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A Grilled Take on a French Bistro Classic

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I was 16 when I visited Paris for the first time. My aunt Ljilja came into a small inheritance and decided to spend a portion of it to send me to Paris for a month. I guess she could have used her tiny fortune to buy new clothes, or fix a shabby one-bedroom she lived in, or buy a car. Instead, she gave me a ticket to Paris and on the way to the airport stashed a small allowance into my backpack. "Go for it," she said, "go have fun."

Living in Yugoslavia, a small communist country on the edge of non-existence, I did not get to travel much, so try to imagine how seeing the City of Lights for the first time felt like. Try to imagine, because I've never been able to find the words that matched the experience. It felt like, hmmm, it felt like Mona Lisa's smile. It felt like the taste of freshly baked baguette—fragrant, welcoming and slightly mischievous. It felt like a warm croissant. The scent of moss in the shadow of the Medici fountain, where I ate my first ham and Brie sandwich ever. It felt like the maze of tiny streets around Porte de Clignancourt flea market, where one day, I walked into a run down bistro and on a whim ordered a bowl of Petits Pois à la Française. I had no idea what the dish was, except that it sounded so very French and I had to have it.

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Photo by James Ransom

Imagine my surprise when I realized that I had been served a pea and lettuce stew. Just imagine, because no words can describe that either.

Back at home, my encounter with Petits Pois à la Française was the first thing from the trip I reported to my parents. "Mom, Dad," I said, "they cook lettuces in Paris. And it tastes good. It actually tastes quite glorious!"

"No one in their right mind cooks lettuces," Mom replied. We gave it a try anyway, but our Petits Pois à la Française turned out mushy and slightly desperate. We gave the dish another try, and another, but it never tasted quite right. And then we forgot all about cooking peas and lettuces and moved to other culinary adventures.

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Photo by James Ransom

I guess that some dishes are meant to work only in a French bistro. I guess that's what makes them so special. I don't ever cook Petits Pois à la Française at home. I wait until a good fortune, or a business trip, take me to France. Instead, every time I crave the flavors of the Paris flea market, I make this dish. I close my eyes and remember how it felt—roaming the streets of Paris for the first time. Tasting the freshly baked baguette for the first time. I remember the Medici fountain and Mona Lisa's smile. And most of all, I remember my aunt Ljilja, and the gift of a lifetime she had given me.

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Petits Pois à la Française Redux

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Serves 4
  • 6 ounces thick-cut bacon
  • 1 teaspoon light brown sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon paprika
  • 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
  • 2 tablespoons crème fraîche or sour cream
  • 2 tablespoons buttermilk
  • 2 teaspoons lemon juice
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
  • 20 medium scallions (about 12 ounces)
  • 3 hearts of romaine lettuce (about 12 ounce)
  • 10 ounces fresh green peas
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for roasting
Go to Recipe

For more on French food (sans white tablecloth), head here.