Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Market dinner at home

The other night we were having four people over for dinner, two of them vegetarian.  It wasn't one of the market days at the Marché Grenelle on our block, so we headed over to the Marché Saxe Breteuil, a little bit farther away behind the Ecole Militaire.

I had made a pureed vegetable soup the last time the vegetarian friends came by, but it was another cold night and soup seemed like a good idea, followed by lasagna.  I have noticed that the French don't much go for big hearty Italian-American style pasta dishes, when you see pasta at all it tends to be spaghetti with a little bit of meat sauce, which is probably more authentically Italian, but when I cook for French people I like to try to come up with something different, something American-style that they might not be so familiar with.

My idea was to make some kind of white bean soup, which really wants a ham bone, but I thought maybe I could get away with spinach, which I had seen a lot of in the markets.  I picked the vegetable stand with the longest line, waited, and when I finally got to the front of the line bought spinach, celery (Which I had never bought in France before, they look like something out of a home garden, funny uneven stalks.  When I asked the guy for celery he rolled his eyes and said, which one, Monsieur? meaning that I needed to pick which bunch I wanted.  It's tricky because you are not supposed to pick up the vegetables yourself, you are supposed to ask for them one at a time). Onions, big carrots (Every stand has about five different kinds, including giant ones ostentatiously covered with the dirt they were grown in.  Per the following, I should have asked the guy which kind to get for a soup, but I just pointed).

Then heading down the market, we came to an Italian stall.  I had never stopped at one of these before.  They had boxes of dried pasta, and I needed lasagna noodles, so I got in line.  Fresh ravioli, lots of prepared sundried tomato sort of things, cheese.  I set the box of lasagna on the counter and asked for ricotta, house made.  Ah, the guy said, you are making lasagna!  You have to make it with a layer of spinach and gorgonzola.  That sounded good, so I got gorgonzola as well, and some of the sundried tomatoes in olive oil.

Now my spinach for the soup was going into the lasagna so I needed something else.  The next stand down was a mushroom stand.  It was unbelievable, a dozen different kinds of fresh mushrooms, most of them I had never heard of before.  They even had black truffles.  I didn't know, so I asked the lady what kinds of mushrooms she would recommend for a soup and she was off, suggesting this and that, what kind of soup was I making, etc.  I got three different kinds.  That was my point back at the vegetable stand, when in France you should always ask people about food.  You can ask a waiter, what kind of pork is in the roti, and get a ten minute dissertation on where it comes from, how it is cut, how they prepare it.  The vegetable guy is happy to discuss carrots, potatoes, whatever.  In fact it makes them like you, they think it is strange if you just ask for potatoes.  Soup or a puree (mashed)?

So here is the menu:

Vegetarian white bean soup with mushrooms

Chop an onion, two stalks of celery with some leaves, a couple of cloves of garlic and a large carrot, fairly fine.  Saute in olive oil until starting to soften.  Add a pound or so of mixed mushrooms, chopped a little more coarsely, and continue to cook until they give up their water and it completely boils away.  This took a while, maybe 15 minutes.  Add two (15 oz?) cans of white beans, drained, and a can of medium brown beer.  You could use stock of some kind, but beer is good in soup.  Simmer slowly for a half-hour or so.  I then let it cool and eventually heated it up in the microwave because I am short on pots and counter space.  If it sits on the stove for a while top up with water occasionally to keep it at the right consistency.  I served it with a sun dried tomato floating on top of each bowl.

Vegetarian lasagna with spinach

I don't like to cook from recipes, but lasagna is tricky, it is hard to get the amount of pasta, sauce and cheese to come out evenly and fill whatever pan you are trying to fill.  This is one of those if I did it again I would do it a bit differently recipes, but something like this:

Tomato sauce.  Chop a medium onion and a couple of cloves of garlic, saute in olive oil until translucent.  Add a large can of Italian tomatoes, a couple of tablespoons of tomato paste (which I couldn't find here, so I used tomato puree), a cup or so of red wine.  Salt, basil and oregano, red pepper flakes, which so far I haven't found here.) Simmer slowly until it is medium thick, breaking up chunky tomatoes as it cooks.

Cheese filling.  Mix a cup and a half ricotta cheese, a cup of crumbled gorgonzola.  Add salt (not too much, the cheese is salty) pepper and an egg.  Stir to mix it all up.

Cook the lasagna noodles.  I lack a good big pot here and got water all over everything.  Plus, I always find cooking lasagna noodles is a pain, they want to stick.  Use plenty of oil in the cooking water and rinse them in cold water as soon as they are done.

Now everything is layered in the pan.  Coat with olive oil, then a thin layer of sauce.  A layer of noodles, with a lot of overlapping (I wound up with extra noodles).  A layer of cheese spread around as well as you can.  Then a layer of spinach.  (In the if I did it again department, I would cook the spinach before I put it in, saute it in some olive oil. Raw spinach fills up the pan too quickly, plus lasagna is like pizza, you are basically trying to get all the water out of things before you put it in, or it ends up swimming.  But I kind of packed the raw spinach in there and it came out OK.)  Then more sauce, noodles, cheese etc, winding up with a sauce layer, then grated parmesan cheese on top.  Bake at 350 for 40 minutes.  Let it cool a little before serving.

I thought the lasagna was pretty good, but the soup sort of upstaged it.  And a funny thing is that the lasagna was much better the next day for lunch.  It would be good to make ahead and reheat.

We finished with a cheese course (It is a sign I have been in France for a while that I am actually a little tired of cheese!) and then a homemade dessert by Carol, which is a rarity here but I think a wave of the future.  I'll let her tell you about it, but it was a chocolate praline fondant in individual souffle ramekins.  Yum.

Oh, and for an aperatif we had Pineau de Charentes that our friends had given us a while ago.  Good, sherry-like to my uneducated taste.  And a bottle of bordeaux we had bought from the market was declared perfect with the bean soup by one of our French guests, dumb luck on our part.  Try as I might I can't tell.

The UVA game was coming on at 1:00 AM and everyone left just in time to watch. The VPN is working pretty well....

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