We had a halcyon moment last week, given the deluges of the weeks before and the grey skies and intermittent torrential rains of this week (I’m looking out the window now at cars crawling through rivers of water on the street, roses bent under the blast). After Monday, each day began in the mist and ended in such sunny brightness that eating outside was a must!
Tuesday, though, I went to the market to get mackerel, a denizen of the English Channel, a fish to count on. On arriving at the poissonerie there wasn’t one to be found, and the fishmonger shook his head sadly when I asked if he had any anywhere. “Mais non, Madame, there isn’t a mackerel in the region. No one has any.” Like the sun rising in the east, mackerel is a constant. I consoled myself with shiny, gorgeous sardines instead.
The next day at the market in Le Neubourg mackerel, still stiff with freshness, were everywhere. I asked my poissonier, Bruno, if there was trouble with the fishery, explaining my experience of the day before. “Ahh,” he said with a wise and sorrowful look. “You know what they say about people in the fish business. If their lips are moving, they’re lying.” To make up for his unreliable colleague he gave me mackerel, which we took home to fillet, grill and eat with our appetizers.
The weather has been so wild, I had no reason to doubt the poissonier at the time. We are watching the rivers fill, the skies turn black, the winds turn demonic – it was absolutely logical to think the boats hadn’t gone out. I learned something about my local poissonier!
While mackerel may be plentiful, much is in short supply however, as we all wish for higher temperatures, more calm, and more sun. Yet there are some distinct advantages to this extended period of wild and unwilling-to-commit weather, at least to the cook and eater.
Radishes are perfect. They’re getting enough water so they aren’t turning fiery.
Cabbages are exploding into marvelous sweetness.
What asparagus we have is divine, and the same goes for that little handful of peas we found.
Baby onions are succulent , beets and carrots are bursting with flavor, and as for lettuces, they’ve never been more tender and delicate.
All of this uncertainty and the battering rains mean the cook – and the cooking teacher – have to be even more flexible with menus than usual. It may be asparagus (or pea or sorrel or spinach) season on the calendar, but in the fields something quite different is happening. This makes cooking more fun and exciting as one flexes and bends to the rhythm, learning that while variety may be paused, there are still a million different ways to prepare what the season offers.
A SYMPHONY OF GREEN – ASPARAGUS WITH HERB SAUCE
UNE SYMPHONIE DE VERT – LES ASPERGES A LA SAUCE VERTE
1 pound (500g) green asparagus, trimmed and rinsed
For the sauce:
2 cloves garlic, green germ removed
2 small, spring onions (or 3 scallions, the white part and about 1-inch (2.5cm) of the green), trimmed and cut into quarters
Scant ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
1 cup (10g) flat-leaf parsley leaves, loosely packed
1 large egg
¼ cup (60ml) extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
2 thin slices air-cured ham, cut in ¼-inch crosswise strips
- Prepare a cooling rack covered with a cotton tea towel. Bring 3 cups water and the lemon to a boil in the bottom half of a steamer.
- Reduce the heat under the water to low and let simmer for 5 minutes. Increase the heat again to medium-high so the water returns to the boil, and lay the asparagus in the top of the steamer. Cover and steam until the asparagus is al dente, which will take anywhere from about 5 to 10 minutes, depending on the thickness of the asparagus.
- When the asparagus is tender, remove it from the steamer and lay it in a single layer on the prepared cooling rack.
- To make the sauce, place the garlic, the onion, and the salt in a mortar and pestle, and grind the mixture until it is quite smooth. Add the parsley leaves and process until the mixture forms a paste. Mix in the egg, then slowly, slowly add the oil and mix until you have a thick sauce. Season to taste, and reserve.
- To serve, arrange equal amounts of the asparagus in the center of four plates. Pour equal amounts of the sauce over the asparagus, and garnish with the ham slices and an herb leaf. Serve immediately.