Letting Food Speak For Itself

My sister and I just got back from a trip to Paris where we spent our time exploring the city: hopping on the Metro going from one end of the city to another, stopping to walk through parks, gardens and through markets filled with well dressed Parisians. Going to the Market is always one of my favorite things about Paris. There I move from stand to stand wide eyed with delight as I look at many kinds of French cheeses, olives, meats, fish, wines; stands with fresh breads, pastries, little berry tarts. I always gravitate towards the tables overflowing with abundant produce where I stand in silent debate, "should I get the currants, figs or raspberries?" before deciding just to get all three. Then there are the vegetables; the big beautiful leeks, mushrooms, onions, and zucchinis always bring a tinge of sadness because I do not have a kitchen where I can make a delicious French omelet. 


Rarely did we go anywhere where the destination did not have to do with food. We were always eating or drinking: a buttery flaky croissant and a rich espresso for breakfast, a sandwich from a boulangerie or a picnic in the park—baguette, goat cheese, sausage, fresh figs and wine—for lunch, an afternoon Panache (beer with sparkling french lemonade), and then dinner, always an occasion to dress up in Paris. It can be hard choosing a restaurant in a city overflowing with so many choices. Walking down one of the main busy streets in the city there is one restaurant after another with the host or hostess waiting outside watching the passersby and ready to usher you in if you so choose. In my experience, these restaurants are often geared towards tourists. They do not have many dinner guests, the food is mediocre and the prices are high. I usually try to find restaurants down side streets where the tables are crowded and full of locals chattering away, delightedly eating. The Parisians seem to have a high standard for the quality of the food and if the restaurant is busy, there's a good chance that they have been there more than once. 


I spent ten days in Paris eating out once or twice each day and I had only one bad meal, a mushy plate of Risotto at a questionable Italian restaurant. I really should have known better. The other meals I had were good and some down right excellent. One night I had a crisp Arugula salad that was so delicious I could not concentrate on anything else in the room until the plate was clean. Each bite filled my mouth with the flavors of fresh greens, ripe tomatoes and a burst or pecorino cheese. Including the subtle vinaigrette, there were probably only 6 or 7 ingredients in this salad, and it was one of the best I have ever eaten. 


One afternoon, we stopped at a busy cafe for lunch. I had a mixed green salad that tasted like it was picked that morning and I half expected there to still be dirt on the leaves, but of course, the French would not allow that. Next to this near perfect salad were two slices of lightly toasted bread topped with some roasted red peppers and two round slices of chevre, not herbed or spiced but just plain goat cheese, slightly warm. There were also some fingerling potatoes on the plate which were perfectly crisp on the outside, without a hint of dryness on the inside. Everything was simple...and simply delicious.


Two nights in a row I had salmon. Both times the salmon was not plain, but simply prepared with no sauces of any kind, just a delicious beautiful piece of fish that fell away in slices when you cut into it. So confident were these French chefs that their food was fresh—and so sure of their skills— that they could let the salmon, potatoes, and arugula speak for themselves. This seems to be the key of why eating in France is so pleasurable. In a place where the food is rarely compromised, consumers can eat with not just joy, but confidence. 


What can the French can teach us about cooking? It's simple: when ingredients are fresh, less is more. If you buy good vinegar and good olive oil, not much else is needed to make a tasty salad dressing. If you learn how to cook something really well, bringing out its flavors, we may find that there is no need to hide it behind things like seasoning salt, complicated sauces or pounds of cheese (sorry Wisconsin). Knowing that less is more when it comes to fresh food can also make cooking and shopping a lot easier and less stressful. You know that when you buy your produce from a local source, it will taste better and then you can count on making a wonderful meal without worrying about long lists of ingredients and complex recipes. Plus, if you spend a bit more for high quality vegetables, you can save by skipping all of those extra ingredients. In the end, good food discussions always seem to come back to farmers markets, gardens and CSAs. Let the food speak for itself, it always tastes best that way.


 Lizzie Holzapfel is a Yogi, food lover and writer. She lives in South Minneapolis and can be reached at:

Photo credit: Sally Holzapfel