“Meet at Metro Maubert-Mutualité, in front of Café le Métro” the message said. My market cooking class was gathering at the oldest outdoor market in Paris to choose the ingredients and determine the menu we’d be cooking that day. I got there early to allow time for the day’s first cafè crème, but when I emerged Chef Justin was already standing in front with several other students. His colleague handed out large market bags with La Cuisine Paris’ logo, and we followed Justin into the market like a group of anxious duckling tourists.
Justin led us past meat and vegetable stalls, while keeping up a steady flow of information about the history of the site, some of the vendors who’d been coming for generations, and prestigious awards won by famous shops like Laurent Dubois for cheese or the bakers with their incredible brioche. After a quick group conference in which duck was rejected (sob!) as well as escargot (I could live with that one), we settled on scallops and—for those like me who couldn’t eat shellfish—salmon. Let the buying begin!
Last month, when I was shopping in Indian markets, it was all about the bargaining. In France, though, your goal is to score the absolute freshest items. Chef was full of tips:
- See these onions and carrots with their greens cut off? Never buy them. That’s the first part to wilt, so a sure sign the veggies are not the freshest.
- Only buy fish with bright eyes and red gills. Headless fish are probably trying to hide aged eyes and gills. (Then again, maybe they just have heavy, ugly heads…)
- The white asparagus is actually the same as the green stuff, but it was raised under a tarp that causes it to grow short and fat instead of tall and thin. It’s a briefly-available treat not to be missed.
- In this stall, wait until Madame is free. That skinny little guy with her is drunk 90% of the time.
- In that stall, the incredible variety of mustards form the essential base for your vinaigrette – and of course no self-respecting French cook would be caught dead with a store-bought vinaigrette.
- In front of the cheese stall, let’s just keep talking in hopes that the proprietor will offer samples. No? Well, we’ll buy some anyway.
- This thing that looks like a cross between a potato and some confused ginger is a Jerusalem artichoke. Most of France survived on them during WWII, and then nobody wanted to eat them for decades. It’s making a comeback, although it needs to be cooked for long periods.
- The thing that looks like a green modern art sculpture is actually Romanesco. It tastes like a cross between broccoli and cauliflower. But the amazing thing is that it’s an almost-perfect fractal (a repeating pattern based on the Fibonacci sequence that reproduces from the large form down to the individual florets.)
As we headed back to the school, I chatted with some of my fellow students, who came from all over the world. Two women had just run the Paris marathon, and one mentioned that it was her twentieth marathon. Another woman was there with her fifteen-year-old son, already an accomplished cook and celebrity chef fan.
In the airy upstairs kitchen with the windows that look toward the Seine, we set out the vegetables and had a quick lesson in basic knife work. (Grasp the knife blade between your thumb and index finger, and curl your remaining three fingers around the handle. Fold in the fingertips on your other hand and use the flat edges of your fisted fingers to guide the blade so there is never a chance of fingertip-tartare added to your meal.)
With that in mind, we got down to getting those scallops out of shells that were remarkably determined not to allow anything of the kind, and then trimming them for cooking.
This was followed by Egg Breaking 101, in which we learned that Mom was wrong. We’re not allowed to crack the egg on the side of the bowl and hope we don’t have to fish out too many shell bits. Instead, the technique is to tap it against the flat of the counter, and then with one hand cupped over a bowl, pour the egg through your fingers (yuck!) while catching the yolk in your cupped hand. (Can we just admit that I am a complete egg-breaking failure and move on?)
With our hand-separated yolks, we made lemon hollandaise sauce. Of course I’ve done that before, but the difference is that here it actually worked. Apparently, when they say not to put the pan directly onto the heat source, they mean don’t even let it get any hotter than you can comfortably touch. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who was determinedly not thinking about salmonella as we moved on to emulsifying the sauce.
After vegetables were roasted and scallops seared came the best part of the class. We all sat down together to a fabulous meal of fresh market veggies and fish, baguette, wine, and our roasted rhubarb and fresh strawberry dessert along with market cheese.
Of course, the food was fantastic, but the fun of buying and preparing it, plus the chance to meet so many people from around the world is what makes taking a local cooking class so special.