Super-Simple Leek Gratin

P1090451Leeks are one of those staples you see sticking out of every typical French market basket. Before I moved here, I had never had them. They’re delicious and nutritious! And cheap. And very easy to cook.

With the recent cold spell (-2.5 Celsius/27 Fahrenheit this morning!), something baked in the oven sounded tempting. A pared-down leek gratin to accompany chicken breasts (steak for the Carnivore, who considers chicken to be a vegetable).

Gratins are a French favorite. As online French culinary bible Marmiton says: “The gratin can be sweet or salty, with vegetables or meat…in short, there isn’t A gratin but tons of different gratins, with something to satisfy everybody.” (BTW, if you click through, keep in mind that entrée means starter in French.)P1090337A typical gratin uses béchamel sauce. The butter and flour that go into béchamel add a stick-to-the-ribs quality, but I didn’t want the calories. Cream (light) and cheese would suffice for this week-night side dish.

As Marmiton points out, anything can go into a gratin: “You can even use leftovers to make a pasta gratin, for example.” A gratin can easily become a main dish by adding protein (meat–lardons!–or other). You can throw in chopped garlic, onions, shallots, herbs, spices…. You can use any kind of cheese–emmental, parmesan, gruyère, mozzarella, cheddar, blue…. The point is that gratin is a don’t-sweat-it dish that will be delicious no matter what you use.

Gratins are great for entertaining because they go in the oven and don’t need attention. You can even make individual gratins in ramekins. P1090449Super-simple leek gratin

2 leeks per person

25 cl (1 cup) cream (light, heavy, liquid, thick, sour–it all works)

150 g (5 oz) grated cheese

Any other cheese you have that you need to use up (we had some cream cheese and I dropped about 1/2 cup of blobs around)

Butter, salt, pepper

Preheat the oven to 220 Celsius (425 Fahrenheit). Set some salted water to boil in a pot big enough for the leeks (I use a deep skillet).P1090338Clean the leeks. Strip off the outer layers. Cut off the root tips, but not too high–you want to keep the connection at the bottom. Remove the green tops and set aside. Slice the white part in half lengthwise. Wash well, going between the layers.P1090444Boil the leeks for about 10 minutes.P1090445While they’re boiling, butter a rectangular baking dish.

Drain the cooked leeks. Press them a little to squeeze out excess moisture. Lay them out in the baking dish while they’re still hot. Season with pepper (no salt–it was in the water), and any other herbs or spices you like. Pour the cream on top. Cover with cheese. (You can sprinkle with bread crumbs, but … calories.) Bake for 20 minutes.P1090447As for the green tops, don’t toss them! Just cut them into fine strips and soak them in cold water. Rub them in the water with my hands to work off the dirt. Then rinse and dry them in a salad spinner. They can go into soups–mine went into a ribollita this week; other times they end up in couscous or chili…. anywhere you use onions, leeks can make a home. The green tops are tough, so they’re best used in dishes that cook a long time, like soups.P1090339




Very Fresh, Very French

endivesEverybody likes fresh food but sometimes the French take it to another level.

When I first moved here, I noticed the utter chaos at the supermarkets on the day before a long holiday weekend. Shops at that time closed on Sunday and holidays (the custom is starting to chip away, but still, most stores stay closed). A friend explained that people waited until the last minute to shop so the food would be fresh.

Actually, this is a flute, which is a bit bigger than a baguette.

Baguettes are bought daily, and most bakeries make them throughout the morning if not all day, so they’re fresh. Bread that’s straight from the oven is a different thing than something that’s been made off-site, packaged in plastic, and trucked to the store. If the baguettes are still hot, you have to buy two, because one is sure to be consumed before it gets home.P1090064But the thing I find most charming are the vegetables. Most of the local vendors at the Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday market pick the day before. They’ll even tell you that the asparagus, for example, was cut the night before (that’s in spring, when it’s in season, not now). P1090207And then there are things that come to market still alive. Like the endives, growing in pallets, and customers pick themselves.

Or the snails and chickens.125.Eggs market

P1090267Or the herbs sold in pots because cut wouldn’t be as fresh.P1090266

There are orchards and berry farms where you can pick your own, too.

Unlike some parts of the globe, we are not under a thick blanket of snow. In fact, we are having unseasonably warm temperatures in the 60s (usually winter temperatures are in the 30s to the 50s), along with buckets of rain from storms Carmen and Eleanor (in a week!). So we get fresh local vegetables throughout the winter–a million kinds of squash; root vegetables like carrots, turnips, parsnips, beets, celery root; brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, spinach, Swiss chard. P1090064P1090208P1090068P1050619Eating what’s seasonal is best for nutritional value as well as for the environment. And it ensures we eat a constantly changing variety of foods. Depending on where one lives, it isn’t always possible–when the ground is frozen and covered with snow, nothing is growing. But where the climate allows, such as in France and much of southern Europe, the garden produces all year.

Peak Zucchini

P1080147September is the season for zucchini–courgettes in French. There are so many kinds, and so many ways to prepare them.

In the raw: Zucchini and chickpea salad

I’ve eaten zoodles (zucchini noodles) all my life. My grandma used to make a wonderful creamy tomato soup with zucchini noodles. No spiralizer for Grandma. She was all about the knife, the wooden spoon and the arm muscles, though I think she did have a mandoline. P1040187Following in her footsteps, use a mandoline to make fettuccini of 3-4 medium-size courgettes, about 6-8 inches long. (Grandma grew everything in her garden to size XXL, but you’d do well to avoid baseball-bat zucchini, with their big seeds.) Salt and let sit a while in a colander to soften them up and become more noodle-like. Rinse and pat off some of the water with a paper towel.

In a large bowl, mix the zoodles with a drained 15 oz. can of chickpeas (you can cook up a batch from dried, but that requires planning, whereas this recipe is quick and dirty), some chopped fresh herbs (parsley, mint, basil–your choice), a swirl of olive oil, a splotch of red-wine vinegar and some pepper. Because the zoodles were salted, taste before adding any more.

I’m usually of the opinion that more is more when it comes to salads, and I tend to include anything and everything that’s in the fridge. But I left this salad simple and it was delicious, the zucchini and chickpeas both being mild and not in combat for dominant flavor. I’ve also done it with halved cherry tomatoes, which add color.zucchini 2 kindsLes courgettes sont cuites

(Actually, the saying is “les carottes sont cuites”–meaning “all is lost” or “the jig is up.” I saw many dubious explanations for the origin of this phrase–dubious, because if one can’t spell correctly in a piece about etymology, well, les carottes sont cuites. Fortunately, the book Légumes d’hier et d’aujourd’hui–Vegetables of yesterday and today–says it’s because in a mix of root vegetables, carrots are the last to be done.)zucchini yellow roundThe first time I ever had French food was in a fancy restaurant in the Midwestern city where I grew up. I was still in high school, being high-falutin’ going there. I remember the white-washed brick walls, which were SO radical in the ’70s, the simple black furniture, and the zucchini. Considering I could peer through the windows and see that interior regularly over the years, I suspect that ALL I really remember about that meal is the zucchini. Simple matchsticks of zucchini, sautéed in butter. Nothing haute about it, but you need to use good butter (NOT margarine). The zucchini caramelize in the browned butter and then melt in your mouth.P1080742Here you have it:

Cut some small zucchini into matchsticks. You want smallish ones so they aren’t full of seeds. Count on at least one per person–they melt down. You can peel them, but that (1) has less nutrition, (2) is more work and (3) is wasteful (a future post is coming on a French cookbook about using peelings and scraps). The easiest way to make matchsticks is to first cut coins and then make little stacks of the coins and cut them into slivers.

Know what this smells like? HEAVEN.

Brown a tablespoon or two of butter in a skillet. If your skillet is big and you have a lot of  zucchini, add more. When the bubbles subside, add the zucchini and stir. It should be hot  enough that the zucchini brown without getting mushy. Almost seared. That’s it. A little salt and pepper. A perfect side to any main.P1080750Yes, you can vary this by sautéeing minced garlic or onions before adding the zucchini. And you can add fresh or dried herbs, whether oregano, basil, parsley or rosemary. But sometimes, the simple version is a revelation, especially when the brown butter makes the zucchini sing.

May I add that the great Prosper Montagné, native of Carcassonne and author of the original Larousse Gastronomique, has a similar recipe in his book Les Delices de la Table that I translate here as closely as possible to word-for-word: cut three peeled zucchini into coins not too thin. Salt them and sauté in a skillet with butter. Let them brown well. Sprinkle with chopped parsley. Serve in a vegetable bowl (légumier).*

He goes on to note: Habitually, one sweats them by lightly sprinkling with salt, and one dredges the courgettes, as well as eggplant, in flour before sautéing them. We discourage this system. Zucchini and eggplant sautéed in oil or butter cook perfectly put into the skillet as they are. zucchini normalFar be it from me to argue. By the way, for those first chilly days of fall, check out this great zucchini soup recipe.

*Do you notice that there’s exactly one measurement in his recipe, and it’s three zucchini? But of indeterminate size. All the old recipes are like this!


Peppers in Paradise

P1080654Our kid has always eaten red peppers as if they were potato chips. Never refuse a kid who wants vegetables. (I guess potato chips are technically vegetables, but you know what I mean.)

While plain, raw peppers are crunchy and juicy and tasty, cooked peppers make for a colorful side dish. And this recipe, from Patricia Wells’ cookbook “Vegetable Harvest,” is a winner for entertaining because it can be made ahead and served hot or at room temperature. As Wells points out, leftovers are good as a sauce on pasta or polenta. They also freeze well, so don’t hesitate to make a lot.P1080653Red Peppers, Tomatoes, Onions, Cumin and Espelette Pepper, from “Vegetable Harvest” by Patricia Wells

2 tablespoons whole cumin seeds

4 red bell peppers (or a mix with yellow and orange–as long as they are the sweet kind)

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

2 medium onions, peeled, halved, and thinly sliced (I used an enormous red onion, which is pretty)

1 teaspoon ground piment d’Espelette (substitutes: dried Anaheim chilies, ground mild chili pepper or paprika)

2 pounds tomatoes, cored and cubed but not peeled P1080648Toast the cumin in a small, dry skillet, shaking regularly because they can scorch quickly. About two minutes. Transfer to a plate to cool.P1080649Cut the cleaned peppers quarters and then into 1/8-inch-thick slices. P1080652Heat the olive oil in a large skillet and add the onions, cumin, piment d’Espelette and salt.  Cover and let it sweat over low heat for three to four minutes.

Add the peppers and tomatoes and cook, covered, over low heat until the peppers are soft and tender, about 30 minutes. I’ve made this recipe a lot, and I’ve reduced the tomatoes a little and cooked the peppers with the onions so they soften before adding the tomatoes toward the end. It makes the result a little less juicy/soupy.

By the way, I love, love, love this cookbook. I’ve made many of its recipes, and they are delicious but not difficult. And they all have a French flair.


You Say Tomato

P1080378And I say tomate. They are at the height of their glory here in France these days, and we are enjoying them in so many ways.

The uglier the better.

A summer tomato bears no resemblance to the winter hothouse versions, which are nothing but ghosts of tomatoes, lacking flesh, with their watery insides dripping from mere skeletons of tomato-ness. A summer tomato is full and fleshy. It’s sweet and juicy and substantial enough to eat alone.

But we do like to gild the lily.

That big yellow-orange one on the left is a “pineapple tomato.” The BEST. Those sweet potatoes got turned into sweet potato-sage gnocchi by our kid/chef. But that’s another story.

IMG_4376A little onion. A little garlic. A little olive oil. Some parsley. Or basil. Or thyme. A little breadcrumb crust to soak up the olive oil-enhanced juices. So many possibilities. It’s a good thing, because when tomatoes are in season, we eat them a couple of times a week. Same as with asparagus, or strawberries. In season or not at all. So make that season count. And do not refrigerate!

These tomatoes have never seen a refrigerator. Straight from the garden.

I had promised a while back to include the recipe for Christine’s tomates provençales from our cooking lesson. Here it is, at last.P1080367

Tomatoes and beans from a local garden. The beans are “hand-picked,” it says.

IMG_4375How many tomatoes you need depends on their size (and what else you’re serving). If you have big ones, you might want just half per person, or one per person. If you have small tomatoes, like the roma variety, you might want one or two per person. We are tomato gluttons, and we like having leftovers, so I figure on a big tomato per person or its equivalent in smaller ones.

Preheat the oven to 350 Fahrenheit (180 Celsius).P1080327Cut the tomatoes in half. Score them, sprinkle with a little salt, and turn them upside down to drain for 15 minutes or more. You can put them on a cooling rack or a flat strainer or just on paper towels. P1080322Chop up a big bunch of parsley. It makes no difference whether it’s flat or curly. Chop up two to eight garlic cloves, depending on how much you love garlic (there is no right or wrong in this recipe). The chopping is greatly aided by a food processor. Christine had a small one–a spice grinder–that she brought to the cooking class. I have only a knife and limited patience, so my parsley here is too big. You want it to be fine so that, when you mix it with the garlic and a generous half cup (15 cl) of olive oil, you end up with a green slurry. It’s good on lots of things–roasted carrots, chicken, potatoes… Persillade is to savory food as diamond studs are to accessories–it goes with almost anything.P1080331Place the tomatoes cut-side up in an oiled baking dish. Spoon the persillade over them and roast them for an hour. They should get caramelized but not hard or crusty.P1080335You also can cook them faster–20-30 minutes–in a hot oven (400 Fahrenheit/200 Celsius), but they don’t get as caramelized as the low and slow method. Also, the persillade risks browning too much (sometimes called “burning”). On the other hand, sometimes we don’t have an hour to get dinner on the table.

Obviously, I did it the fast way here. 

Other tomato alternatives:P1080517

tomatoes cooked
This one was better caramelized…but I forgot to take a photo immediately. Why? Well, dinner was ready. Priorities. We ARE in France, after all.

I like to slice them, because it’s pretty, and I can tuck thinly sliced onions in between. Top with olive oil, or with breadcrumbs and olive oil, or with breadcrumbs and parsley and olive oil, or with persillade. You have options. This version benefits from low and slow because the sliced tomatoes aren’t drained, and the juices need time to evaporate.

Breadcrumb + parsley + garlic version. Drizzle with olive oil.

Did you know that if you have burned something in a pot or pan, you can get it off easily by squirting a little ketchup on it? Just let it sit–overnight, maybe a couple of days. It will come off eventually! The acid in the ketchup works off the burned material without scrubbing (or scratching your pan). The wonders of tomatoes never cease.