One of the most wonderful things my boyfriend has ever said to me was, "Kerry, you make vegetables exciting." Sexier words have never been spoken.
You may not know this about me, but I was vegetarian for twelve years growing up. And most of those years excluded not only red meat and chicken, but also seafood, eggs, and Jell-O. I assure you, I was not one of those girls who "doesn't like meat." I know I shouldn't say this, but I always get the feeling they're pulling the wool over my eyes My favorite pre-veg childhood lunch was a bacon cheeseburger. But I had pets, and I stayed up one late and fateful night watching an animal rights infomercial. And I was done, until I turned eighteen.
Maman was always handy with the Puy lentils, so I never much noticed I was different when I was at home. She made all sorts of exciting things (sexy vegetables run in the family): chickpea and vegetable tagines, oozing cauliflower gratins, broccoli roasted and webbed with fresh crumbs of baguette. But adolescence is about socializing, and that usually meant dinner at a friend's house after grueling hours of physics homework. It was always the same: we would seat ourselves around the table, and so-and-so's mom would trot out a gorgeous, gleaming roast chicken, plaid with a forest of herbs, glistening with butter. Or a side of salmon, basted red with chipotle, still smoking from the grill. Or joints of lamb, collapsing off the bone, stewing in wine. I remind you, it's not that I didn't love to eat meat. I was a conscientious objector.
Then, as an afterthought, she would saunter back out of the kitchen with a small bowl a boiled string beans or steamed broccoli. Not an ounce of fat, not a pinch of salt. I would stare morbidly into the green bowl. Well, at least it was healthy. It was after these rabbit dinners that I developed my lifelong habit of eating meal 3.5 at midnight.
So when Maman sent me away to Brest in Bretagne for the summer when I was fifteen to improve my fluency in French (I wrote last week about how cheeky she was in getting me to learn the language), I was panicked. No Maman, and her Puy lentils, and bubbling gratins, and spicy tagines? What was a girl to do? I was sure I would wither away down to a boiled, lifeless string bean myself, and then she'd be sorry she ever made me learn French. Boy, would she be sorry!
Let's just call the family I stayed with in Brest the Tartinels. Madame Tartinel was a gourmet--she had three of us foreigners staying with her that summer, and every evening she prepared a feast I would have expected in a royal medieval French banquet hall. More sparkling roast chickens, stews of rabbits, loins of pork. I would always walk in, ravenous from exploring and failing miserably at communication all day. But my stomach made up for it: growling needs no translation.
To say that her heart was mortally wounded by my recurrent refusal of her food is an understatement. She was mortified. I thought she would boot me from the house without so much as a dictionary without a second of remorse. It was humiliating. I lived on baguette, and there was no midnight half-meal to keep me going. The night she made vegetable quiche, "just for me," and I had to explain that I couldn't eat eggs--well, let's just say I quietly slipped my butter knife from under my napkin to under my pillow.
But after about a week, she made a loin of pork, and to go with it, these awful looking gray potatoes. My eyes jumped: potatoes! Hot food! But still, I wasn't expecting much. I spooned two reluctantly onto my plate, and sprinkled them with salt. I took a bite. "Madame Tartinel," I stammered. "Comment avez-vous faites cettes pommes de terre? Elles sont delicieuses."
She had a wide face to begin with, but the smile that stretched across those robust features changed her from woman to Cheshire cat. She didn't speak a word of English, but again, some things don't need translation. She spooned several more potatoes onto my dish, and shewed everyone else away from the potato bowl for the rest of the night. They were all for me.
She took me into the kitchen, and showed me how she had done it. She peeled the potatoes, little round boilers, and pierced them with the point of a knife. She simmered them in water or vegetable stock with a bouquet garni of fresh herbs and spoonfuls of dried ones and butter and salt. All of these flavors, the potatoes soaked up like eager sponges. They were rustic and simple, but they were thoughtful, and they tasted as though someone had cared enough about the potato to show them off to advantage. And so, in my eyes, she had cared enough about me.
I had, early on, considered myself a great burden on Madame Tartinel, and had been convinced that she went upstairs every night to knit my name into a long list of Americans she hoped one day to guillotine. But Madame Tartinel loved nothing more than when I asked for seconds. If there was nothing left, she would get herself up from the table, and go out to the kitchen to set more on the stove for me to eat. She was lovely, a mother away from Maman. Our disagreements had stemmed only from the fact that the foods that went into my mouth were as incomprehensible to her as the words that came out. But good food brings people together, and around that dark, ornate, wooden dining room table, Southern hospitality got a run for its money.
One of the vegetables that I discovered in France was the white asparagus, usually served simply cold, with vinaigrette. It is no more of a fuss than a bowl of depressed, wilted green string beans, but it is, like Madame Tartinel's potatoes, thoughtful. It considers the succulent, sweet, springtime flavor of the asparagus, and the components that will complement it. In this little mix of asparagus, I match purple asparagus, pencil asparagus, and white asparagus (unfortunately not available for this photo), with a simple aïoli made with a store-bought mayonnaise base, flavored with citrus, fines herbes (parsley, chervil, tarragon, chives), and garlic. I hope you will find it, as the asparagus season draws to a close, both easy enough to dump in front of your child's vegetarian friend, and delicious enough to require you to dash back into the kitchen to make seconds.
I skipped three years of high school French after that summer, and Maman got her way. But I think the vegetables I was served, served me far better, and fed more than just my rumbling belly.
About the author: Kerry Saretsky is the creator of French Revolution Food, where she reinvents her family's classic French recipes in a fresh, chic, modern way. She also writes the The Secret Ingredient series for Serious Eats.
French in a Flash: Chilled Asparagus Mélange with Fines Herbes Aïoli
About This Recipe
- A total of 2 pounds of asparagus, including white, purple, thick, and pencil
- 2 cloves garlic
- 2 tablespoons flat leaf parsley
- 2 tablespoons chives
- 2 tablespoons tarragon
- 2 tablespoons chervil
- Zest of 1 lemon
- Juice of 1/2 lemon
- 1 cup mayonnaise
- Salt and pepper
- Lime wedges
A Note about Aïoli
- Aïoli is a Provençal sauce made from garlic, egg yolks, olive oil, and lemon. It is, in its most iconic state, served in the dish also known as aïoli, which is boiled vegetables, fish, and egg, all served with the sauce. It is, and remains, all about t
Peel the stalks of any thick asparagus, and all the white asparagus.
Bring a pot of water to boil, and salt it well. Blanch each type of asparagus separately. Pencil takes 30 seconds, thicker takes about 60 seconds, white 60-90 seconds. Immediately shock each bundle in ice water until completely cold.
Make the aïoli by whirling together the garlic and the herbs, lemon zest and juice, and salt and pepper in a food processor. Then add the mayonnaise, and blend until it is a smooth sauce flecked with tiny bits of green.
Serve the chilled asparagus with the aïoli sauce, and squeeze wedges of lime over the entire dish. Finish with flaked sea salt or fleur de sel.