Midweek Distractions 4/17/24: Respecting the Seasons in France

Sanary sur Mer - September 2018: Fresh produce on sale in the market of Sanary sur Mer, France

Where I am in New York, spring is as tempestuous as ever: 80 degrees and sunny one day; 50 degrees and pouring the next. But when grocery shopping, I hardly notice the changing seasons. When I lived in France, the produce section would change drastically from month to month. It might be packed to the brim with cabbage one day, and chock full of asparagus a week later.

In the U.S., we demand, like impetuous children, to have access to everything, tous le temps, regardless of the environmental impact. We think it’s normal to have items shipped around the world just so that we can have avocados in Michigan and strawberries in December. Even as I write this, I’m cobbling together a lunch out of Alaskan salmon, frozen spinach from China, and rice from Bangladesh.

When living in Europe, I had to adjust to the fact that certain foods were only available in certain seasons. At first, it was frustrating. But once I stopped looking at it as a limitation, I began to appreciate the shifts of seasonal produce as fun surprises. Because, frankly, the fruits and veggies I found there were usually way better (and cheaper) than they are here.

There’s really something to seeing stalls at a French marché stacked several feet high with spiny artichokes in April, or plump figs in September. There are certain fruits and vegetables that the French absolutely adore, like delicate mirabelle plums, or purple-tipped white asparagus, which are available for only a brief moment in time. Tarragon and blackcurrants (called cassis in French), predominant in so many French dishes and drinks, can be hard to find in the States, and pricey when you can. (This is why reading French cookbooks can sometimes be a frustrating exercise.)

So I love it when I’m able to use ingredients I have on hand to make recipes from across the Atlantic. Stinging nettles, which can be foraged in much of the U.S., make an affordable and nutritious French soup. Leeks, which are at their most delicate in the spring, are delicious when steamed and dressed in a gorgeous vinaigrette (also French!). And though strawberries are not quite in season here, their season has already started in France, so don’t judge yourself for picking up a box at your local grocery store so you can get a jumpstart on this strawberry clafoutis.

If you’re like me, you can also spend your entire week’s food budget on a few imported French food items, like some mirabelle jam from Bonne Maman, some Isigny butter, and a bit of Piment d’Espelette (which is the closest the French get to a spicy spice). The latter I had to travel to SOS Chefs, a specialty spice shop in Manhattan, to pick up. It might be my new favorite place (the owner, Atef Boulaabi, is a goldmine of culinary knowledge, and she stocks absolutely everything you could think of), but it will also bankrupt me.

We’ve also got some culinary inspiration for Frenchly readers who are celebrating Passover this coming Monday. Enjoy a Passover seder with a bit of French flair with these five recipes. So whatever you’re cooking this week, do it Frenchly.

What I’m reading…

The Abduction, a collection of poems by Franco-Syrian poet Maram Al-Masri, translated by Hélène Cardona. This autobiographical collection about Al-Masri as a young Arab woman in France deals with the tragic abduction of her young child. Those in LA can listen to some of these poems in translation, read by Cardona, as part of the LA Times Festival of Books.

Croissant of the week…

This weekend, I’ll probably make a pit stop at the World Trade Center outpost of Smorgasburg, where the bakery Ole & Steen is debuting four versions of their take on the viral cookie-croissant. In case you don’t remember, they were my personal pick for best baguette at our citywide competition last month, so I have high expectations for this Frankencroissant!

Catherine Rickman

Stay in touch! I’d love to hear from you: [email protected].

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