Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Francophilic Lexicon, Part Deux

One thing I enjoy living where I do is that the place is lousy with serious cooks. I had never experienced dinner party as competitive (albeit friendly) sport until moving to Columbia County, and similarly, have never found so many knowledgeable foodophiles lurking beneath unassuming exteriors. I recently had the pleasure of working with a lovely carpenter to build shelves and such in our home offices; turns out, he's a chef. When I gifted him with some fresh eggs from our hens, he responded by emailing me the list of delights he'd created with them (some for a slightly unappreciative audience: his young daughters.) The list included bourride (a fish soup thickened with aioli), and he attributed his version to Richard Olney. His incredulity at my ignorance of this influential cook led him to lend me Olney's Simple French Food,and I've been cooking from it ever since.

My affection for Olney has expanded my lexicon. Mangetout has a new rival for best French food name: pois chiches, aka chick peas. Who could resist such an adorable name for the earthy, peasant food staple? Sometimes, in the heady days of summer bounty, I forget that I don't have to cook vegetables in stand alone preparations--it's more than ok to raid the larder for staples to complement, even exalt, the fresh produce. But Olney's recipe for Gratin de Pois-Chiches aux Épinards stopped me mid-read. I love chickpeas (and not just for their newly-revealed charming French name.) I soak and cook them myself rather than buy them canned and the (slight) effort is well worth the tastier, better-textured result. With a giant bag of CSA greens (beet, turnip and chard) lurking in the fridge, I got to work and came up with this. It's fabulous hot, warm or even out of the fridge, and would be a great addition to a dinner party when you know you have vegetarians on the guest list, but don't want to serve a completely vegetarian menu. It would accompany grilled lamb, sausages or even shrimp beautifully, but with some crusty bread and a green salad, is also a filling and delicious main course.

This recipe has a few steps, but they're all easy. Nothing needs a lot of fussing or attention. I served this last night with one of my favorite salads: arugula, shaved parmesan, a drizzle of great olive oil (no vinegar), a sprinkle of Maldon salt, and a grind of pepper. To make this salad, you need great ingredients: farm fresh arugula, and high quality cheese and oil. Locally, check out the wonderful olive oils at Bizalion's. For parmesan, you can't do much better than Rubiner's. Bon appétit!

Provencal Chick Pea and Greens Gratin
(serves 4 as a main dish; 6 or more as a side dish)

1-2 pounds greens (beet, chard, spinach or turnip will all work--more or less is fine, depending upon what you have in your fridge)
kosher salt
2-3 cups dried chickpeas (again, more or less is fine--this recipe doesn't demand precision, for the most part)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 t dried thyme
1 bay leaf
1 onion, peeled and stuck with 2 cloves
1 chile de arbol (optional)
4 T extra virgin olive oil, divided (plus more for serving)
1 28 oz. can chopped tomatoes, drained
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 c. chopped flat leaf parsley
1/2 t dried savory
1 T raw almond butter
2 hard boiled eggs
1/8 t cayenned pepper
1/8 t saffron
freshly ground pepper
3/4 c. fresh bread crumbs

Soak the chickpeas in plenty of cold water with the baking soda added for at least four hours or overnight. (Make sure to pick them over a bit for stones.) Drain off the water, rinse, and then recover with several inches of fresh water. Add the thyme, bay leaf, onion with cloves, chile de arbol and a generous pinch of salt, and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer until tender, usually about one and a half to two hours. You can do this the day before; if you do, you might as well make extra chickpeas for salads, making hummus, etc. When they're done, drain off the liquid and reserve it.

Bring a large quantity of water and a teaspoon of salt to boil in a big pot. Add the greens and blanch for three minutes, then drain, reserving a cup of the cooking water (you can add it to the reserved chick pea water.) Coarsely chop the drained greens.

If you haven't already, combine the drained chickpea cooking water and the greens cooking water and bring to a boil; simmer until slightly thickened and reduced to about one cup. If the liquid seems to be getting too salty, stop reducing. Skim off any foam that forms on the surface. Set aside the liquid.

In a skillet, heat 2 T olive oil and gently stew the garlic and tomatoes in it, along with the savory and parsley. Keep the pan on low heat for about fifteen minutes to allow the flavor to meld. Meanwhile, in a food processor or with mortar and pestle, combine the almond butter, egg yolks from the hard boiled eggs, cayenne and saffron into a firm paste. Slice the egg whites into thin slices across their length.

Combine the chickpeas, reduced cooking liquids, tomato mixture, egg and almond paste and egg whites and bring to a simmer. Crush a few of the chickpeas with a wooden spoon to thicken the stew. The mixture should be thick, not soupy. If it seems too liquid, let it reduce a bit. Stir in the greens, and a couple of grinds of fresh pepper, and turn the mixture into a gratin dish (I use an oval baking dish about 15 inches long.) Combine the bread crumbs with 2 T olive oil and sprinkle atop the dish. Bake for 30 minutes. Serve hot or room temperature, and offer more high quality olive oil to drizzle on top when served.

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