Welcome spring! Yesterday was its official debut (at 10:53 local French time, according to radio France Inter) even though I always thought it was the 21st.
The date doesn’t matter because the sun knows what’s up, and so does the market. Everyone is running around in shirtsleeves (manches courtes) with their cool French sunglasses, while radishes are on every menu, at every market stand, on every épicerie shelf.
And they’re all grown in France. I know that because vendors are required by law to mark where fruits and vegetables are grown. For example, if you were to see a sign marked Radis ESP, it means it would mean that the radishes you’re dying to buy are from Spain (Espagne).
I digress because I really wanted to talk about grilling. It is time to pull out FRENCH GRILL dust off your barbecue, scrape the grill, measure how much charcoal you have. If you’re a gas grill person, some of the same goes.
FRENCH GRILL WILL DELIGHT YOU ALL YEAR ROUND, BEGINNING RIGHT NOW!
I grill year-round and always have. When we lived in Maine (where Joe was born one eon ago), I was working on the definitive article about lobster for GOURMET magazine, which entailed a lot of lobster grilling in the dead of winter. The grill was on the porch, the temperature was many degrees below zero and I’d go out to supervise the lobster. I always have a tea towel strung through my apron tie, and often it gets very wet. When I’d return to the house after grilling in sub-zero temperatures, the tea towel would be frozen solid. I couldn’t remove it because it would have broken in bits. I had to wait for it to thaw.
We aren’t concerned with that problem here in France, and the French don’t grill year-round; they’re starting now. I’m joining them to announce the official opening of the French grill season, and the recipe I want to celebrate with is Impressionist Vegetables. It’s an idea I borrowed from Bruno Verjus at Table restaurant in Paris, with his permission, and it’s brilliant. It takes vegetables you might think are un-grillable and turns them into little golden, crisp bites of wonder. Depending on what’s best at the market, I use radishes, new onions, glorious asparagus, the occasional baby carrot, sometimes new cabbage quarters, freshly harvested ramps from the woods in Louviers, or baby spinach leaves from Baptiste. Whatever the combination, Impressionist Vegetables is a celebration of spring.
The important thing when grilling any vegetables is to coat each one with a light film of oil. The best way to do this is to pour oil on a flat plate or platter. Mix in some salt, then roll the vegetables around in the blend before putting them on the grill.
Once you’ve oiled your vegetables and your fire is hot, place them on the grill and watch them like a hawk, turning and turning until they’re tender and slightly charred on the outside. It doesn’t take long – follow the recipe and it will guide you.
And if you’re grilling during the day and the sun is out, put on your cool French sunglasses, pour yourself a glass of wine, and enjoy this beginning of spring and the glorious debut of the French Grill season!
IMPRESSIONISTE VEGETABLES - LES LEGUMES IMPRESSIONISTE
ASTUCE: you may use any vegetable you like here, in any quantity you like, but small spring vegetables are best, and radishes, which keep their cheery color are essential. Sometimes I use baby turnips; if I can’t find spring onions, I use shallots; and occasionally I double the amount of asparagus. Also, if cilantro is hard to find, then use the finest extra-virgin olive oil all by itself. You’ll miss the vivid green color and the subtle flavor of the cilantro, but the dish will be delicious. Have fun!
12small spring onionstrimmed, with 2-inches stem (or scallions)
8stalks asparagustrimmed, peeled halfway up from the root end
12leaves spinachor ramps, or other tender green
½teaspoonsmoked paprikaor more if needed
Cilantro oil – optionalsee recipes
Fleur de sel
Place the yogurt in a sieve lined with cheesecloth one hour before you plan to serve this dish. Set the sieve over a bowl and reserve, at room temperature.
Build a medium-sized fire in the grill. While the coals are heating, pour the olive oil into a large, flat dish. Add a generous amount of salt, mix it with your fingers, then place all the vegetables except the greens in the oil and turn them until they are lightly covered with oil.
When the coals are red and dusted with ash, divide them in the barbecue, putting half the coals on either side. Set the grill over the coals. If you’ve got a perforated grill pan, place it on top of the grill, with half of it over the coals and the other half over the part of the barbecue without coals.
When the grill is hot, place the radishes, spring onions, and asparagus over the coals and leave them there just long enough until they are golden all over, turning them once. Depending on the heat of your grill and the vegetables, this can take from 2 to 4 minutes. When they’re golden on both sides, move them to the side of the grill away from the coals, cover the grill, and cook them until they are tender, which will take from 2 to 4 minutes.
While the vegetables are grilling, place the green leaves in the remaining oil and salt, rub them so they are lightly covered with oil.
Remove the vegetables from the grill, and place the spinach leaves on the grill above the coals. They will brown quickly, so turn them until they wilt and are golden to almost black, which will take just seconds. Remove them from the grill.
To serve, place a dollop of yogurt in the center of each of four plates. Sprinkle it liberally with smoked paprika. Arrange the vegetables around it. Drizzle some cilantro oil around the vegetables. Season with fleur de sel, and serve immediately