Recipes and Stories

26 February 2012: Of Leeks and Potatoes, Potage Parmentier

February 27, 2012

Tags: Lenten Cooking, Classic French Cooking, Potage Parmentier, Leek and Potato Soup, Preparing Leeks for the Pot, Soup

Potage Parmentier, a Lenten Discipline worth rediscovering
One of the benefits of observing a Lenten discipline at the table is the discipline it imposes on us as cooks in the kitchen. A Lenten table isn’t just about doing without: simpler food is not merely an exercise in restraint; it actually commands more from the cook, asking us to pay closer attention, to think more carefully about what we’re doing.

Simpler food, stripped of artifice and flavor-enriching fats, is more exposed, its flavors more direct. Simpler, understated preparations likewise leave the cook more exposed, with very little margin for error. The simpler the cooking is, the less the cook can afford to let his attention waver.

Nothing more fittingly illustrates the point than that old mainstay of the French kitchen, Potage Parmentier—or, as we know it, leek and potato soup. It’s the perfect dish for a Lenten table, and once was very popular during the season; unhappily, it is nowadays sadly overlooked and neglected.

The classic soup is nothing more than its English name implies: fresh, young leeks and potatoes thinly sliced and simmered together—and that’s about all. There’s no broth and its only seasonings are a little onion and salt. The finished soup can be enhanced with a splash of cream, a handful of crisp croutons, a sprinkling of bright, freshly snipped chives, and sometimes a whisper of white pepper, but even those garnishes become superfluous when the soup has been well made from first rate ingredients. And if it hasn’t been, well, there’s not a garnish in the world that will make it palatable.

The leeks must be vibrant, fresh, and carefully handled—well cleaned without that misguided technique of slicing and then soaking it in ice water (which may take away the sand, but unhappily will take a good deal of the flavor along with it), thin-sliced, and slowly sweated in a little butter to draw out its flavors without caramelizing it.

The potatoes should likewise be selected with care—mature, but still firm, snapping crisp, and fresh tasting, then thinly sliced so that they cook quickly and evenly without taking on that heavy, almost sour aftertaste that overcooking can bring to them.

The onion, salt, and (if they’re even used) the garnishes play only a supporting role.

In short, Potage Parmentier is not a complicated dish nor do the techniques involved require any particular skill from the cook. But to be done well, it does require a good deal of thoughtfulness and finesse, and it never hurts to be reminded of that.

Potage Parmentier, or Leek and Potato Soup

Though not classic, one of my own favorite variations for this soup is to save a couple of cups of the tender leek greens, stir them into the pureed soup, and gently simmer until they are barely tender. They lend both texture and a bright, fresh flavor.

Serves 6-8

1 pound leeks
1 medium yellow onion, trimmed, split, peeled and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 pound Russet or mature Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
6 cups water
Kosher or sea salt
¼-to-½ cup heavy cream, optional
Croutons (recipe follows)
3 tablespoons minced chives or tender leek greens
Whole white pepper in a mill

1. To clean and prepare the leeks, lay them flat on a cutting board, slice off the root tendrils without removing the root base altogether, then, with the knife parallel to the board, carefully cut them in half lengthwise. Holding each half root-end-up under running water, fold back the leaves and wash away the sand and dirt that is caught between the leaves. Drain and thinly slice both the white and pale tender greens. You should have about 3 cups. Lay aside the other greens for the stock pot.

2. Warm the butter in a heavy-bottomed 3½-to-4-quart saucepan or Dutch oven over low heat. Add the leek and onion and let them sweat until softened and translucent, about 8-to-10 minutes. Add the potatoes, toss well, and let them heat through.

2. Add the water and raise the heat to medium high. Bring to a boil, adjust the heat to a simmer, and season with salt. Cook gently until the potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes. Puree in batches with a food mill, blender or food processor. (It can be made several days ahead up to this point: let cool, cover, and refrigerate.)

3. Return the soup to the pot and reheat it slowly over medium low heat, stirring often. Stir in cream to taste (if using), taste and adjust the seasonings, and heat for a minute to let the flavors meld. Serve garnished with a few croutons on each bowl, a sprinkling of chives or leek greens and, if liked, a light grinding of white pepper. You may also add another spoonful of cream to each bowl, or opt to use the cream only as a garnish.

Croutons

Preheat the oven to 300 F. Put 2-3 tablespoons of butter (or olive oil) on a rimmed baking sheet and heat until it is just melted (or in the case of the oil, fragrant). Cut 2 cups of stale home-style bread into small cubes. Put them on the baking sheet and quickly toss to evenly coat them with fat. Bake, stirring occasionally, until the croutons are evenly golden and crisp, about 20 to 30 minutes. For soups, I prefer to use butter, but olive oil is better for salad croutons.

20 February 2012: For Mardi Gras, a New Orleans Classic

February 20, 2012

Tags: Crabmeat Maison, Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, New Orleans, Galatoire's, Julia Reed, Crab, Crab Salad

Crabmeat Maison
It hardly seems possible that Lent, the Christian season of penitence, is already upon us. Though the character of this season is marked by abstinence and reflection, it’s actually my favorite season for cooking, because the cooking—and eating—is more thoughtful. The simpler, less luxurious dishes that grace the Lenten table make one more conscious of the natural flavors of the food, and perhaps a little more thoughtful about what we put into our mouths.

But before Lent begins, we have one last whisper of the Winter Solstice holidays in Shrove, or “Fat”, Tuesday—or as it is known down in old Creole New Orleans, Mardi Gras. Designed as a way of using up the household stores of fat before Lent, Mardi Gras is the last burst of exuberant consumption (or in many cases, over-consumption) before settling in to the fast.

One could have the traditional pancake supper, I suppose, but to honor Mardi Gras, my mouth is stuck out for the centerpiece of every party ever given by friend and fellow food writer Julia Reed: a silver punch bowl mounded with Crabmeat Maison made as it is at the New Orleans landmark, Galatoire’s. That silver bowl of crabmeat landed her the job as food editor at Newsweek, and made her something of a legend among New York partygoers.

Crabmeat Maison a la Galatoire’s

Serves 12 to 18 as a cocktail hors d’oeuvres, or 8 to 12 as a cold main dish

1½ cups mayonnaise, preferably homemade with lemon juice (recipe follows)
½ cup (more or less, to taste) nonpareil capers, well drained
½ cup (more or less, to taste) thinly sliced scallions (about 4 small ones)
2 generous tablespoons chopped parsley
Salt and whole white pepper in a peppermill
2 pounds jumbo lump crabmeat
Crisp toast points

1. Put the mayonnaise in a large mixing bowl. Gently fold in the capers, scallions, parsley, and a large pinch of salt and liberal grinding of white pepper, both to taste. Cover and chill for at least 2 hours.

2. Gently fold in the crabmeat. Mound it into a large serving bowl, surround it with toast points, and stand back for the stampede.

Homemade Mayonnaise
Makes about 1½ cups

1 whole egg or 2 large egg yolks
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 generous tablespoon Dijon or Creole style mustard
1 teaspoon kosher or fine sea salt
1¼ cups vegetable oil

1. To make the mayonnaise in a food processor, put the whole egg, lemon juice, vinegar, mustard, and salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Process 1 minute.

2. With the machine running, slowly drizzle in the oil in a very thin, steady stream until it is incorporated and emulsified.

To make it using a whisk or hand-held mixer: use the two egg yolks and whisk them together with the lemon juice, vinegar, and salt in a ceramic mixing bowl. Whisking constantly, slowly drizzle in the oil a little at a time.

14 February 2012: The Elixir of Romance

February 14, 2012

Tags: Historical Cooking, St. Valentine's Day, Romantic Dining, Southern Cooking, Classical Southern Cooking

Drinking Chocolate, shown with a Mexican chocolate mill. The froth here was made with a standard baloon whisk.
Regardless of what one thinks of confining the celebration of romance to one day in the year, there’s something to be said for a holiday so deeply associated with chocolate that the connection is almost taken for granted.

That has not always been the case: until the middle of the nineteenth century, chocolate was rare and expensive, and the lavish bonbons, cakes, mousses, and pots de crème that tempt lovers nowadays didn’t exist. Chocolate was almost exclusively used as a beverage and, moreover, was a luxury that few could afford. In short, only the most elite lovers could conjure with chocolate, and they had to do so with a cup.

They could have done worse. Drinking chocolate goes back at least to the ancient Mayans, who used it in religious rituals and may well have believed it to have had aphrodisiacal powers. The Europeans, upon discovering it, certainly did. But then, they thought almost everything from the New World was an aphrodisiac.

Never mind. Silky rich drinking chocolate has a power all its own—and isn’t the biggest part of romance in our heads anyway?


By the days of the early Republic, drinking chocolate was still a luxury, but had become affordable enough to be well established in America. It was made in some variation of the method put down by Lettice Bryan in 1839.

Chocolate.

Chocolate cakes are carved in little squares on one side, to each of which, if the chocolate is good, allow about three jills* of water. Scrape it very fine with a knife, mix it with just enough boiling water to dissolve it, mashing it with a spoon till smooth, and then put it in a block-tin boiler, mix in the remaining water, which must also be boiling, cover it, set it on a trivet over a bed of coals, and boil it gently till reduce to about two thirds its original, giving it a light stirring two or three times: then replenish it with cream or rich sweet milk, making the boiler as full as it first was with water; watch it closely, stirring it a little till it boils up; then take it instantly from the fire, or it will boil over the top and a good part of it will be lost. Whirl round in it, near the top, a chocolate mill, (or a small bunch of bended wires will answer) till you raise a rich froth on the top, and send it to table hot, accompanied with chocolate cakes**, dry toasts, or hard rusks.

— Lettice Bryan, The Kentucky Housewife, 1839.

* Mrs. Bryan meant “gill,” an archaic name for ¼ pint, or ½ cup in modern liquid measurements.

** These were crisp sugar cookies designed for eating with the beverage. They didn’t contain chocolate.

With all respect to Mrs. Bryan, Miss Eliza Acton, one of the finest cookery writers of nineteenth century England (or, for that matter, anywhere else) provided a more refined recipe in her 1845 masterpiece that set a new standard for cookbooks.

To Make Chocolate.

An ounce of chocolate, if good, will be sufficient for one person. Rasp, and then boil it from five to ten minutes with about four tablespoonfuls* of water; when it is extremely smooth add nearly a pint of new milk, give it another boil, stir it well, or mill it, and serve it directly. For water-chocolate use three-quarters of a pint of water instead of milk, and send rich hot cream to table with it. The taste must decide whether it shall be made thicker or thinner.

Chocolate, 2 oz.; water, quarter-pint, or rather more; milk 1 pint: ½ minute.

— Eliza Acton, Modern Cookery for Private Families, 1845.

* Miss Acton means a common table or kitchen spoon roughly double the size of the standard modern measuring spoon. The closer equivalent to our tablespoon was a dessertspoon. Notice that while she says an ounce of chocolate will be sufficient for one person, the amounts given in the ingredient list and within the recipe are for two servings.

Very little of Miss Acton’s method needs further illumination for modern cooks. By milling she meant to whip it with a chocolate mill, a round whip on a long handle that was spun by rubbing it between the hands. Her recipe was accompanied by a drawing of a chocolate pot that came equipped with such a mill.

To Make Chocolate for Two.

Finely grate two ounces of best quality unsweetened dark chocolate. Bring a scant half-cup of water to a simmer over medium low heat, stir in the chocolate, and keep stirring until it dissolves. Let it simmer slowly while you bring one-and-three-quarters cups of light cream (or a blend of whole milk and cream) almost to a boil in a separate pot. If liked, add a cinnamon stick or half a vanilla bean to the milk before heating it, and let it simmer for five minutes. Slowly whisk the hot milk into the chocolate, sweeten it to taste with sugar, and if you’ve not used cinnamon or whole bean vanilla, flavor it with a little homemade Bourbon Vanilla (see 26 October 2011). A tiny pinch of cayenne is considered good for increasing one’s romantic inclinations. Whisk or mill until there is a thick froth on top and serve immediately.

You will not have to wait long for results.

9 February 2012: Calamondin Orange Marmalade

February 9, 2012

Tags: Classical Southern Cooking, Orange Marmalade, Calamondin Orange Marmalade, Lettice Bryan, The Kentucky Housewife

Old Fashioned Orange Marmalade, with made with Calamondin Oranges
The gift of a quart of Calamondin oranges last weekend was so lovely that they went straight into a blue and white china bowl as a table ornament. After a few days of admiring them, however, it became obvious that they weren’t going to last much longer. As they were entirely too lovely to waste, I started looking for something to do with them other than the obvious marmalade.

If you aren’t familiar with Calamondins, they look like a miniature tangerine or Clementine, and have the same thin, pliable skin that easily detaches from the fruit. But unlike Clementines, the pulp of a Calamondin is tart, with a bitter edge, which is of course why they’re so perfect for marmalade.

Several friends suggested that the juice would be a perfect substitute for that of bitter oranges in marinades for such things as Cuban style pork roast, or hearty roasted fish such as grouper or snapper. But using only the juice meant wasting those beautiful, vibrant skins, and since the day was cool and clear—ideal for making preserves—why quibble with marmalade just because it’s obvious?

When it comes to marmalade, the old-fashioned kind, with a nice bitter bite to cut the sweetness, is best. And for that, we need look no further than Lettice Bryan’s 1839 masterpiece, The Kentucky Housewife:

“Orange Marmalade.

Grate fine the yellow peel from some ripe deep colored oranges, cut up all that are decorticated, saving the juice and removing the seeds and cores; mix with the pulp the grated peel, add an equal weight of powdered loaf sugar and a very little water, simmer the whole together till it becomes thick and quite transparent. When cold put it up in small glass jars, and cover them with brandy papers.”

The delicate skins of Calamondins would not have taken to grating, but Mrs. Bryan’s formula otherwise made better sense than the things that had turned up on the Internet. The pitted fruit was sliced and tossed into the pot without separating the skins. The only addition to her sensible recipe was a tiny pinch of salt to brighten the flavor.

Calamondin Orange Marmalade

Wash the oranges and carefully twist off the stems (don’t pull or their delicate skins will tear). Weigh the fruit, then halve, seed, and thinly slice it, conserving all the juices. Toss the fruit and its juices into a heavy-bottomed stainless steel or enameled pot as it is cut.

Add an equal weight of sugar, a scant cup of water for each pound, and a small pinch of kosher or pickling salt. Stir until the sugar is mostly dissolved, then bring it to a boil over medium heat, stirring often. Maintain a steady boil and cook until the skins are transparent and tender and the syrup is thickened and jellies when dropped from the spoon onto a saucer (210-220 degrees F. on a candy thermometer). It will take about half an hour or a little more.

Let the marmalade cool slightly, then using a perfectly clean stainless or silver ladle and wide-mouthed funnel, transfer it to sterilized half-pint jars. Cover with new canning lids, cool, and refrigerate or, for prolonged storage, process in a water bath for 5 minutes.

2 February 2012: The Wisdom of the Ancients

February 2, 2012

Tags: Historical Cooking, Classic French Cooking, Sauce Hollandaise, Open Hearth Cooking

Sauce Hollandiase: Whether from the past or present, it doesn't need for the cook to be clever, just careful.
One of the biggest challenges for food historians is battling the arrogant notion that cooks of the past were more ignorant and naïve than we are today.

Perhaps it seems logical that the natural progression of knowledge in the kitchen is upward, with each succeeding generation learning from and expanding on the wisdom of the previous one. This would seem particularly true given the technological innovations that revolutionized kitchens in the last century and a half.

Sadly, the progression of knowledge has not always been vertical, and those innovations have done little to improve wisdom; in fact, there are many instances in which they’ve had the opposite impact and left us more ignorant and naïve than ever.

Worse yet, our present generation has had an unfortunate tendency to by-pass the knowledge of the past as a quaint inhibition to creativity. What this usually leads to is not true creativity, but a lot of time wasted either re-inventing something that already existed, or a kind of wanton culinary vandalism in which a perfectly good dish is spoiled by doing things to it that are just plain incompatible.

Modern cooking equipment will not improve such a cook’s knowledge or skill; it only takes away some of the time and effort that might have forced that cook to pay attention and actually think about what he is doing to the food.

While a food processor will make a passable mirepoix in a fraction of the time and effort required of a skilled hand and sharp knife, that mirepoix will never be as even nor react to heat in the same way as one that has been carefully diced by hand.

And while a blender will make an adequate Hollandaise without the cook turning a hand to a whisk or using any real judgment, it can never equal the fluffy, silken texture lent by a whisk in the skilled hand of a cook who is thinking and paying attention.

The least improved equipment of all is the oven of a modern range. A woman once bounced up to me at a book signing and, citing the range with its “reliable ovens,” said she thought cooking had just come into its own in the last fifty years. Sadly, she could not have been further from the truth.

To begin with, few modern range ovens can be called truly reliable. They’re more convenient, yes; we no longer have to constantly stoke the fire or know what kind of wood to feed it for the lively heat required for bread or the gentle one needed for custard.

When it comes to performance, however, a range oven is decidedly inferior to the brick and cast iron ovens of the past. To begin with, its thin steel walls almost guarantee uneven heat distribution because they simply can’t hold and radiate heat as brick and iron will. And while convection baking partly amends that problem, it still can’t match the perfectly even radiant heat from brick or iron.
To compound the problem, oven thermostats, which are only as reliable as their calibration, have made us all lazy: we’ve lost the ability to feel the heat and know when the oven is at the right temperature. When the calibration is off (and more often than not, it is), we’re left scratching our heads and scrambling for an oven thermometer.

The range’s only real improvement is the cooktop, which no longer needs the careful stoking and constant supervision of an open fire or wood stove. But while the range makes the job easier, we still need our ancestor’s knowledge of how to do it well if we want the results to be more than passable.

Obviously, I’m not suggesting that we abandon modern equipment, but we do need to be aware that we’re not smarter than our ancestors, and don’t in fact know more than a cook who could turn out the same meals that we do under conditions that were a lot more taxing. If we really want the progression of knowledge in our kitchens to be vertical, we have to go back and learn the lessons that they took for granted.

Sauce Hollandaise

Though the prototypes of this sauce are Medieval, Hollandaise as we know it evolved in the early nineteenth century. Properly made, its base is a Sabayon (Zabaglione in Italian), which is really more of a technique than a fixed recipe. Early Hollandaise (also known as Dutch Sauce) was often flavored with a vinegar reduction rather than lemon juice, and in the English and American kitchens, where whisks were not as common, the Sabayon technique wasn’t used.

This recipe owes much to James Peterson, a modern cook who is very wise indeed.

Makes about 1½ cups

6 ounces (¾ cup or 12 tablespoons) unsalted butter
3 large egg yolks
3 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Salt
Ground cayenne or whole white peppercorns in a peppermill

1. Melt the butter over medium low heat, then turn off the heat but keep it warm.

2. Off the heat, whisk the eggs and water in a heavy-bottomed saucepan until frothy, then put the pan over medium heat. Whisk until it has tripled in volume and thickened, about 2 minutes. Remove it from the heat and continue whisking for about half a minute.

3. Gently whisk in the warm butter a little at a time, then gradually whisk in the lemon juice, tasting as you go: you may not need all of it; the lemon flavor should be subtle. Season to taste with salt and cayenne or white pepper and serve as soon as possible.