In search of the Green Vegetable

In spite of the outdoor markets that positively brim with fresh vegetables, mountains of lettuce heads, zucchini, eggplant and tomatoes, why is it that the visitor in Paris is hard-pressed to find a fresh vegetable on his or her plate?

Part of this dilemma is explained in Parisian Home Cooking by Michael Roberts. Roberts describes how even though he studied in France, he didn’t really grasp the beauty and simplicity of Paris home cooking until he returned to France years later.
Likewise, I didn’t get a chance to appreciate the use of vegetables until working as an au paire. Artichokes were steamed in a huge pot, and the pleasure of gently scraping off leaf after leaf was the kind of leisurely ritual that would make those Normandy seaside lunches remain forever locked in my memory.
The most important thing to remember (as mentioned in Roberts’ book) is that vegetables are considered as separate from the main course, so don’t expect a huge mountain of broccoli overwhelming a dainty filet mignon.
Another big surprise was finding in casual cafes or restaurants the common use of canned peas and frozen vegetables. Actually frozen vegetables unfortunately are pervasive in Europe’s more moderately priced restaurants.
Then, once in a while, you get lucky, like the local tabac/restaurant where the chef makes his own ratatouille. In other words, just because you’re in Paris, don’t assume to be regaled with fresh veggies. Particularly if you’re a student! What is the primary vegetable in student restaurants? Potatoes. Your other staple will be the plate of ‘crudites’ that is served as the first course. Red beets and celeriac, or carrots. Most restaurants do offer a plate of crudites, so this should be the vegetarian’s first choice.
If you are heading to Paris in the spring, be sure to look for white asparagus on the menu. This is a spring treat, along with your last chance to savor Coquilles St. Jacques (sea scallops) as the season draws to its end.