I’m Back !
After an interruption of two and a half years, the newsletter is back ! I was busy, I procrastinated, but over the time I have accumulated a number of observations I want to share with you.
Since the Internet is an abundant source of information on Parisian life, shops and restaurants, I will not focus on these subjects, but rather on the food and products available here, and where my travels have taken me, with a recipe or two each time… hoping to be of help to you in the kitchen.
I have long wondered why one of our most ubiquitous vegetables, le poireau (in English, leeks ,) is often so different and disappointing in the US. Be it at upscale supermarkets or farmers’ markets, American leeks never have enough white part, with one notable exception. I was in Santa Fe a few years ago, and of course drifted to the market on Saturday morning, where I saw and photographed the best looking leeks I have ever seen in America. In New Mexico, of all places:
I have not « studied » the leek situation worldwide, just know that it is the emblematic vegetable of Wales, and apologize to those wherever they are who grow or know where to buy good looking leeks.
As Elizabeth Schneider writes in « Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini : the Essential Reference » (Harpers Collins 2001), « elsewhere, it plays leading roles – for good reasons : it is big, handsome, and versatile… »
What you want from a leek is the tender white part, and then the pale green only. As far as I know and have ever seen, the tough green part is never used here. It is discarded, in a country where wasting food is a crime. Where the green leaves turn dark, cut off, and throw out. OUI ! That part is bitter and it will not improve stocks or soups. I remember an adorable couple from Toronto. To charm his future wife, S. cooked dinner for her, and made a leek soup with plenty of the dark green. Only in my class did he understand why it was inedible.
In French kitchens and restaurants, leeks are essential. I cannot imagine making a chicken or vegetable stock without « poireau ».
Cleaning : leeks in France have less dirt (why ?). Nevertheless, a good tip is, once the dark green has been discarded, split the light green end and run water through. If you do not need to keep your leek whole, you can split it in half, lengthwise, and then rinse.
Cooking : To quote Schneider further, « the only way to know this gentle giant is to cook it. »
They can be boiled, whole, as in « poireaux vinaigrette » or « poireaux au gratin ». Steaming is an option, but make sure they are cooked through before removing. I do not recommend « al dente ». And of course, get rid of the water which will have accumulated inside.
You probably all know the « leek and potato soup » immortalized in « French Women … » (French women do get fat but that is another subject). A pot-au-feu (boiled beef or other, in a broth) is unthinkable without leeks. On the lighter side, they can be julienned or cut into rounds, and sweated, in butter or olive oil, your choice. Here are two contemporary recipes, one fairly minimalist, one quite rich.
For 4 people
Preheat the oven to 300° F (150° C).
Cut leeks in half lengthwise, wash and drain.
Choose an oven dish large enough to place the whole leeks in one or two layers, line lightly with butter.
Add the leeks, spreading small pieces of butter and the sugar evenly all over.
Season and add water, just enough to barely cover the leeks.
Bake for 45 minutes or until the leeks are cooked. The butter and sugar combined will give the leeks a pleasant crunch.
Very rich, but who can resist crème brulée?
For 6 servings
Preheat the oven to 200° F (90° C)
Wash the leeks, cut into julienne sticks. Mince the onion. Sweat in a pan with the olive oil until translucent.
Mix thoroughly the egg yolks, cane sugar, salt and pepper. Add cream and milk, keep stirring until fully blended.
Place the leek/onion mixture in low rimmed ramekins, dividing evenly. Pour the egg mixture over each ramekin. Bake in the oven for one hour. Shake lightly to check if done: the cream should be set but still wobbly.
Allow to cool and refrigerate for 2 hours minimum (overnight is OK).
When ready to serve, remove the ramekins from fridge. Mix the 4 tablespoons of sugar with the fleur de sel and sprinkle over each ramekin. Caramelize either with a blowtorch or under the broiler, serve immediately.
Ne poireautez pas (don’t wait … in colloquial french, poireauter means : to wait … for the bus for instance, or for a plane after the volcano eruption).