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Vegetables and so much more



As you take the last turn in the road leading to the village and the Place St. Roc, one of Lucien Goelss’ many small vegetable gardens will appear on the right below the ancient rampart. This long rectangular bed is dominated by rows of artichoke plants, and it is readily discernible why these members of the thistle family were ornamental plants in medieval monastery gardens. It is like a sculpture with its tall spiked silvery gray leaves not overpowered by the imposing expanse of rampart wall in back. When the artichoke flowers a thick stem raises the flower to prominence - the part we eat.
It was not until the beginning of the 16th century that the plant was cultivated in France and other European countries as a vegetable, and by the 17th artichokes had already found their place in folklore. French vegetable peddlers sold them as being excellent for diabetics and for those with liver problems. Assumptions not without some foundation. 19th century home remedy manuals still advise of their diuretic action.
The young tender plants, well pared and trimmed, can be eaten raw in salads, while the mature flowering heads or simply their hearts have given rise too many different recipes, especially in a region where they abound. Artichokes should only be cooked in non-reactive pots, i.e. enamel, stainless steel, earthenware or Pyrex. They are best eaten after they are prepared and not stored for any length of time. Herbalists say that a cooked artichoke quickly turns toxic.

Artichauts (Artichokes)


Preparation of Small Artichokes
Small artichokes, called les violets owing to their colour, have formed flower heads which have not grown larger than a small lemon. To cook remove their stalks, pare them and blanche in either salted boiling water or water to which a splash of vinegar or lemon juice has been added. Drain and refreshen with cold water, drain well, and they can be used in salads or are usually braised along with other ingredients in goose/duck fat, oil or sweet butter. Preparation of a Whole Boiled Artichoke
Trimming an artichoke for cooking amounts to pruning the leaves of the flowering head down to 2/3 of their size with scissors or a sharp knife. Trim any remaining parts of the stalk as close to the base of the artichoke as possible. This results in an even flat - topped artichoke which can rest stable on its base. It can now be dropped into a generous quantity of boiling water, either lightly salted or to which has been added a splash of lemon juice or vinegar. Bring to a boil again and cook uncovered for about 30 - 45 minutes depending on the size of the artichoke. Drain immediately. If the artichoke is being served simply with a sauce or herbal butter, it is recommended to remove the choke by spreading the central leaves and spooning out the choke (gristle or soft inner leaves) covering the heart. Remove any hairy filaments which may be left. Press the leaves back to their original form and serve or continue with further steps.
Preparation of Artichoke Hearts
To cook artichoke hearts strip off the hardened outer leaves until only the tender leaves covering the heart remain. These can gently be plucked away. To stop the heart from turning brown, either rub it with lemon juice or immediately drop the trimmed heart in a bowl with water to cover and the juice of one lemon. Gently boil in lightly salted water for 30 minutes or until tender. The heart is done when easily pierced with a knife. Drain and remove choke (gristle) with a spoon and trim all residuals. Chilled artichoke hearts are an excellent addition to many salads and are an important ingredient in vegetable dishes.
Oral tradition still remembers the meals Mme. Bocus provided upon request in her tiny kitchen, “They were vegetable free, consisting just of various meats, as in the Middle Ages,” says Mme. Thuillier. Of Sara it is said she used vegetables very sparingly. However, daily fare used meat sparingly, largely for economic reasons. Meat or poultry was used to enhance the flavour of the vegetables, hence the variety of stuffed vegetables which still abound in local fare. The stuffing ingredients remain much the same and it was the vegetable in season which provided the receptacle, artichokes in the spring, tomatoes in the summer, cabbage and onions in the fall and winter.
 

Asparagus


Asparagus, often called the dessert of vegetables, is one of the few vegetables which is served on its own. Of the over 300 varieties the best known is the garden asparagus, both green and white, and both grow well in the region( A favorite of the Greeks and Romans, several varieties were already noted by Pliny. In time finer tables only served it at noon, because nightly chamber pots became insufferable with the residual odor it imparts to urine. Folklore has it that three drops of turpentine in the pot can turn the vile odor into the fragrance of violets.).
Never requiring special horticultural techniques green asparagus was cultivated for centuries all over Europe. The assent of white asparagus, notably the Argenteuil, depended on the establishment of special beds and growing techniques. These were developed under Louis XIV when white asparagus became the rage in France.
Akin to the green is the wild asparagus often growing in sandy soil or in the vicinity of heather. Although regionally there is such an abundance that it can be found by the roadside and many paths. It is a thin weedy looking plant, bitter in taste. But a local favourite in salads and omelettes, see pages .
Cooking White Asparagus
Eating white asparagus is almost a ritual for the French and except for rare formal occasions they eat the spears with their hands. Special serving plates for asparagus often mimicking its shape and plates with indentations for the sauce have been in use since the 17th century.
Finger bowls filled with tepid water and slices of lemon are never far away. Either warm or cold a spear is picked up, its head dunked in the sauce or vinaigrette, this is eaten first, followed by the tender top section and finally, the pulp of the spear is genteely sucked out of the stalk. The stringy stalk is left lying on the plate. Preparation involves a trimming of the base and only a light peeling of the asparagus before cooking.
A somewhat lengthier preparation is needed if the white asparagus is not to be eaten with the hands, and above all is to be tender and fibre free. Secrets for success are swapped reluctantly and much discussion can take place about how to cook the asparagus to perfection. As white asparagus grows much more unevenly than the green, the spears of the white must be trimmed to some uniform size for cooking. Even at the market buyers can be seen assembling bundles of fairly uniformed spears. Once in the kitchen decide on the average length of your asparagus and adjust all other spears to it. Generally the width of an head where it merges into the stalk is deemed to be the correct circumference for the spear at hand. The subsequent portion of the spear is uniformly pared rather than peeled to this width. With the discards a fine velouté of asparagus ( see page ) may be prepared.
Having chosen one of the above, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, no more than 1 tsp of salt per liter/quart of water. Add the spears and boil gently, uncovered in a non-reactive pot, for 15 - 20 minutes. An old saying claims that one can cook a dozen spears in the time it takes to say 20 “Hail Mary’s” and 20 “Our Father’s”. The pared asparagus will take less time to cook than the lightly peeled one. When tender, drain and serve. Do not overcook asparagus as it looses its flavor and becomes water logged. Cooked asparagus should be placed on a clean dish towel or a perforated asparagus dish which will allow maximum drainage.
Green asparagus needs only to be peeled lightly, base trimmed and is then cooked in the same way as the white.
Either green or white asparagus may be served hot with a variety of sauces or simply with butter and lemon juice to taste. Tepid or cold asparagus is generally accompanied by a mustard vinaigrette or mayonnaise intended for dunking. Asparagus to be eaten with knife and fork can be served with the same sauces or with specially prepared herbal vinaigrettes. Add fresh herbs like parsley, tarragon, chives to a standard vinaigrette, see page , to which has been added 1/2 cup of cold chicken stock or a mixture of white wine and chicken stock. Let the asparagus sit in this mixture for 1/2 hour, gently turning two or three times, place the spears on a separate platter and garnish with chopped hard boiled eggs.
The following recipe for Sauce Mousseline of Minouch Jouard comes with her recommendation as an excellent accompaniment for asparagus, and so it does.

Aubergines


Although the French have cultivated eggplants since the early 17th century, the various waves of Italian immigrants to the region undoubtedly explains their entry into the local cuisine. Italian migrations to the commune have been noted over the centuries, the charboniers of the Gresigny were largely Italian, and there was a large influx after World War I.
Following are several hints for cooking eggplants.
Select the smaller and firmer, about 6” - 8”, rather than the larger ones.
The high water content of this vegetable makes it necessary to salt and dry out the pulp before frying, stewing or baking it.
When frying slices or cubes of eggplants, use oil sparingly, although initially an eggplant will absorb a lot of oil, towards the end of the cooking time it will expel it. Fry in hot oil, and drain on paper towelling.
If eggplant is the prime ingredient of the dish, serve as soon as possible; otherwise they will soften quickly and be less appetising. Reheating is not recommended.
Once the dish is finished baking leave in the oven with the door ajar.

Betterave (Beetroot)


Beetroot is native to southern Europe and belongs to a large family, including the sugar beets and white beets, whose leaves when tender may be cooked like spinach or Swiss chard.
Regionally the beet root is prepared in one of two ways. The leaves are cut off the root, the root then scrubbed and cooked until tender in lightly salted water or to which has been added a splash vinegar. Alternatively the prepared root can be baked in a moderate oven 325°(163°). Place the beet root in a pan and let it bake in a medium oven until soft to the touch - not mushy.
When cooled remove the jacket. Locally, they tend to be eaten cold, served with a light vinaigrette garnished with parsley or in salads. Often they are featured as an hors d’oeuvre.
Very young freshly harvested beetroot can be enjoyed raw. Peel and finally cube or julienne and serve with a vinaigrette.

Cardons (Cardoons)


Cardoons belong to the large and varied group of semi-cultivated or wild plants which featured more prominently in the past than today. Now available in cans, but rarely found fresh, cardoons like salsify, see page , bear little resemblance to their canned counterparts in taste. It is a type of wild artichoke or thistle-like perennial native to southern Europe and northern Africa. Dioscorides spoke of its cultivation and Pliny of its medicinal properties. It is their stalks, commonly called chards, which are eaten.
To prepare fresh cardoons, trim all hard and wilted stems. Remove tender stalks individually and cut them into even manageable slices. Sprinkle the slices with lemon juice or immerse in water to which has been added the juice of a lemon or a splash of vinegar to prevent them from turning black. Place the slices in a non-reactive pot and cover with at least 2”-3” vegetable water or stock. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and only gently simmer, covered, for a good 2 hours or until tender. Stir occasionally to prevent sticking.
Once tender they can be served in a variety of ways usually cold in salads or hot with butter. When cooled down they may be added to salads, or form the basis of a simple salad consisting of sliced cardoon topped with a vinaigrette and garnished with chopped parsley and chervil.

Carottes (Carrots)


It is hard to say whether this wonderful taproot is enjoyed more as a vegetable or as an indispensable aromatic ingredient in many different dishes from soups to sauces. Long valued for their medicinal qualities carrots are featured regularly on the menu in spas treating liver problems like Vichy.

Potiron (Pumpkin)


Pumpkin, a corruption of the its old name pompion, is known as potiron or courge in French. The French word potiron is said to come from the Syrian patura. The plant was native to the Levant and spread west with the Crusades and Arab medicine. It is prized for its pulp, and in early medicine the seeds numbered among the Four Greater Cold Seeds used as primary homeopathic ingredients.

Epinard (Spinach)


The Moors brought spinach to Europe, it was one of the few vegetables which did not travel with the Roman Armies. High in iron, its nutritious qualities have long been appreciated. Cyclical planting makes the vegetable available for a good part of the year.

Oseille (Sorrel)


This hardy perennial plant has been known since 3000 BC, it was much sought after in England in the thirteenth century; and it was listed in English plant registers as an indigenous plant. But French garden sorrel (Rumex scrutatus) is considered to be the most delectable, so much so that Henry VIII gave up on indigenous sorrel (Rumex acetose) when he tasted it. Many curative properties are attributed to it, but unless thoroughly cooked it is not good for people suffering from gout.

Nouvelles Fèves (New Broad Beans)


The broad bean is an Old World species of the large legumeous family fabacae, and is sometimes called the Windsor bean. It does not do well in hot weather, but will tolerate slight freezing. The first fèves of the season resemble a large-sized pea and should be cooked like them. With the passing of the season they become larger and coarser tasting and the opaque skin must peeled off the older larger beans. Cooking broad beans with a few leaves of sorrel and spinach prevents their turning an unappetising colour during cooking
A saying in Occitan calls for these beans to be picked in the morning and eaten in the evening.

Petits Pois (Peas)


Peas number among the oldest cultivated vegetable known; fossil remains were even found in the Swiss lake villages. No one has of yet looked for their traces near the Neolithic caves in the nearby village of Larroque. They grow very well in the region and childhood memories of food are often dominated by peas, “I remember the peas, there were always peas, peas and more peas.” says Pierrette Montet.
Fresh peas are best cooked in copper pots, it preserves their colour. If none is available, place a small piece of copper on the bottom of your dish/pot.

Poireaux (Leeks)


Leek is essential to the local cuisine, often called the “poor man’s asparagus”, it appears as an appetiser with vinaigrette and imparts a unique flavor to soups and makes a tasty hot dish on its own. Many recipes call only for the white part of the leek. The greens can be used in soups and in small quantities in stews, creamed leeks, etc.
Amazingly Egyptian wall paintings praise leek and Nero is said to have eaten leek soup every day. The Romans introduced it to Western Europe.

Pommes de terre (Potatoes)


The English brought the potato to Europe from the New World in the 15th century, and introduced them to France during the long war with Flanders. It was not well received by the French since they associated fevers, even leprosy, with this vegetable. Baron Antoine Augustin Parmentier (1737-1813) who served as army physician during the 7 Years War with Germany became persuaded of its value especially during times of famine and launched the potato in France by presenting a bouquet of its flowers to Louis XVI who in turn wore them as a buttoneer. At his majesty’s behest potatoes soon became a favourite. For a short while the vegetable was called parmentier in France, and à la Parmentier refers to a dish which relies heavily on potatoes.

A large range of potatoes are available locally as throughout France. Some recipes are potato specific: fried and mashed potatoes are best made with the B.F. 15, a successful hybrid. To improve the consistency of the mashed potatoes, however, a few of another type should be added. Boiled potatoes are best with les Belles de Fontenay, and baked potatoes should be la roseval. A rather simple adaptation of these complexities are to use old potatoes, i.e. those that have been out of the ground long enough and are too mealy for mashed potatoes and purée recipes, but not gratins! Idaho potatoes are best for baking whilst new young potatoes are good for boiling and gratins.
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