Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Leeks from a Greek Kitchen

During the Age of Glass, everyone believed some part of him or her to be extremely fragile. For some it was a hand, for others a femur, yet others believed it was their noses that were made of glass. The Age of Glass followed the Stone Age as an evolutionary corrective, introducing into human relations a new sense of fragility that fostered compassion. 
-Nicole Krauss (The History of Love

It's suddenly quiet in my apartment--that strange, unearthly quiet that comes after company leaves, or after important tasks have finally been completed. In a way, I thought this moment would never come; the past two weeks have been nothing if not a mini-marathon. Before my mother and aunt arrived, I was frantically putting the finishing touches on my article, which is now sitting in an inbox in Kentucky, awaiting the final decision of the journal's editor. As soon as that gargantuan task was accomplished, it was off to the airport. And then things were just busy. In between fine dining and trips to the beach, there were also seventeen student papers that required my attention and, despite my best efforts, hung over the visit like a dark little cloud. As much as I loved having my family here, it's hard to have visitors when your job isn't a simple 9-5 affair. It makes the balancing act all the harder. But the papers have been graded, I somehow lived through this morning's observation of my class notwithstanding both my fatigue and the lackluster performance of my students, and I'm now sitting in a chair in my kitchen, cozy as can be. The sad thing is that I'm almost too tired to enjoy it. Almost, but not quite.

In any case, it seemed like an opportune moment to sit down and update the blog, which I can't help but feel has been somewhat neglected these past few weeks. This blog, after all, is my time, when it's just me, my thoughts, my photos and the computer screen. Maybe the pup jingles by in her constant pursuit of things to chew on, but she usually respects these moments by taking a timely nap.


For the past week and half, all I've wanted to do is tell you about these leeks. It all started when I received an email from a friend a few weeks ago and she mentioned braising leeks as a weekend treat. It sounded appealing, like the ideal weekend comfort food, and I made a mental note that I should buy some leeks and partake in the fun. Before I could propel myself to action, however, I found myself in an article writing lock down, barely coming up for air. As the Greek kindly read over my article and offered a few suggestions for improvement, I allowed myself to relax on the couch with My Berlin Kitchen. For some reason, I immediately perked up when she talked about braising leeks. Call me an impressionable reader, but it suddenly seemed like the most important thing in the world--as if, by braising leeks, I might drastically improve my quality of life.



In a way, this turned out to be exactly the case, but not in the way I expected. When I asked the Greek to pick up leeks the next morning on his grocery run, he mentioned a recipe that his mother and father would always make for dinner parties--a recipe that combines leeks, olive oil, tomato juice and prunes (yes, prunes--that most hated and maligned fruit that, however well it does in Europe, provokes something akin to revulsion in the US). Although I fully trust the Greek's culinary taste and have yet to be disappointed by any Greek dish I've tried (the combination of olive oil and tomato juice equals Greek magic), I'll admit that I had my reservations. Mainly because I felt that, by wanting to eat an allium vegetable as a side dish, I  was already taking a big step. It took years for me to come to terms with garlic and, even now, I occasionally find myself turning away from onions, even the caramelized kind. I use leeks, onions, chives, shallots, etc. to flavor my food; it's rarely been one of the main courses.


 But when the Greek called me out, asking where his culinarily adventurous girlfriend had gone, I accepted the challenge. The glowing endorsement of the recipe that his mother offered while we were Skyping with her that morning clinched the deal. Greek-style leeks it would be.


As with all Greek dishes, the flavors are revelatory. The leeks become sweet as they cook, softening their otherwise oniony flavor; the prunes transform the dish, adding a tangy note to a dish dominated by earthy allium vegetables. And the cinnamon stick, with its dash of spice, makes the meal sing. Truth be told,  left to my own devices, I would never think to add tomato juice, dried prunes, a chopped onion and a cinnamon stick to a pan full of sautéed leeks and and let it simmer until the leeks have lost their firmness, collapsing against each other. If you can use the word "compelling" to talk about food, then this certainly made for a compelling side dish--so compelling that I kept on going back for more. We paired it with a roast pork that the Greek made from All About Roasting and the combination seems like it will become one of our fall and winter Sunday dinner staples.


Leeks with Prunes and Cinnamon

Yields about 8-10 servings (as a side dish)
Adapted from Evi Voutsina's Greek Tastes (Γεύση ελληνική) and kindly translated by the Greek's mother

8 medium-sized leeks, white and light green parts only, cleaned and rinsed
100 milliliters (1/4 cup) olive oil
1 small onion (I used a cipollini), finely cut
8 ounces tomato juice
Salt to taste (be careful when adding salt, especially if the tomato juice you use has a lot of sodium)
1 cinnamon stick
300 grams  dried prunes (pits removed)
-Clean the leeks and cut them into 1- to 2-inch pieces.
-Put the oil in a pan and, once it is hot, add the leeks.
-Sauté the leeks by shaking the pan, so that they don't lose their shape. 
-Once the leeks have begun to soften, add the onion and sauté it as well. 
-After 1-2 minutes, add the tomato juice, the cinnamon stick and about 1/3 cup water, but not the prunes. 
-Bring the mixture to a boil and then, as the liquid begins to evaporate, to a gentle simmer (N.B. the goal is to have most of the liquid evaporate; you may have to turn the heat up to achieve this. However, this will also help the leeks to soften).
-Once the liquid has almost evaporated, add the prunes and shake the pan again.
-The meal is ready when both leeks and prunes have both become soft (following the Greek's father's example, I put the leeks in the oven with the pork--the temperature was 325 F--for about 10-12 minutes) and fully absorbed the oil and tomato juice
-Remove from the oven and prepare to fall in love with leeks (for either the first time or again)!

4 comments:

  1. As a Francophile, I love leeks -- one of the few green vegetables available throughout the dark winter in Northern Europe. I love the idea of combining them with warm spices, tomatoes and prunes. I feel like I've been to Athens just from reading this blog post!

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  2. Thanks for your comment, Ann! I hadn't realized, before reading "My Berlin Kitchen," that the hunt for green leafy vegetables was that dire in Northern Europe in the winter (you'd think I'd have remembered based on my desperate search for spinach and other greens in Russia, but I suppose I've blocked that dark time from my mind), but I'm glad to be reminded (for future travel purposes). More importantly, I'm glad to know that leeks will always be there to comfort me. We're having people over for dinner tomorrow and, despite the abundant vegetable selection of northern California, I'm contemplating a leek bread pudding instead...

    Hope you enjoy the recipe if you try it!

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  3. My husband just walked by and asked, "Where's THAT?" -- thinking that I was looking at a restaurant web site. These photos are stunning, and the dinner looks absolutely scrumptious!
    P.S. I love the photo with your little pup in the background! Congratulations on shipping off the article! Finally, I admit it: I still haven't fully come to terms with garlic.

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  4. Thank you, Moriah, for your sweet comment and for sharing your husband's reaction. :) I liked these pictures a lot, too; something about the colors and the way the light was falling as evening approached...

    Maybe one day I'll have my very own restaurant (a girl can dream, right?); if I do, I hope that this will be one of my specialties!

    I was happy to slip in a picture of the pup; she does get underfoot, always wanting to be a part of the action. :)

    P.S. If you're looking for a way to fall in love with garlic, that caramelized garlic tart may turn you into a believer. Either that, or the vanilla garlic cake Cameron and I dreamed of making together a long time ago (recipe development remains incomplete, but I'll keep you posted).

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