In a city where great food is a matter of course, the residents have a secret: shopping. Since good meals start with good ingredients, Parisians know that the art of marketing is often more important than cooking.
Of course, in Paris, that's no problem. Every neighborhood has at least one rue commerc,ante or shopping street, as well as a twice-weekly roving market. And scattered around the city are 13 covered markets. Everyone shops the supermarkets and corner convenience stores, as well. But the markets and the shopping streets remain at the heart of Parisian life, the village squares of each neighborhood.
Live in Paris for even a little while and this way of life can become habit-forming. In fact, when you leave, you may find yourself gripped with a kind of separation anxiety. Shopping for food has ceased to be the chore that it often seems at home and has become a favorite pastime. It can even change the way you think about cooking.
Can you translate the Paris market experience to Los Angeles? At first it seems impossible. Our neighborhood markets are, more often than not, supermarkets. And we drive from place to place rather than strolling casually, visiting with neighbors and chatting with shopkeepers.
Yet this Parisian way of shopping is really more a matter of spirit and philosophy than of how you get around. It is a way of life. It has to do with a sense of belonging, a sense of solidarity with all the artisans and farmers whose products you buy.
Shop this way and you'll find that almost every purchase ends up as a story. Your cheesemonger will explain the weeks or months of aging required to bring a ripe cheese to market. A farmer can explain the differences among the half-dozen salad greens he offers. Another will give you tips on selecting heirloom tomatoes. All the stories, all the people, somehow end up on the dinner table along with the food.
This doesn't have to be done slavishly. Take a cue from the Parisians and shop in different markets for different things. For household supplies and basic staples, of course, you should take advantage of the supermarkets. Use them to stock your pantry and freezer with an emergency stash of family favorites, too. They also have the edge on convenience and, frequently, price. So save time by shopping at the supermarket, and buy wisely when quality is not the issue.
But then take the time to spend your savings on high-quality produce, fish, meat, poultry, cheese and condiments.
* Go to farmers markets. While the variety doesn't yet rival that of the Parisian markets, we should support them. They'll only get better.
* Support cottage industries. Here in the States, the conduit between artisanal producers and the market is not as developed as it is in Paris, but many small producers sell by mail order, and a surprising number can be found on the Internet.
* Make marketing an adventure. Think of it as a fantastic (and relatively inexpensive) kind of tourism. Shop the ethnic groceries and markets in your area. Chat with the shopkeepers. Not only will you learn about their products, but you'll learn about their ways of cooking, their culture.
For instance, I buy fish and seafood in Little Tokyo, where the variety is always greater than at the supermarket or even my favorite neighborhood seafood specialty shop. In Japanese markets, I can find fresh eels for making a classic matelote, a red wine stew. They sometimes sell periwinkles and other sea snails that I put out with garlicky aioli, just like the bigorneaux and bulots I buy in Paris.
I buy fresh duck, squab, quail, chicken and capon in Chinatown. They're locally raised birds that have never seen the inside of a freezer. The roast ducks are great, too. Their skin is matte and crisp. The fat has been given up during cooking, basting the bird and protecting the flesh.
In my neighborhood Italian grocery, I find my olives, olive oil, anchovies, pasta, rice and grating cheese. In the Indian grocery, I buy chickpea flour for making socca, a Nicoise crepe. They are also the source for the tiny lentils that I use for preparing a carrot and lentil terrine, the recipe given to me by a Parisian friend's mother. In the Greek shops I buy tarama, salted carp roe, for the whipped concoction that some Parisians are now serving with the aperitif.
* Shop more spontaneously as well. Rather than go out with a set menu, why not browse the markets and buy what looks most appealing, most seasonally correct? Don't go with a shopping list, go with an idea for a kind of dish. Then fill in the ingredients with what looks best.
One friend in Paris explained, "I never know what I'm going to cook until I'm in the market. Perhaps I know that I'll prepare an estouffade [a stew], or some kind of poached fish, but other than that, I wait to see what the market has to offer."
You'll find there are other advantages, too. It might even help you lose weight. When meals are balanced, when a variety of foods are served, one tends to be satisfied with less. Boring meals are the culprit in much overeating. You eat and eat and eat, waiting for the moment of satisfaction that never comes.
In the habits of Parisians--their daily routine of shopping for food, the careful way in which they vary meals, the simple ways they cook, the time they take to share meals--there is a wisdom.
Food can't stand apart from habits and tradition. When taken as a whole, the daily rituals of the table--from shopping to cooking to eating--become something else: part of a rhythm, part of a synchronicity, part of the fabric that is life.
Roberts, a Los Angeles chef and writer, is author of the newly published "Parisian Home Cooking" (William Morrow, $25).
Eggplant and Goat Cheese Caviar (Cervelles d'Aubergine)
Active Work Time: 15 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour 30 minutes plus 2 hours chilling time * Vegetarian
1 eggplant, about 1 1/4 pounds
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons finely minced shallots
1 tablespoon finely minced garlic
1 teaspoon savory
1/4 cup goat cheese, at room temperature
Freshly ground pepper
* Poke a few holes in eggplant and place in baking dish. Bake at 400 degrees until eggplant is completely shriveled and soft to touch, about 50 minutes. Remove from oven, slit eggplant lengthwise and let stand 5 minutes. Scoop seeds and flesh into bowl and discard skin. Mash eggplant with fork and set aside.
* Warm olive oil in skillet over medium-high heat. Add shallots, garlic and savory and cook until shallots and garlic are soft, without coloring, about 1 minute. Add to eggplant. Add goat cheese and mix well to evenly distribute through eggplant. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate until well chilled, about 2 hours.
3 cups. Each tablespoon: 10 calories; 8 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 1 gram fat; 0 carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0.03 gram fiber.
Lentil and Carrot Aspic With Vinaigrette (Terrine de Lentilles et Carottes, Sauce Vinaigrette)
Active Work and Total Preparation Time: 30 minutes plus 8 hours chilling time
When the lentils have finished cooking, the liquid in the pot should cover the lentils by about 1 inch. If necessary, add some broth or water to make up the difference. If you have too much liquid, strain out the lentils and reduce the liquid until you have the desired amount. Be sure to use a good red wine vinegar.
2 tablespoons oil
2 onions, finely chopped, about 1 1/2 cups
2 carrots, finely chopped, about 1 1/2 cups
3 stalks celery, finely chopped, about 1 cup
1 cup French lentils
2 cups chicken broth
1/2 teaspoon ground sage
2 bay leaves
1/4 pound bacon, finely chopped
2 (1/4-ounce) packets unflavored gelatin
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup chopped parsley
4 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves removed from stalks
* Warm oil in pot over medium heat and cook onions, carrots and celery until soft, about 7 minutes. Add lentils, broth, sage, bay leaves and bacon. Cover and simmer 1 hour, or until lentils are tender and begin to fall to pieces.
* Meanwhile, soften gelatin in water and add to pot about 5 minutes before lentils are done. If broth does not come up to level of lentils, add more. Pour contents of pot into large bowl and remove bay leaves. Mix in chopped parsley and thyme. Pour into 1-quart loaf pan, cover and refrigerate overnight.
1 clove garlic, minced
1 shallot, minced
1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
5 tablespoons canola, peanut, grapeseed or extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped chervil leaves, optional
1 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped tarragon leaves, optional
Freshly ground pepper
Sprigs fresh thyme, for garnish
* In small bowl, whisk garlic, shallot, mustard and vinegar. Gradually beat in oil until incorporated, then mix in salt, chervil and tarragon. Give a grind or two of peppermill, as desired. (Makes 3/4 cup.)
* To serve, unmold terrine and cut into 1-inch-thick slices. Arrange slices on platter or individual plates and spoon vinaigrette around slices. Garnish with sprigs of thyme.
8 to 12 servings. Each of 12 servings, with 1 tablespoon Vinaigrette: 192 calories; 327 mg sodium; 5 mg cholesterol; 13 grams fat; 13 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 1.23 grams fiber.
Spiced Poached Peaches (Peches Poches aux Epices)
Active Work Time: 20 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 35 minutes plus 1 hour chilling time
1/4 cup sugar
3 cups water
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
4 large peaches
1 teaspoon orange flower water, optional
4 sprigs fresh mint
* Combine sugar, water, peppercorns, cumin, coriander and fennel seeds, cloves and cardamom in pot just large enough to hold peaches. Cover and bring to boil over high heat. Add peaches, lower heat to medium and simmer, uncovered, 8 minutes. Turn peaches over and simmer 5 minutes. Transfer peaches to plate and cook liquid until reduced by about half, until like thin syrup, about 15 minutes. Pour liquid through strainer into 2-quart container and add optional orange flower water.
* Slip skins from peaches while still warm. Halve peaches from tip to stem, remove stone and place peach halves in syrup. Chill 1 hour. To serve, place peach halves and syrup in bowls and garnish with mint.
4 servings. Each serving: 89 calories; 1 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 23 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.73 gram fiber.