In New York in early May, I found myself on a Thursday evening with cancelled plans. Thank goodness for Dorie Greenspan. She immediately invited me to her sit-down interview with Patricia Wells that evening at the Alliance Francaise. Patricia was in town promoting her new book, Vegetable Harvest. Dorie and Patricia are such good friends that you did feel like you were in their living room having a chat by the fireplace. Many of Patricia's former students were there, nodding knowingly as she talked about the markets of Paris and Provence.
Q: What are your favorite market in Paris?
A: "Boulevard Raspail market. It is the only all-organic farmers market in Paris. Create relationships, forge friendships with the farmers, learn about where they come from, how they grow their produce, ask about their children. This is what makes the markets so special."
Q: Do you have any advice for people who shop at Safeway (or other huge supermarket) and don't have a farmers market across the street?
A: Speaking to her New York audience, she recommended going the few extra blocks or subway stops to get to a market or a store that carries the freshest product, organic if possible. The quality and flavor and contribution to sustainability makes it worth it.
Q: What are your favorite recipes in the book?
A: "Zucchini carpaccio with pistachio oil (pg 214), asparagus braised with fresh rosemary and bay leaves (pg 160), potato salad with spring onions, capers and mint (pg 227), chick pea and basil puree (pg 16), artichoke and white bean dip (pg 19)." Patricia serves these all the time at home and are always a hit with her guests. I can't imagine anything she cooks not being a hit, bit I digress...
Q: What advice would you give to new culinary students fresh out of cooking school?
A: "Pick ten recipes and perfect them. Have a range of recipes, from appetizers, main course and desserts and cook them over and over until you can make them from memory."
Q: What was it like working with Joel Robuchon?
A: Patricia beamed. "It was the most amazing experience and I still hear his voice when I'm cooking or at the market." He always said "It's easy to be the best, go out and do the best you can do every day." Other pearls of wisdom he shared include "There is no such thing as perfection but strive for it every day" and "A chef's job is to make a mushroom taste like a mushroom."
Q: Who are the most influential people in your career?
A: "Joel Robuchon and Julia Child."
Q: Are you working on a new book?
A: Patricia's next book is all about salads as a meal, not everything with lettuce, but dishes with many elements on the plate and focused more on healthy eating. In Patricia's last two books, she took the pictures herself from the markets of Paris and Provence.
Q: Are you ever going to update The Food Lovers Guide to Paris?
A: Patricia wrote this in 1984. It was a different era in publishing, in information, in access. Now people just Google the information they want, they don't need to buy a book to plan a trip or find good bakeries or restaurants.
Q: Do you ever eat take out?
A: Never, but when I travel my husband, Walter orders pizza & Ben and Jerry's ice cream delivered to our apartment in Paris."
Q: Have you discovered any new products that have captured you attention?
A: "Olive oil from Castelas."
Castelas is a relatively new olive oil from Provence with a very grassy flavor that hints of artichokes, almonds and a pepperyness and the fabulous Provencal countryside. Produced in the foothills of Les Alpilles, this oil is early hand harvested, immediately custom cold pressed and variety blended, it is unfiltered so a golden hue. It won the Medaille d'Or in 2003. It is not for the faint of heart as 500 ml (17 oz) will set you back anywhere form $35 to $45. This is the best price I could find.
Catherine and Jean-Benoit Hugues, of the Vieux Telegraph family and proprietors of Castelas, spent 15 years in Arizona heat working in the hi-tech industry before following their hearts back to their native Provence. We are glad they did!
That evening, Patricia served chickpea and basil puree on toasts. It's a simple as it gets but delicious.
Chickpea and Basil Puree
Tartinade de Pois Chiches au Basilic
2 cups canned chick peas, drained and rinsed (reserve liquid)
4 garlic cloves, peeled, minced, green germ removed
1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt
4 cups loosely packed basil leaves
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1. In a food processor, place the garlic, salt, and basil and process to a paste. With the machine running, slowly pour in the oil. Taste and season (salt and pepper) as needed.
2. Add the chickpeas and puree until smooth, adding some of the reserved chickpea liquid if necessary.
Patricia in the center in red and Dorie on the far right