Photo: Painting by Jan Ayers, "Bird Market at Notre Dame"
Last Sunday morning I went to les puces (flea market) in a small village, though it was really more of a vide grenier, where the country folk empty their attics of unwanted junk.
At one stand, I spotted a bird cage sitting on the ground, with four fat pigeons crammed uncomfortably inside. Two of them were pure white and beautiful--doves, perhaps. “Fifteen euros” said the handwritten sign.
Now I am not fond of putting any birds in cages, and these, I feared, awaited a particularly ominous fate. Monsieur le vendeur, who owned the house just behind, came over as I contemplated them.
“Bonjour Monsieur. I’ve never seen pigeons for sale at a village flea market," I said in my best French. "Can you tell me what one does with pigeons bought at les puces?”
“Well Madame,” he said politely, just managing to conceal a smile, “you take them home and cook them.”
I was sure that Ron, who was waiting in the car for me, was not going to tolerate a cage of 4 frightened rescue pigeons in the back seat of our sedan. Our truck, unfortunately, had been left at home. “I won’t be needing the cage,” I said. “Can you give me a better price on just the pigeons?”
At this point a small crowd had begun to gather. You know, to watch the stupid American. One of the other vendors came over. “She’s going to let them go!” he protested.
Monsieur raised his hand to stop the new arrival and said calmly “Please let ME handle Madame.” No fool this vendor, he knew he was about to make a sale.
“Madame,” he told me kindly, “if you take the pigeons to your village and release them, they are just going to come back to my barn. This is their home.”
“In that case,” I said, “I’m going to offer you 10 euros for their freedom, we’ll release them now. Americans don’t eat pigeons, or rabbits either for that matter,” I explained. “The money is to buy their liberté--you can never again trap, or eat, these pigeons. You must promise!”
Many hearty reassurances were forthcoming; we shook on it and the money changed hands. Then it was time for the grand release ceremony. Monsieur placed the cage on a table, and opened the door with a flourish. The pigeons happily fluttered out, and like idiots landed on the top of a wall next to him, so close he could reach out and grab them.
“Shoo!” I said, waving at the clueless pigeons. “He wants to eat you!” They retreated, at least temporarily, to the roof of his barn (that's one of the happy, liberated pigeons, in the photo).
The French crowd who had gathered rolled their eyes heavenward in unison, and snickered.
“On vas faire les bises! “ Said Monsieur as I departed. Let’s have a kiss! A sure sign that I had made a friend, in spite of our differences. We both got our money’s worth--10 euros for a good story, and at least some borrowed time for the birds.
Though I’d like to believe otherwise, I fear those pigeons were back in the cage for the afternoon crowd. “He’s got a great new business model,” Ron said, when he heard the story. “He can just keep selling those same pigeons!”
RECIPE: Frenched-up Shepard’s Pie
While we’re talking of saving animals (and getting healthier ourselves, by eating less meat), here is a fabulous cooking tip I came across, from cookbook author Martha Rose Shulman (The Very Best Of Recipes for Health and Mediterranean Harvest: Vegetarian Recipes from the World's Healthiest Cuisine) reports that chef Samuel Scott makes a great, juicy burger by adding a roasted mushroom mix to ground beef. Which could stretch your ground beef for ANY dish with ground beef. Click here for the burger recipe–haven’t tried it, but I will and if you have, please report!
Mushrooms are always great paired with beef, so I used a similar technique to stretch out my ground beef and make a tasty shepard’s pie this week. Shepard’s Pie is unbeatable for a one-dish meal when you’ve got dribs and drabs of veggies to use up. I frenched it up with a little gruyere cheese, though you could use swiss, cheddar or parmesan (and you could even leave out the beef). I've given directions rather than a real recipe, since substitutions are welcome.
Serves 3. Preheat oven to 400 degrees (200C)
In a dry black skillet, sauté a half pound (225 grams) of sliced mushrooms on high heat, until they’ve released their liquid and it evaporates, and mushrooms begin to brown. Remove mushrooms to a plate.
Add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil to the same skillet and sauté together, over medium heat: some chopped onion, red pepper, celery, maybe a sliced leek--or most any other veggies you have in your fridge--with ¼ to ½ pound (115 to 225 grams) of ground beef, seasoned with salt and pepper. When beef is well browned, add 2 cloves of chopped garlic and the mushrooms, and cook a couple of minutes longer, stirring. Turn heat to high and add about ⅓ cup of wine or water and 2 teaspoons of worcestershire sauce, plus a dab of hot sauce, and stir for about a minute, until liquid is mostly gone. Remove from heat.
Meanwhile, peel and slice 4 medium potatoes and steam until tender. Mash them with a little butter and a splash of milk, plus salt and pepper. Sprinkle a couple of tablespoons of gruyere over the meat mixture. Spoon the potatoes in mounds over the meat mixture and spread out evenly. Top with ¼ to ½ cup more cheese. Bake until golden, 15-20 minutes.
Hop on over to The Daily Basics this week to read more about Olivier Magny, author of Into Wine: An Invitation to Pleasure, who was interviewed here last week. (And for those of you who commented on how cute he is, there are more photos!).