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Shop Like a Parisian

In Paris, shopping is not a chore--it's an art, a treat, a way of life.

July 07, 1999|MICHAEL ROBERTS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In a city where great food is a matter of course, the residents have a secret: shopping. Since good meals start with good ingredients, Parisians know that the art of marketing is often more important than cooking.

Of course, in Paris, that's no problem. Every neighborhood has at least one rue commerc,ante or shopping street, as well as a twice-weekly roving market. And scattered around the city are 13 covered markets. Everyone shops the supermarkets and corner convenience stores, as well. But the markets and the shopping streets remain at the heart of Parisian life, the village squares of each neighborhood.

Live in Paris for even a little while and this way of life can become habit-forming. In fact, when you leave, you may find yourself gripped with a kind of separation anxiety. Shopping for food has ceased to be the chore that it often seems at home and has become a favorite pastime. It can even change the way you think about cooking.

Can you translate the Paris market experience to Los Angeles? At first it seems impossible. Our neighborhood markets are, more often than not, supermarkets. And we drive from place to place rather than strolling casually, visiting with neighbors and chatting with shopkeepers.

Yet this Parisian way of shopping is really more a matter of spirit and philosophy than of how you get around. It is a way of life. It has to do with a sense of belonging, a sense of solidarity with all the artisans and farmers whose products you buy.

Shop this way and you'll find that almost every purchase ends up as a story. Your cheesemonger will explain the weeks or months of aging required to bring a ripe cheese to market. A farmer can explain the differences among the half-dozen salad greens he offers. Another will give you tips on selecting heirloom tomatoes. All the stories, all the people, somehow end up on the dinner table along with the food.

This doesn't have to be done slavishly. Take a cue from the Parisians and shop in different markets for different things. For household supplies and basic staples, of course, you should take advantage of the supermarkets. Use them to stock your pantry and freezer with an emergency stash of family favorites, too. They also have the edge on convenience and, frequently, price. So save time by shopping at the supermarket, and buy wisely when quality is not the issue.

But then take the time to spend your savings on high-quality produce, fish, meat, poultry, cheese and condiments.

* Go to farmers markets. While the variety doesn't yet rival that of the Parisian markets, we should support them. They'll only get better.

* Support cottage industries. Here in the States, the conduit between artisanal producers and the market is not as developed as it is in Paris, but many small producers sell by mail order, and a surprising number can be found on the Internet.

* Make marketing an adventure. Think of it as a fantastic (and relatively inexpensive) kind of tourism. Shop the ethnic groceries and markets in your area. Chat with the shopkeepers. Not only will you learn about their products, but you'll learn about their ways of cooking, their culture.

For instance, I buy fish and seafood in Little Tokyo, where the variety is always greater than at the supermarket or even my favorite neighborhood seafood specialty shop. In Japanese markets, I can find fresh eels for making a classic matelote, a red wine stew. They sometimes sell periwinkles and other sea snails that I put out with garlicky aioli, just like the bigorneaux and bulots I buy in Paris.

I buy fresh duck, squab, quail, chicken and capon in Chinatown. They're locally raised birds that have never seen the inside of a freezer. The roast ducks are great, too. Their skin is matte and crisp. The fat has been given up during cooking, basting the bird and protecting the flesh.

In my neighborhood Italian grocery, I find my olives, olive oil, anchovies, pasta, rice and grating cheese. In the Indian grocery, I buy chickpea flour for making socca, a Nicoise crepe. They are also the source for the tiny lentils that I use for preparing a carrot and lentil terrine, the recipe given to me by a Parisian friend's mother. In the Greek shops I buy tarama, salted carp roe, for the whipped concoction that some Parisians are now serving with the aperitif.

* Shop more spontaneously as well. Rather than go out with a set menu, why not browse the markets and buy what looks most appealing, most seasonally correct? Don't go with a shopping list, go with an idea for a kind of dish. Then fill in the ingredients with what looks best.

One friend in Paris explained, "I never know what I'm going to cook until I'm in the market. Perhaps I know that I'll prepare an estouffade [a stew], or some kind of poached fish, but other than that, I wait to see what the market has to offer."

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