Something pretty while you can

July 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

This doesn’t look very July; I know. A dinner mid-summer should be louder, shouldn’t it?, full of lavenders and purples, reds and yellows, oranges and golds. But summer’s produce has been holding back a little around here this year, and spring left us with a few stragglers—lively cutting celery and some particularly precious baby leeks—that hooked me completely at market last Sunday. Both usually keep to cooler times, but here they are, and it worked out that their timing was keener than I thought.

There was a night last week at dinnertime, when it felt like summer and I were at angles. I felt like a moody spring day, misty and gray, and summer’s eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes wouldn’t have felt quite right, anyway. Too sunny and bright, a bit like running into someone overly pleasant on a day that’s given you a run for it, and you know that under ordinary circumstances they’re probably delightful, but right then their cheer is just a reminder that you can’t find yours. So that night, wanting something delicate-tasting but comforting, something that I didn’t have to work very hard for, I took out the celery and the leeks and a few other things, and I made dinner.

I braised them in butter and a little olive oil with spring onions and zephyr squash, the kind with pale yellow necks that mottle into paler green at their ends, with some white wine I was glad I’d forgotten in the refrigerator drawer, and folded in parsley and tarragon to finish. I served it over cooked amaranth, which acts like a nuttier, glossier, more buttery-tasting sort of polenta (I learned this here), and after that, things were a little better.

On celery: Before I began finding celery at local markets, it was never an ingredient I cooked with out of anything other than necessity (gumbo.) A recipe would call for 1/2 a cup of celery, minced. I would buy a huge, unwieldy bunch at the grocery store, snap off one stalk for immediate purposes, and put the rest in the fridge, with no plans or intent for the rest of it, except stock, maybe. It was watery, stringy, pointless. I’m not even sure, writing that, why you’d use such an ingredient in the first place. It always contributed something, some inimitable flavor that made securing that largely unwanted celery necessary. But it wasn’t ever inspiring to cook with. And then I started finding it at local markets, and my whole celery-world changed. This celery was tender, sweet, crisp, and the leaves, so full of fragrance and potential—it was something I wanted, I mean really wanted, to cook with. And after years of cooking really good celery with a fever every time I can get my hands on it, I’ve realized it’s brilliant. Like Stravinsky, and maps. Except something you can eat, so better.

Ragout of summer squash, celery, spring onion and leeks

a tablespoon or so of butter, salted or not

1 tsp. extra-virgin olive oil

2 stalks cutting celery, diced

1 small red spring onion, diced

2 small, slender leeks or 1 larger one, halved or quartered, then chopped

2 small summer squashes, sliced into thin rounds

2 tablespoons white wine

1 sprig tarragon, chopped fine at the last minute

2 sprigs parsley, leaves removed and minced

sea salt to taste

In a saute pan or a dutch oven, heat the oil and the butter together over medium heat until the butter foams. Add the onion and leeks, a pinch of salt, and cook, partially covered, for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the wine, raise the heat slightly, and reduce for a couple of minutes more. Add celery and squash and another pinch of salt, cover, and braise gently for another 4-5 minutes, until the squash and celery are just tender. Fold in tarragon and parsley at the last minute. Finish with a few grinds of black pepper and a few more whole leaves of  tarragon after serving, just to be fussy.

Serve over amaranth or polenta or grits or, if you have it, alongside a good baguette. And something like La Tur, if you’re really feeling blue.

Serves 1.

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