Welcome to my first Hive Cooking post on neighborbee. What’s my deal? Well, I’m not a pro, I’m not officially trained even. I just love food- cooking it, eating it, learning about it. And I’m cheap too, and lazy. Definitely lazy. I’m more apt to cook food that’s easy and flavorful, and not too expensive. Culinary voyeurism of this kind is not what you’ll read about here.
Instead, I’ll guide you to a tasty vittle every other week, describe it, tell you how to buy it, and then cook it.
Now, this is not going to be a column about veggies at all times. I love face-bacon as much as the next guy. But I figure, food underdogs are great place to start in New York, the city where no one cooks. Especially here, I don’t think non-meat get nearly enough credit. We’re supposed to eat more fruits, vegetables, herbs and nuts, for our health. That of course makes it sound like a chore. Really, they are where the action is, flavor-wise.
To quote culinary genius Harold McGee:
“The plant world encompasses earthy roots, bitter and pungent and refreshing leaves, perfumed flowers, mouth-filling fruits, nutty seeds, sweetness and tartness and astringency and pleasing pain, and aromas by the thousands… They construct themselves from the simplest materials of the earth itself, water and rock and air and light… So when we eat vegetables and fruits and grains and spices, we eat the foods that made us possible, and that opened our life to a kaleidoscopic world of sensation and delight.”
You know what else opens our world to kaleidoscopes of sensation and delight that Mr. McGee conveniently omits? Fungus.
Future post. Maybe.
Moving on. When a holiday potluck I was going to asked specifically for veggie-friendly side dishes, I was actually excited. I knew an opportunity when I saw it. Done right, vegetables can star, even as a side to protein.
The problem is, people don’t know what to do with them. What I decided to take on for the potluck are two under-appreciated specimens I’ve been crazy for lately: fennel and leeks.
Fennel’s unpopularity is I suspect due to misunderstanding its flavor. Anise , licorice, and fennel all have that indomitable essense of black licorice candies. But they are all in different concentrations. Though you’ll see fennel called anise, it’s not. The o.g. fennel (a relative of parsley) looked more like celery and was on the bitter side. It was in this kind of fennel that Greek myth says Prometheus hid fire from the gods before elevating humans with its secrets. The kind of fennel we use is better known as Florentine fennel, or finocchio, and is mainly used for its white, bulbous base and not the stems or fronds.
Don’t be intimidated. Fennel bulbs aren’t like chewing on the seeds you get at Indian restaurants. You can eat the bulb raw, where it’s crisp and refreshing, or cooked, where the flavor mellows and sweetens.
Leeks, meanwhile, sound more like a punchline than a foodstuff. But they too have a noble pedigree. Quite literally. A member of the onion family, the Romans considered their mild flavor to be more refined than common garlic or onions, which were brutish seasonings for the plebs. The Emperor Nero ate so many Leeks that he became known as Porrophagus (’leek-eater’). And then he burned
I am the leek. I am the best character on the post.
I say buy your fruits and vegetables cheap, in large quantities, and often. My favorite places are Chinatown and in Midtown here andhere. Farmers markets are great, nothing against them. They’re just expensive, and they can be a trek depending on where you live. Better to make them an occasional indulgence, I say.
Now, with leeks what you’re after are the white and pale green parts, not the tough, dark-green leaves. So make sure there’s plenty of white. Store them lightly wrapped in the fridge and they’ll last for months.
For fennel, look for a greenish-white bulb without drying or brown spots. Use as soon as you can for fuller flavor, within four days to a week.
Leeks- wash them well. I can’t emphasize this enough. The buggers grow deep in sand. They’re worse than spinach. If you don’t wash them thoroughly, you’re going to have a dish full of grit, as I discovered with gratin no. 1 (survivors: 0). The ideal way is to trim off the dark green leaves and the roots, cut the remainder in half, then make an incision about and inch from the bottom, fan it out, and run it under water. Like so:
Fennel- cut off the stalks and fronds. Then cut the bulb in half and slice as you please. You can cut out the core or leave it in.
Which brings me to the dish I brought to the potluck- Fennel-Potato Gratin with Leeks.
My recipe below is basically stolen from Epicurious, though I made it my own by adding some nutmeg to the cream at the end. Its rich flavor is awesome when served with all the fatty roasted meats you horrible carnivores murder this time of year.
>Fennel Potato Gratin with Leeks and Nutmeg
2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) butter
3 cups chopped leeks (white and pale green parts only; about 4 large)
3 medium-size fresh fennel bulbs with fronds, trimmed, cored, thinly sliced, fronds reserved
2 pounds red-skinned potatoes, peeled, thinly sliced
1 1/2 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese (about 4 1/2 ounces)
1 cup chicken stock or canned low-salt chicken broth
3/4 cup whipping cream (or half and half)
nutmeg to taste
Prep and Cook
Preheat oven to 375°F. Butter 13x9x2-inch glass baking dish. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add leeks; cover and cook until tender, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat.
Chop enough fennel fronds to measure 1/2 cup; set aside. Discard any remaining fennel fronds. Arrange half of fennel slices in single layer in prepared baking dish; sprinkle with 1/4 cup fennel fronds, salt and pepper. Top with half of sliced potatoes in single layer. Arrange half of leek mixture over. Season generously with salt and pepper. Top with half of grated Parmesan cheese. Repeat layering with remaining fennel slices, fennel fronds, potatoes, leek mixture. Season potato gratin generously with salt and pepper.
Bring chicken stock and whipping cream to boil in medium saucepan. Add nutmeg. Pour mixture over potato gratin. Top with remaining Parmesan cheese. Bake uncovered until vegetables are very tender, liquid is almost absorbed and top is deep golden brown, about 1 hour 10 minutes. (Can be prepared 2 hours ahead. Let stand at room temperature. Cover gratin with aluminum foil and rewarm in 375°F oven about 20 minutes.)
Serve it forth.