Paris winters are exhausting. When I arrived here I thought (with what I now realize was misplaced hubris) that after seven years in Boston, I could take anything winter could throw at me. I was wrong. It is not especially cold or the potential snowfall that bothers me – Boston has Paris beat by well over a mile on both of those fronts. It is the darkness. The grayness. Of everything. For months. We are now closing in on the end of February and there are days when I have to make a considerable effort to recall how blue the sky can be and how warm the sun. After all, I do not think I have seen either since late October.
This past Wednesday was no exception only with the addition of a persistent, chilling drizzle that accompanied the general slate hue of the city. I ventured out to claim this week’s panier with less than my usual enthusiasm. I brought an umbrella along but it seemed to cause more problems to try and negotiate the sidewalks while worrying about poking out the eye of a passer-by with it than to just pick up my pace, all the while getting more cold and damp with each step.
Once retrieved, however, the prospect of fresh produce lifted my spirits. This week we received more leeks (I have decided one can never have too many of these), two giant parsnips (no joke, one is the size and girth of my forearm), some sadly bruised apples (destined for applesauce), a few courges pomme d’or (golden apple squash) and a sack of purslane, a new-to-me salad green. I was especially excited as I have made it a recent quest to conquer the gratin and was planning to cook dinner for a vegetarian friend this weekend; combining these goals with this week’s harvest seemed a good place to start.
Words to the wise – working with these squash can be quite a challenge. They may look cute and harmless, but are virtually indestructible and almost impossible to cut into prior to roasting. I had learned this via careful reading of others’ experiences and felt prepared (again with the misplaced hubris). I roasted them for about an hour, removed them from the heat and set them aside to cool before removing the flesh for use in the gratin. My curiosity and impatience got the best of me, and I quickly started to cut into the first squash. With a bang the squash exploded, splattering my entire kitchen with scalding hot seeds and bits of flesh, while the shells flew backwards and scattered across the floor. After my substantial shock wore off, I used the remaining cooling time more productively, washing bits of squash off of the windows, from the coffee machine, even from the wall behind where I had been standing, before trying again to breach the squash defenses (much more successfully).
The gratin is one of those dishes that is hearty, filling, homey and shockingly easy once I learned to make it for myself. This time, I decided on alternating layers of sliced potatoes, parsnips, leeks and the squash with cantal cheese. I topped this with a mixture of 2 cups cream and 1 cup chicken broth, brought to a simmer and then baked it at 200C for 40 minutes covered, 15 minutes uncovered (because the crispy brown cheesy crust is the best part). Accompanied by the lentil salad brought by my dinner guest and a nice white wine, this was a substantial and filling main course. Actually, as I seem to be incapable for cooking for just one or two people, this will be the main course for many evenings to come.
With much laughter about the exploding squash incident and a fascinating conversation about the ex-pat experience of Paris and the French food culture, the good company and tasty dinner went a long way towards bringing some color back into these (hopefully) last days of winter.