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Normandy in northwestern France is known for its Camembert cheese, excellent creme fraiche, high quality apples and apple cider. It is also famous for the popular tourist destination of Mont Saint-Michel, a small, rocky, almost circular island crowned by an imposing church. But not as many people realize that this rich agricultural province is also esteemed for its carrots.
My former colleague, Jane Sigal, author of Backroad Bistros, Farmhouse Fare wrote about those pedigreed French carrots. "Creances and six other nearby communes grow the world's only carrots with an appellation d'origine controlee," a certification of excellence of a food produced in a specific location. Normally such certification is associated with fine wine.
The noble carrots of Creances, near Normandy's western coast, grow in fields by the sea and, like the sheep that graze on the salty grass near Mont Saint-Michel and acquire a special flavor in their meat, they benefit from this proximity. The soil in which the carrots grow is nourished with seaweed and thus needs no chemical fertilizers. These special carrots sell as well as hot croissants.
Carrots flavor a great variety of French entrees. Valued for their bright color and sweet flavor, often they accompany main courses of meat or poultry, after having cooked with the meat. Even if you don't see them on your plate, they lend a subtle sweetness to the sauce of typical stews as part of a mirepoix, a flavoring mixture of diced sauteed onion, carrots, celery and fresh herbs that is often strained out before the sauce is served. In winter, when other colorful vegetables are less plentiful, carrots' importance increases.
Meat simmered with dry wine and a generous amount of carrots has long been a favorite type of dish in French home kitchens. In such stews the sweetness of the carrots serves to mellow the acidity of the wine, helping to produce a pleasing balance of flavors in the sauce. Some cooks add carrots twice, one batch to cook at length and flavor the sauce, and another toward the end, so that each carrot piece retains more taste and texture.
Ginette Mathiot, author of Je Sais Cuisiner ("I know how to cook"), a basic book of French home cooking which has been a standard for generations, prepares beef "a la mode" by braising the meat with sliced carrots, broth, white wine, herbs and a little onion. Her recipe calls for more carrots than meat, even though carrots are not mentioned in the name of the dish. Some French cooks make this entree with small whole carrots and flavor the sauce with tomato paste.
In old-fashioned kitchens, this entree was made in a braisiere, a heavy pot with an indentation in its lid for holding red hot coals. Such slow-cooked dishes are also loved by contemporary chefs. Michel Richard, one of the top French chefs in the US, wrote of braised beef with carrots in his book, Michel Richard's Home Cooking with a French Accent: "This long, slow simmering represents the old way of French cooking... we filled a big black iron pot with the meat and vegetables for this dish and hung it in the fireplace to cook for six hours. When we returned home at the end of that day, we removed the lid ceremoniously, celebrating the wonderful aromas that told us winter had officially started."
In addition to the usual ingredients, he flavors his version with garlic. Sometimes he adds mushrooms or celery with the carrots, or simmers boiled potatoes briefly in the sauce just before serving the dish. As an accompaniment, he recommends a glass of red Burgundy.
French cooks prepare veal the same way, but its cooking time is shorter. Sigal received a Norman veal and carrot recipe from a grower of those certified carrots. He braises veal shank slices (known in Italian cooking as osso buco) with carrots, dry white wine, herbs and chopped tomatoes. It's a simple stew but when you have fresh, fine quality ingredients, their pure flavors can make such a basic dish sublime. The following entree is inspired by Sigal's recipe.
VEAL RAGOUT WITH CARROTS
This delicate stew is delicious with simple boiled rice or noodles, or with steamed potatoes. You can prepare this dish a day or two ahead and keep it covered in the refrigerator. Reheat it over low heat.
900 gr. boneless veal shoulder
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
2 parsley sprigs
3 fresh thyme sprigs or 3â„4 tsp. dried, crumbled
1 bay leaf
1 onion, chopped
1â„2 cup dry white wine
1 medium celery stalk, chopped (optional)
2 or 3 garlic cloves, chopped (optional)
11â„2 cups chicken broth or water
340 gr. to 500 gr. carrots, sliced
1 to 2 Tbsp. tomato paste or 2 to 3 Tbsp. tomato sauce (optional)
Cut veal in 2.5-cm. pieces, trimming any fat, and pat them dry. Season lightly with pepper. Heat oil in a heavy stew pan. Add veal in batches and brown it lightly over medium heat, transferring pieces as they brown to a plate. Tie parsley sprigs, thyme sprigs and bay leaf together to make an herb bundle.
Add onion to pan and saute for seven minutes, stirring often. Add wine, celery and herb bundle and bring to a boil, stirring. Return veal to pan, add garlic and broth and bring to a simmer. Cover and cook over low heat for one hour or until veal is nearly tender.
Add carrots, pushing them into liquid. If sauce is already thick, add 1â„2 cup water. Bring to a simmer. Cover and cook over low heat for 30 more minutes or until veal and carrots are tender when pierced with tip of sharp knife. Discard herb bundle. If you like, blend tomato paste with a few tablespoons of the cooking liquid, and add to pan; simmer two to three more minutes. If sauce is too thin, simmer uncovered for three to five minutes to thicken it. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve hot.
Makes 4 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of the Fresh from France cookbook series.
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