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If the weather doesn’t seem to make up its mind, the crisp, just-plucked radishes showing up at the local markets and farmers’ stands tell us that spring is indeed here. Their alluring crispness makes a wonderful offering for an aperitif or with a sprinkling of salt and a dab of sweet butter as a light appetizer.  The unblemished tender leaves can be saved and served as a peppery delectable soup that is invigorating and hearty enough for a cool spring day.

If you plan to make the soup, the radishes should come from a farmer’s market. The greens should be bright and sprightly, and not showing any sign of fatigue. Those that have been kept under the supermarkets’ “reviving” sprinklers are loaded with water and often look kind of funky by the time you get home, and they should be discarded.

A garnish of thinly sliced radishes adds a nice crunch and looks pretty against the intense green background.  I also like to serve this soup with toasted slices of baguette, smeared with a thin layer fresh goat cheese and top with the radish slices.

Creamy Radish Greens Soup

Serves 4

  • One large bunch of radishes
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 large spring onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 large potato
  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • 2 to 4 tablespoons crème fraîche or heavy cream, to taste
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Cut the greens from the radishes and wash carefully. Dry and chop coarsely.  Peel and quarter the potato.

Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook over medium-low heat until translucent and soft, about 5 minutes. Add the radish greens and a good pinch of salt, and toss until wilted. Add the potato and chicken broth. Season with salt to taste. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender.

Puree the soup with a hand held mixer or in a food processor, or blender. Return to the pan. Swirl in the crème fraîche or heavy cream, and stir over medium heat until hot. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper to taste and serve.

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Browsing through Les Halles in Narbonne on a recent Saturday, to my greatest dismay, I came upon a large display of sickly tomatoes. “Tomatoes in February?” was muttering the older man standing next to me. “Probably hot-house” I offered as I moved on to look for something a little more seasonal. We met up again a few minutes later, my red bin filled with winter greens and his with a couple of tomatoes. “Did you get them from the right side or from the left?” inquired the stall keeper as she prepared to ring the sale. “Why? They all look the same,” he replied while pointing to the left. She explained that the ones on the left were Spanish and the others local. He looked absolutely indignant as he marched back to the display, dumped the offending foreigners, and returned clutching two soulless little rocks de pays.

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These funky looking things are navets de Pardailhan and, here in Languedoc, we think they are the best turnips in the world. A true product of terroire, the black turnips are cultivated in the red clay soil surrounding the village of Pardailhan in the Hauts Cantons of the Hérault department, at the southern tip of the Massif Central.

Praised for its creamy-white flesh, peppery scent and delicate flavor of fresh hazelnuts, the root vegetable can be traced back to the Middle Ages and, throughout the centuries, has enjoyed a reputation that reached far beyond the region – local lore has it at the king’s table in Versailles, but no one knows for sure!

After World War II, as farmers left their land to more lucrative jobs in nearby cities, the turnip of Pardailhan almost disappeared. About ten years ago, a handful of producers created the association Lou Nap dal Pardailha to save the venerable root and bring it back to its former glory. You now can find them from October to early February at local farmers markets and on the menus of some of the best regional restaurants. The production is still very small and most of it remains within Languedoc’s boundaries.

In the kitchen, I discovered that the Pardailhan turnips prefer the stage to themselves. Throw them in a vegetable soup and they tend to loose their distinctive personality amidst the chorus of flavors. They can be enjoyed cold in salads either raw or blanched, and in gratins. But they shine most when cut in thick wedges, pan-roasted in duck fat and served with a braised pork or veal roast, or roasted duck. Local cooks recommend adding a pinch or two of sugar to underscore their sweet nutty flavors. Personally, I deem that their goodness doesn’t need any embellishment.

 

Braised Veal Roast with Turnips de Pardailhan

Serves 6

  • 6 garlic cloves, peeled and quartered
  • 1 2-pound veal roast
  • 8 large shallots
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • ¼ cup white wine
  • ½ cup chicken broth or water
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 large sprig of rosemary
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 6 to 8 turnips de Pardailhan, depending on the size (see note)
  • 3 tablespoons duck fat

With a sharp knife, make eight incisions on all around the roast and insert a piece of garlic in each one.

Peel the shallots and halve or quarter them depending on the size. Mince the remaining garlic.

Heat the oil in a heat cast iron pot. Season the roast with salt and pepper and sear it on all side over medium-high heat. Remove from the pot and pour off most of the fat from the pan. Deglaze with the wine and broth or water, and reduce by half. Add the rosemary branch and the bay leaf and return the roast to the pot along with the shallots and minced garlic. Season with salt and pepper. Cover, reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 30 minutes, for medium rare. Remove the roast from the pot and let it rest, loosely covered for 10 minutes. Discard the rosemary sprig and bay leaf. Keep the shallot sauce warm.

Meanwhile, peel and rinse the turnips. Halve them crosswise and cut into thick wedges.

Heat the duck fat in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the turnip wedges, season with salt and pepper, and toss to coat with the hot fat. Cook for 15 to 20 minutes, until the turnips are lightly golden and soft.

To serve, slice the roast and arrange at the center of a serving platter. Surround with the turnips and serve immediately with the shallot sauce on the side.

Note: Chances are that you won’t find Pardailhan turnips where you are. If you do, let me know. Although not exactly the same, you can substitute black radishes or even purple top turnips caramelized in 1 to 2 tablespoons of sugar, according to taste.

 

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The mushroom season is late this year. Since September, forager friends have made few runs to their favorite secret spots in the Haut-Languedoc and came back empty handed. Then one day in Beziers, in the middle of the very crowded Friday market, I spotted them – the first cèpes of the season. Although due to the scarcity, this year’s prices are high, as a former New Yorker shopping at Dean & Delucas, Fairway or Union Square’s Farmer’s Market, the 23 € a kilo tag didn’t faze me, for I planned to pick up just enough for a main course for two. I was carefully making my selection when the stall keeper pointed to a stash on the side, and casually mentioned that since it was almost 1pm, closing time, and these cèpes wouldn’t keep longer than a day, I could have them for 10 € as long as I promise to consume them right away. Was he kidding? I came home with about 2 kg.

That evening, in order to sample the pure flavors and textures of this year’s harvest, I prepared half of them very simply — en persillade. Cut lengthwise into thick slices and seared in olive oil (duck fat is also excellent), then cooked until golden for 15 to 20 minutes over gentle heat and showered with a good amount of minced garlic and parsley in the last few minutes of cooking. The following day, I prepared one of my favorite dishes, daube de cèpes, a recipe I learned from André Daguin while working on our book, “Foie Gras, Magret and other Good Food from Gascony.” It is an amazing dish with great depth of flavors and character, and is often served as an accompaniment to a roast. I can make a meal of it on its own, followed by a garlicky frisée salad, some semi-aged goat cheese and fresh walnuts.

Daube de Cèpes

Serves 6

  • 3 pounds fresh firm cèpes
  • 3 tablespoons duck fat
  • Salt to taste
  • 1/4 lb pancetta, finely chopped
  • 6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • ½ cup finely chopped parsley
  • 1 ½ cups dry white wine
  • 1 cup hot water
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste

 

 

 

Heat the duck fat in a heavy pot over medium heat. Place the cèpes caps upside down in the pot and cook over medium heat for 30 minutes. Remove from the pot and season with salt.

Finely chop the mushroom stems and add them to the pot with the pancetta, garlic, and parsley along with a pinch of salt. Stir well and sauté over medium-high heat until the mixture starts to turn golden. Add the wine to the pot and season with salt and lightly with pepper. When the wine starts to boil, add the hot water. Carefully arrange the caps in the pan and cook, covered, over low heat for 1½ hours. The mixture should not be too dry. Add some hot water to the pan, if necessary, to moisten it and prevent from burning.