Monday, January 10, 2011

Braised leeks with lemon vinaigrette

When my husband and I went to Paris (while we were still dating), we went to an old-fashioned little neighborhood restaurant that we had found. I don't remember how we found it, but we had heard that the former prime minister liked the place and we wanted to check it out.

Since we were in the neighborhood, and it was a weekday and we were early (and presentable) for dinner, I figured we could swing by and see if it was busy. If not, we'd drop in. If it was packed, we'd just call the next day for a table.

Only one of maybe a dozen small tables was occupied, so I asked the host about dinner. "Non, non, non! We have no table for you. You must have a reservation," the older man responded in French, looking at us as though we had tried to crash a royal wedding. My husband and I looked at each other, then over the man's shoulders at one couple and nearly a dozen empty tables.

In New York, we might have walked out and kept going. But it occurred to me that maybe walking in off the street wasn't something a diner did at an old neighborhood restaurant here. When in Rome ... er, Paris ...

I asked the host for the telephone number, he gave us a card, and we went for a little walk. In less than five minutes we found a public telephone, made the call to find out when we could make a reservation and found out that we could come for dinner in 15 minutes, OF COURSE.

Back at the restaurant the man greeted us as though we were regulars. "Come, come," he said with a smile, seating us, then bringing a small glass of white wine to each of us. In other words, we had learned our manners. I guess at sit-down restaurants in Paris, they don't want some tourist to walk in as if the place were some lowly McDonald's.

And when the host presented us with an appetizer of braised leeks, I also learned that the mild member of the onion family was worth it's own dish.

I didn't have the presence of mind to ask for a recipe for the leeks (what with the free flow of wine and other things), but they weren't too hard to figure out.

Braised Leeks With Lemon Vinaigrette
Serves 4 as an appetizer

4 leeks
1 cup chicken or vegetable stock (or 3/4 cup stock plus 1/4 cup dry white wine)
1 teaspoon mustard
2 Tablespoons lemon juice
4 Tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
salt and freshly ground black or white pepper

1. Clean the leeks. Start with a rinse under running water to remove dirt from the roots (but don't cut off the roots) and strip off the outer layer. Then cut off the tops (dark green parts) that are too ratty to be used for anything at all.

Keeping the root end intact, slice the leek in half lengthwise, starting about half an inch from the roots going toward the top. Under running water, gently separate leaves just enough to rinse out the dirt and grit. When the leek is clean, trim the rest of the tops and save them for making stock. Sometimes the inner leaves higher up are lighter green and more tender. Those can be chopped and saved for cooking fish. (I keep my chopped leeks in little plastic bags in the freezer.)

Finally, trim the root end before putting the leeks into a medium pot (about 1 1/2 quarts to 2 quarts) together with 1 cup of chicken or vegetable stock.

2. Bring stock with leeks to boil, then reduce to simmer and cover. Simmer about 20-30 minutes, or until leeks are very tender, and remove from heat.

3. In a glass measuring cup or small bowl, whisk together mustard and lemon juice. Gradually add olive oil while continuing to whisk, then add thyme and a pinch of salt and pepper. Taste and add more salt if desired.

4. When ready to serve, place each leek on a small plate and spoon vinaigrette over the top.

This is a good appetizer or side dish with chicken, fish or egg dishes, such as quiche. It's also good as a snack with fresh baguette and a glass of white wine.

NOTE: Instead of making a lemon vinaigrette, you could reduce the stock, add a bit of butter and seasoning to finish the sauce and pour that over the leeks.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Homemade Galette des Rois for Epiphany

A galette des rois, or king cake, is relatively easy to put together.

When I was 5 years old my family moved to an apartment complex in St. Louis, Mo., where my mother got to know a French Canadian woman and I got to play with her daughter, Nathalie.

One evening we went to visit and played what to me was the coolest game. My parents and I and Nathalie and her parents sat around a table for dessert. Nathalie's mother gave us a piece of a king cake, and told us whoever found a little figure inside, I think it was a baby, would wear a crown and be king or queen for the party.

I don't remember how I ate it, whether I used a fork or my hands. I don't even remember what the cake was like. All I remember is the anticipation, the tension as I took careful bites hoping I'd find the prize, without swallowing it. I wanted to wear that crown. I don't recall how much I ate, but I found the trinket.

Of course, looking back, I realize that Nathalie's mother must have rigged it so that I'd win.

A year later, we moved again, nearly haflway across the country, losing touch, and for a while I forgot about Nathalie and the cake.

Recently, I kept coming across references to French king cakes, called galette des rois and gateau des rois, traditionally eaten to celebrate the Epiphany, which marks the visit of the three wise men or kings to the infant Jesus. Who am I to ignore what fate keeps putting in front of me? Since the Epiphany falls on Jan. 6, I made a galette des rois this past weekend, partly because the galette version uses puff pastry, or pate feuillete, to enclose a central layer of almond cream, which I love. (The gateau des rois is more of a brioche cake.)

You can use frozen ready-to-use puff pastry dough, but none of the supermarkets in my area carried any made with butter. As I've mentioned before when developing a pie crust for my quiche, I don't care for the feeling that vegetable shortening leaves in my mouth, so I had to make it from scratch.

The pastry dough wasn't as difficult as I thought it might be. It just took time because it needed to chill several times for an hour in the refrigerator. No biggie. I made the dough and filling on Saturday, then assembled and baked the tart Sunday. I didn't have a feve (bean) or figurine to bake into the galette, so I used a whole almond. It took longer to bake than the expected 40 to 50 minutes, and I think it could still have used a bit more time in the oven. I also had some dough and almond cream left over, so I made mini tarts too.

The tart disappeared in less time than I needed to make it. Good thing custom lets me eat these all month if I want. I can't resist the buttery aroma or the slightly sweet, moist almond filling contrasting with the flaky layers.

Galette des Rois Recipe
Serves 8 to 12


1 cup ground almonds
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon flour
1 stick butter, softened at room temperature 
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract, optional

1 package premade puff pastry dough (thawed if frozen)
1 large egg

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
1. Combine almonds, sugar, salt and flour.

2. In a large mixing bowl, stir butter until softened, then mix the dry ingredients into the butter. Mix in the eggs and extracts.

4. Just before assembling galette, beat one egg and keep next to work area. Divide puff pastry dough in two. Roll out one portion of the dough on nonstick parchment paper to between 1/8 inch and 1/4 inch thick and cut out a large circle, using a 9-inch or 10-inch cake pan as template. Cover with plastic and refrigerate the circle. Repeat, making a circle that is 1/2 inch in diameter larger than the first circle. Cover with plastic wrap, and remove the first circle of dough when you put the second circle in the refrigerator.

5. Place the first circle of dough on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Brush outer inch of the circle with the egg wash. Spread the almond cream over the first circle of dough except the outer edge that has been brushed with egg. Press a whole almond into a random spot of the almond cream.

6. Get the second circle of dough, put it over the first, and press the edges to seal them shut. Use a knife to score curved lines radiating from the center to the outer edge, without actually cutting through the dough.
 Then cut a steam hole in the middle of the tart and brush the surface with egg wash.

7. Bake at 450 degrees F. for 10 minutes, then lower the oven to 400 degrees F. and bake the galette until puffed and golden brown, about 40 to 50 minutes, but check on the galette at 20 and 30 minutes. If it is getting dark too quickly, cover with a sheet of foil to shield the top.

8. When done baking, put the baking sheet on a cooling rack and allow to cool 15 or 20 minutes. Cut into wedges and serve warm. I also like to eat it for breakfast the next day.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Baby Steps on Road to Improvement

Cornmeal-coated tilapia with couscous, lemony carrots and green beans

I may not make New Year's resolutions, but that doesn't mean I think my self improvement is done. It's just that I'm constantly reflecting on myself and how I can continue to grow, learn new skills, make smarter decisions, treat people and the planet with respect and be a better person in general. Shouldn't those aspirations guide me every day and not just once a year?

Symbolically I understand the urge to make the annual resolution. New year, new start. And for some people, the grand resolution may inspire great resolve. As for me, it's more effective to think of each day as a clean slate. If one day doesn't work out so well, then the next day I can start over, like Bill Murray in "Groundhog Day." There won't be a dramatic transformation as in "Extreme Makeover." It'll be more like a recipe you're working on. Each time you test it, you tweak it and make little improvements. Eventually you end up with something to feel good about.

Among my ongoing improvements is putting more thought into where my food comes from and the impact on the environment. I know many people are way ahead of me on this, but better late than never, no? Of course, here in the frigid Midwest winter, buying in season and local is a little different than it would be in California, where you'd be able to get produce from within the state, even from a farmers market, at any time of year. My choices are more like apples from two states away or cherries from a continent away. I choose the apples.

At the fish counter, I tend to have a little more trouble. I know I should steer clear of orange roughy and Chilean sea bass (both of which were on ice last week at the supermarket), but is trout okay? Does it matter whether it is wild or farmed, as it does with salmon?

Canada-farmed rainbow trout pan fried with teriyaki sauce
I've consulted Monterey Bay Aquarium's online Seafood Watch guides, but there was so much information that I couldn't remember enough by the time I got to the store. Fortunately, after my husband and I got me an iPod Touch for Christmas (um, yeah, I helped with that present), I was finally able to use the aquarium's mobile app.

It turns out U.S.-farmed tilapia and farmed rainbow trout are good choices, according to the guide. But lake trout could be okay or not, depending on which lake it came from. And Central American-farmed tilapia is supposed to be a good alternative to U.S.-farmed, but Asia-farmed tilapia is not.

I ended up buying farmed rainbow trout from Canada and tilapia farmed in Central America. I didn't really have a recipe for either. I just fried the trout, adding teriyaki sauce toward the end of cooking. The tilapia I seasoned with salt and pepper, dusted with cornmeal and pan fried in a little butter and olive oil. I finished with a squeeze of lemon (I've done lime too) and served it with herbed Israeli couscous, green beans and pan roasted carrots dressed with a lemon vinaigrette (recipe below).

I'm not deluded. I realize that my individual decision to pass up the Chilean sea bass and fry up the trout is not going to save the planet. But as my knowledge grows, hopefully, my improved choices will add up, and I can also help educate friends and family, whose choices will add up, and so on. If I'm successful, we'll maybe help the Earth in our small way, or at least not contribute to messing it up.

Lemony Balsamic-Thyme Vinaigrette for Roasted Carrots
I really think the brightness of this dressing complements the naturally sweet vegetable better than a sugary or syrupy glaze. This makes enough for at least two pounds of carrots.

1 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 Tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon mustard
4 Tablespoons olive oil
1 tsp chopped fresh thyme
1 tsp grated fresh lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon salt (adjust according to preference)
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1. Whisk together balsamic vinegar, lemon juice and mustard, then gradually drizzle in the olive oil while constantly beating. Whisk in the thyme, lemon zest, salt and pepper.

2. Spoon about half the vinaigrette over two pounds of roasted carrots. Taste and add more dressing if desired. The dressing can be made ahead, but carrots taste best served right after being dressed.

This also is good for making a roasted carrot and potato salad.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Hope for 2011: Sense and Sensitivity

I have high hopes for every year, 2011 being no exception. If I didn't, then what would be the point of going on?

Of course, I won't hold my breath for some things. For example, I hope that more people learn to use some common sense, which is rather an oxymoron isn't it? Sense is very uncommon. I'm not talking about intelligence. Sure we could use more intelligence to go around. But the really rare commodity, even among pretty smart people, is good judgment.

I think about this when I see an attempt at using wit to catch someone's attention. I'm not talking about irreverence or even obnoxious humor in the right context. On the other hand, when you're addressing a general audience of millions of readers, is it really so clever to play off of a historical event with millions of victims, who probably wouldn't find much to pun about in the terror, torture and death they endured?

Friday morning I came across the newspaper headline "Cultural Resolutions" and was a little surprised that editors thought it would be fun or clever to make a pun with the Cultural Revolution. Sure, it takes a bit of wit or skill with language to create a pun. A bit.

But would those same editors give the green light to a headline such as "Retail Holocost: Big box company's low prices wipe out small stores"? (After all, it's just playing with the reference to the Holocaust and not even spelling it the same way. Would they be Shoah it would pass a good taste test? This ridiculousness is just to make a point, in case I haven't been clear.)

How about "The Shilling Fields: Sports event revenue grows with memorabilia sales." Was the Khmer Rouge so bad that we can't try to lighten things up a bit? In fact, wouldn't it be terribly clever for a cosmetics company to introduce a beautiful blood-red lipstick and name the shade C'mere Rouge?

I do think the news media should have the courage to offend someone -- if it serves a purpose. But if the only reason for giving a big fat middle finger to people who still bear the physical and psychological scars of a horrific event (not to mention the dead) is that a writer or editor can't think of something smarter, then I see failed judgment, or at least laziness. Isn't the motto of a journalist supposed to be "Comfort the Afflicted and Afflict the Comfortable," not "Afflict the Afflicted"?

Friday wasn't the first time I had seen a "witty" reference to the Cultural Revolution. At one of my local supermarkets last year I came across Cultural Revolution yogurt. Yes, I get it, yogurt is a cultured product, and the company described this one as "revolutionary in every way, including its appearance and texture." I was open minded enough to buy a cup of it just so I would know whether it was a great-tasting product in a tasteless package. Turns out, it was good, but not my favorite and not amazing enough for me to swallow my objection to the name.

But while I'm pragmatic enough not to hold my breath waiting for sense to prevail, I always have hope, and in this case it was justified. This past fall, the maker of Cultural Revolution yogurt rebranded its product Kalona SuperNatural.

If anyone still doesn't understand why I oppose frivolous puns that refer to the Cultural Revolution, then maybe a few recollections from survivors will at least offer insight into my point of view.

In a BBC report, one family member of a victim recalled, "My mother was also severely beaten because of my father. It was so bad there was blood in her urine."
Another survivor said, "Around that time people were dragged out and shot in large numbers in Shanghai - sometimes 50 people in one go."

One compelling account is in "Life and Death in Shanghai," by Nien Cheng, a memoir that details her years of solitary confinement and torture in prison during the Cultural Revolution. When she finally did get out, she learned that her only child, her daughter, had died at the hands of the Red Guard. If Cheng, who died a little more than a year ago, had lived to see the headline flippantly playing off the horror that she endured and that her daughter didn't survive, I can't imagine what she would have thought.

 A University of Chicago scholar who lived through that period, Youqin Wang, said during an interview that to some people "Chinese victims’ lives are cheaper than those of other nations." I hope that's not true.

When I see a newspaper headline, blog post, brand name or online comment that seems to lack judgment or taste, sometimes I wonder whether the author gave it any thought. When people turn something like the Cultural Revolution into nothing more than an easy pun, I wonder whether they know what the Cultural Revolution was, not to mention any other modern history. If so, did they weigh the pros and cons and make a conscious judgment that the negatives are worth it? And would a person with any class be able to look someone in the eye and say in person what they wrote anonymously?
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