meta name="p:domain_verify" content="8b08da541f8a920e6 Marie Z Johnston: Dead of Winter Inspiration and a Celery Gratinée

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Dead of Winter Inspiration and a Celery Gratinée

February is a dismal month in Paris.  The weather is bitter cold, even when skies are deceptively blue.  Outdoor markets can be empty of trusted vendors (leaving produce merchants with stands looking far too much like summer to even be considered) or crowded with people (such as myself) looking over farmer stands well stocked with root vegetables for which inspiration has begun to lag. The promise of Valentine's day fills store windows... but I know it's a sweet ruse, something to help us through till Spring.

My email was filled with "Depths of Winter Inspiration" this week... first, a poem about "what drives her" (read 'you' - we can all relate to that, right?) which for me might mean heading out, despite the bitter Siberian wind, to the Organic market across town in search of unquestionably the best potatoes and parsnips to have ever crossed my lips.

The other inspiring missive to hit my in-box asked "How do you want it all to feel?"  And other than the instant and obvious "Warmer... duh", I was stuck... because... I don't really know. To some that might be alarming - to me, it's a relief because for once I don't know what's next - much less what's for dinner. And that's okay. In fact, that feels just right - much like the way something yummy in the oven smells when it's perfectly cooked - you don't need to look at your watch; you KNOW that chicken, batch of cookies, chocolate cake is ready, RIGHT NOW!  I like it when life feels that way too. So like a furry beast in hibernation I wait in the not knowing until it feels warm again, like springtime. 

What I do KNOW this cold grey morning is that the best cookbook to cross my path in a long, long time is TENDER, by Nigel Slater (an Englishman who knows his veggies). This book has made me feel like cooking vegetables in ways I'd never considered.  Take celery for instance.  Nigel has several very interesting dishes featuring Celery (which I'd never considered as more than a carrier for p-nut butter or blue cheese) that are really quite delicious. Like this dish:

Tender pg 216 (English version)
Baked Celery and it's Sauce
from Nigel Slater's Tender
enough for 6     Preheat oven to 350f /180 c
celery               2 plump heads, broken into individual ribs and trimmed and cut to the                          perfect length to lay width wise in your baking dish

small onion       1, peeled and sliced into thin rounds
bay leaves        a couple 
milk                 1 cup / 250ml  (hot)
butter              a generous 2 tablespoons / 45g
flour                a scant 2 tablespoons / 40g
Parmesan         1 - 2 cups (up to you really) freshly grated (2 handfuls)
flat parsley      about 1/3 cup, washed, dried and coarsely chopped 
bread crumbs   freshly made, not too fine (large handful)
salt & pepper   to taste
1)  In a large skillet:
Place the prepared celery, sliced onion, bay leaves, a few pepper corns and a little salt. Add barely enough water to cover. Poach over low heat until tender. About 15 minutes.

a gentle simmer does it
When the celery is tender, carefully lift it out of the poaching water with a slotted spoon and place it in your baking dish.  SAVE THE POACHING LIQUID.

2) In a separate pan, melt the butter over medium heat then add the flour, stirring constantly. the idea here is to cook the flour and lightly toast it to a golden color.
While stirring, add about 1/2 - 3/4 cup of the poaching liquid and the hot milk a little at a time until fully incorporated and you have a smooth sauce.

3) Stir in 3/4s of your Parmesan, turn down the heat as low as it can go and allow to simmer for at least 10 minutes (it's amazing how the flavor of the sauce changes) Now, I needed to add more poaching liquid to do this successfully... so mind your sauce!
Stir in the parsley.  Adjust seasoning. (remember that you will be topping this with bread crumbs and more cheese - both of which a salty) I forgot to add my parsley in the sauce - so put it in with the bread crumbs.

4) Pour sauce over the awaiting celery. Scatter with bread crumbs and cheese (which I mix together in a small bowl)

Your dish is now ready to pop in the pre-heated oven for about 40 minutes - or until it looks, smells and feels just right - you know, golden brown and bubbly.

 This dish goes very well with pork chops, a sturdy fish, a roast chicken or if you don't eat meats, serve it with potatoes.  We ate ours with boiled Yukon Golds and a garlicky green salad.

I'm trying hard not to Bah Humbug my way through this Valentines week from the depths of my unknowing - after all, I live in Paris; the city of love - n'est pas? 

 A Bientot,

In parting here's a really nice poem about love: (it is, after all, Valentines week)

   Who taught you to be sparing with your love
as though your heart was a bank
as though love could dry up

it is as if the ocean complained it was too wet
love is not fragile
it is as common as breath

it is play money
it is a race to give more

go first
say it with impunity

you think you will ache
with vulnerability
but the strangest thing will happen

you will nearly drown
with peace.


Virginia said...

My dear Zabie, now when I look at all of my Paris market photos, I think of you. I"m so glad we had time together in Paris. You are now one of my Paris treasures!

kittiepower said...

What a lovely poem. Thanks for including it.

Marie Z said...

Thank you SO much Virginia. I look forward to your return and a photo expedition together...

@ Kittiepower: I so enjoy the Bentlilly poems by Samantha Reynolds. This one in particular could not go unshared. Glad you liked it too.

ChaumiereLesIris said...

Lovely post. I adore Nigel Slater. He writes so well about food, and his recipes are robust & true: they work. Real Food got me through many years and sits dog-eared on my kitchen shelf, and Tender is on my books-I-want list.

Marie Z said...

Thankyou Tamsin... Nigels comforting dishes are getting us through the winter here in Paris. I'll have to check out Real Food. By the way, I sure enjoyed checking out your blog! I spent many a magical summer on the coast of Normandy as a young girl.