Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Leeks, Cucumbers and Folly

Today is the morning after. Last night the temperature here in Philadelphia stopped just shy of 100 degrees. It was the hottest evening this summer has seen, and what did I do? I spent it hovering over a hotter yet grill. I cannot say why. I am, perhaps, a little touched. Or if I wasn’t before last night, I am now, since crucial bits of me got sauteed. I recently read an account from the 1930s of a traveller on a transatlantic cruise who died of heat stroke and had to be buried at sea. It struck me that there were some enticing symmetries to the extremities of that ending: death from sunning on a deck chair, resolutely wearing one’s blazer, followed by a headlong slip into a deep cool everlasting blue.

But last night large amounts of New Jersey stood between me and the sea, so there was no counter-balance to my headfirst encounter with heat and more heat. I embraced it. Became one with my environment. Dripped sweat into my grill. I was driven to it by gluttony, of course. A while ago I had been served, at a local tapas restaurant, grilled green onions with romesco sauce and I was entirely smitten by the dish. I loved the almondy heft of the sauce and its substantial, but not occluding flavours of fresh garlic and smoky chile. It was a sauce that had a smoldering, laid back attitude and I was hooked. Giddy to try it again, I looked up recipes. My friend Rosi fed my crush with tales of eating this Catalan dish in Spain, the diners dangling the romesco-slathered green onions high above their upturned mouths, devouring their sweet char vertically.

I turned to Rosi to help me translate and track down the “pimenton” called for by my most trustworthy recipe. I had thought that if I couldn’t find pimenton, I could use some of the Hungarian smoked paprika that I already had in my pantry. A trail around our local spice store, however, led us to something called “Spanish Paprika” and Rosi looked hopeful: we wafted its sweet smokiness under our noses and knew at once that it was the right ingredient. I also bought a bag of suave-looking dried Ancho chiles – the other big player in the sauce.

Back home I set the Anchos soaking in a bowl of water to rehydrate them. I also needed two slices of bread so I fished out the dried up ends of one of my sourdough loaves from the depths of my bread bag. I was sure that these, too, could be un-desiccated. Such salvage in the kitchen makes me feel satisfied with my lot. Smug even. These slices went into a skillet with some olive oil and were soon crispily revived.

At this point I started hopping between two recipes. The trustworthy one that had bothered to name and differentiate its chile peppers called only for canned tomatoes. But another recipe, more slapdash on the chile front, called for canned plum tomatoes and sun-dried tomatoes too. Another chance for culinary rescue! Just the other day I had decided to purge the freezer part of my fridge-freezer of everything that wasn’t an ice-cube tray or gin, vodka or limoncello. Since the (oh happy day) installation of a big freezer in the basement, the idea had been to banish everything else to Down Below. I had never quite got round to effecting this lofty aim, but the other day the mood fell on me. Out came the tubs of – I don’t deny it - goose fat and duck fat and chicken fat. Out came the stock bag with asparagus ends and vegetable trimmings. The package of emergency bacon. Dragging all of this flotsam and jetsam out of the mini-freezer revealed that we still had a couple of containers of last year’s semi-dried tomatoes. A while back my friends Jen and Larry had introduced me to the marvelous business of slow, semi-drying tomatoes in a low oven. Brushed with some olive oil and salt and pepper and cooked for hours, they take on a full, bright caramelised flavour – as Jen said, “like tomato jam.” They are now a much-cherished part of our diet not only because of their innate goodness, but because my beloved has always had a beef with the sun-dried tomatoes you get in jars. She thinks they’re loud and pushy and aggressively oily. These half-dried tomatoes – or sun-blush, as I’ve seen them called – are less brash and nicer to be with.

So the remainder of our store of tomatoes would fill out our romesco – completing the arc from last summer to this. The bread, the tomatoes, the chiles and the toasted almonds went into the food processor, were mixed to a paste and thinned to taste. The Anchos had softened obligingly, and I had to de-seed and chop them. One of them, the cad, spewed rivulets of brown seedy liquor all over my counter, dripping down into the cabinets and leaving its traces on my baking pans, but otherwise the sauce came together with ease.

The rest of our menu we had fetched from the market. Chicken thighs and . . . leeks. I’m not sure why I came back with leeks, not green onions. But I love a leek, I loved the idea of a young leek, its tender fleshyness swathed with the romesco, and there they were at the Fair Foods stand, looking fresh, svelte and lovely. Once I’d returned home, I realised that lovely though they were, they were perhaps not as slender or young as they might have been. I have never had much truck with those particular attributes – being something of a ripe voluptuary myself - but now I was requiring slim youth of my leeks? My fixation on cooking this dish had ignored the fact that leeks in early July have done some living: if a dog’s year is a human’s decade, what is a leek’s week? Should I turn back? Make something else out of my middle aged veggies? Of course not. True foolishness, I find, generally takes refuge in further foolishness – and so it was last night: I ignored the signs in front of me and instead waded deeper in.

I did, however, administer some reason to the situation. It was fiendishly hot, I was well on my way to being poached in my own kitchen, and my leeks were too old and fat – clearly we all needed some gin. I opened the door to the newly appointed freezer and basked in the twin mists of Freon cool and the satisfaction of having actually cleaned something. There were my gins. Yesss, ginsss. Some Bombay, some Tanqueray Ten and a new cutie-pie: a small squat blue glass bottle of Hendricks. This gin is infused with cucumber and rose-petals and when I first bought it, stashing it unopened in the freezer, I started dreaming about it. I dreamed that there was a gin that was infused with cucumber and rose-petals and I would wake up, amazed at the whimsy of the dream world. Then half way through the morning I would remember that there IS a gin infused with cucumber and rose-petals and it was in my freezer. A week or so ago I stopped hoarding it untasted and opened the bottle. We drank some straight up, convinced we should listen attentively for the whisper of these flavours. Frankly, the whispers eluded us. But tonight was no time for such calibrated living anyway, and I sloshed it into glasses with tonic and a slice of cucumber. As glazed with heat as I was, it was clear that this G&T with its mirage of green and pink was far beyond the ordinary. Somehow the tonic made the delicate hints of rose and cucumber audible. We sipped, happy for a moratorium on the madness.

Though truth be told, the leeks were not half bad. I charred them thoroughly and prodded them to make sure they were soft. Then I piled them into a mound to soften them more as they rested. We peeled back their blackened jackets and dipped the limp white hearts into the sauce. It is true that they took some chewing and more than their jackets got tossed away. But we were playing Marianne Faithfull as we ate, and in her gorgeously ruined, smoky old voice she sang us that Noel Coward song, “Mad About the Boy.” I gnawed on my leek and listened as she let her posh accent fade into a cockney lament: “It seems a little silly for a girl of my age and weight to walk down Piccadilly in a haze of love. It ought to take a good deal more to get a bad girl down . . .” There was a dark hot evening sky way above us, we were canopied by our ominously gnarled ornamental orange tree and the twinkling fairy lights we’d strung between its long thorns, and we agreed that it’s just fine to be an old leek in love, tarted up with a Spanish sauce. “Will it ever cloy,” Marianne rasped, “this odd diversity of misery and joy?” I sucked the romesco from my singed fingertips. I hope not. There is such a thing as necessary folly.


1/4 cup olive oil plus more for frying
2 small slices sourdough bread
3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped roughly
1/2 cup almonds, toasted
2 large dried ancho chiles, soaked 6-8 hrs, seeded and roughly chopped
1 cup canned plum tomatoes, liquid reserved
1/2 cup sun-blush or sun-dried tomatoes
1 tbsp pimenton or any smoked paprika
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 lemon, juiced

Heat half an inch of olive oil in sauté pan and fry bread, browning both sides.
In a food processor, grind garlic, almonds and bread. Process until fine.
Add the anchos, tomatoes and pimenton. Puree until smooth.
Add vinegar and lemon juice and puree. While blending, drizzle in the olive oil.
If texture isn’t loose enough, add some of the reserved tomato juice, or additional lemon juice. Season with salt.

Eat with grilled vegetables such as green onions, asparagus or leeks, and grilled fish or chicken.


Blogger goodyoneshoe said...

oh. my. abject in my jealousy.

10:35 pm  
Blogger Phoenix Woman said...

I like leeks in things for which onions, even cooked ones, are too brash. Raw in salads, for instance, or on burgers. And you can load up a pizza with leeks and not worry about overwhelming anything else on the pie.

8:50 am  

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