherry vinegar, if needed, just before serving. This salsa is brilliant on top of a winter salad of spinach or spicy greens.
For dessert, all I had to do was walk down the lane to a long-empty chateau and pick fresh figs from the tree that hung out over the bank. Not so easy, but well worth the sun-ripened figs, bursting with juice.
In Paris, there are at least 100 street markets that set up in the various neighborhoods on specified days of the week. The market near our apartment stretched for almost a half mile along a narrow greenway between two avenues. It was the Louvre of street markets, and I gazed for hours at frilly green and red lettuce, stacks of wrinkled, moldy-rind cheeses, seductive radishes, and fish so fresh they seem to have just jumped out of the water