You will never get out of pot or pan anything fundamentally better than what went into it.
Cooking is not alchemy; there is no magic in the pot.
- Martha McCulloch-Williams, Dishes & Beverages of The Old South, 1913
You might be surprised to learn that the small, artisan, neighborhood shop – the butcher, the baker, the cheese and the fishmonger – was on the brink of extinction. It was. The French went absolutely crazy for the supermarché and the deluxe hypermarché, happy to take the car (and the entire family) on a Friday evening or Saturday morning out to the disheveled periphery of the city or equidistant between huddles of villages to fill monster-sized shopping carts with boxes, bags and cans of goods, produce that was more than not flown in from some foreign clime and meat from who knew where (and evidently take it all home and cram it in their tiny, dollhouse-sized French refrigerators). These caverns of goods were bonanzas, like hitting the jackpot with their one-stop shopping, their offerings of never-before-seen delights, a jumble of food, toys, housewares and clothing, their oh-so American perception of abundance. And their low prices.
And an entire generation of young French adults and parents began eschewing the market, the local producers and the artisan shops. Those shops struggled and began shutting their doors. And we panicked. An entire generation of French adults and parents were now coming into their own through the doors of an hypermarché. A new generation of French adults and parents stopped marketing, or rarely, stopped cooking, or mostly, stopped being able to tell the difference between an excellent loaf of artisan bread and those purchased wrapped in plastic at the store. These young adults were turning their backs on the small, neighborhood artisans and the traditional custom of picking up fresh produce and meat daily, choosing rather to buy in bulk on bi-monthly trips. And the neighborhood shops began disappearing.
Happily, the trend was fairly short lived. Well, kind of. Those super- and hypermarchés still thrive. New ones just keep popping up all over the country like acne on a worried teen, urban blight, and shopping conglomerates even sneak mini-versions into city centers; these dens of pre-packaged delights teem with shoppers, happy or not, most days of the week. And even we, yes, go once regularly to pick up cleaning supplies and the basic staples of a well-stocked pantry. But the neighborhood artisan shops have come back and stronger and more popular than ever. The Frenchman's fancy might be tickled by new trends, but he knows what tastes good. Well, most of them, anyway.
My husband never gave in to the new trend. He never gave up marketing or patronizing the local artisans and producers. His parents, after all, owned one of those quaint mom-and-pop corner shops that sold dry goods and staples, yes, mass-produced cheeses, but also handmade cheese and fresh fruits and vegetables. He grew up in a home where food was purchased daily, meals were prepared from scratch, where his parents didn't discover the supermarket until well after they retired.
My husband is a funny creature. He is allergic to supermarkets. We go out of necessity, yet he avoids it when he can. And when he does go, well the results are often disastrous. He has been known to abandon a full caddy in the center of the food aisles and run for his life. He has been known to break out in sweats, break out in hives (I kid you not) from the sheer stress of the thing. The overly bright neon lights, the impersonal chill, the canned air that settles around us, the rows upon rows of goods no one needs.
He still prefers his meat come from a butcher, his fruit and vegetables from the primeurs, our baguettes and loaves fresh from the master baker's oven.
And he still cooks from scratch.
LAMB CURRY WITH FRESH PEAS
One crucial element in turning a good stew, curry or tagine into a great stew, curry or tagine is allowing it to sit for at least an hour, more if possible, before gently reheating and serving; the meat becomes tender, the sauce thickens and the flavors meld and deepen. Give yourself the time when preparing this dish to allow it that recommended resting time.
Olive oil + margarine for cooking
2 – 3 medium onions (we used 1 yellow + 1 red), peeled, halved and sliced
1 lb 5 oz – 1 lb 8 oz (22 – 25 oz / 600 – 700 g) boneless lamb shoulder, cut into fairly large cubes
1 large or 2 medium cloves garlic, peeled and thickly sliced
2 – 3 tomatoes, quartered
1 can (5 oz / 140 g ) can tomato paste
1 Tbs yellow Madras curry powder (rather mild) or more to taste
1 gently rounded Tbs cornstarch
Sea salt (fleur de sel) and freshly ground black pepper
1 small vegetable bouillon cube
1 bay/laurel leaf
1 small bowl freshly shelled peas (from about 2 lbs / scant 1 kg in pods)
Rice (I prefer basmati) to serve.
In a large heavy pot or Dutch oven (we use our Le Creuset), heat about 2 tablespoons olive oil + 2 tablespoons margarine – blending the two keeps the heat even – and toss in the onion and garlic slices, stirring to coat. Cook over high heat, stirring, until just tender. Continue cooking, stirring up the meat and onions often, until meat is lightly browned on all sides.
Once the meat is browned, add a healthy amount of pepper, say 10 or 12 grindings, a rounded tablespoon of cornstarch and stir to toss and evenly coat the meat; cover with water, about 2 cups (500 ml). Stir in the tomato paste, add the fresh, quartered tomatoes, the curry powder, a very large pinch ( 1 teaspoon or so) fleur de sel, the bouillon cube and the bay leaf. Stir to blend, bring to a boil, lower, cover the pot and allow to simmer for 30 minutes.
At the end of 30 minutes, stir in the fresh peas, cover the pot again and allow to simmer for an additional 30 minutes or until the peas are tender.
Remove from the heat and allow to sit for at least one hour, longer if possible.
To serve, prepare the rice, slowly bringing the lamb curry back to a simmer and let it heat through.