05 March 2007

Stand By Me

We all have them, those stand by recipes that we make without thinking, our hands instinctively reaching for the salt at just the right moment, trimming vegetables while our mind wanders to other things, soothed by the methodical chopping motion of the wrist. Over the years, a good side dish recipe becomes part of your arsenal, easy enough for an average dinner but also good enough to be rolled out at a holiday or fancy party, alongside other dishes.

These two recipes are part of my arsenal, and while neither are dead-simple, they are definitely tasty enough to warrant the little extra time. Carrots and cumin are natural partners, and this recipe alone is the reason I keep whole cumin seeds stocked in my pantry. Once you've made it a couple times, you'll get find it easy to reproduce from memory without the need for a recipe.

I once had braised leeks at a friend of my mother's house and immediately became enamored, ok, I'll admit, obsessed, with them. It took me quite a few tries to get my leeks to be as silky and soft as those first ones I had, but in the end the final recipe also turned out to be the easiest one. I love these leeks so much that I often eat a huge pile of them, with some bread and cheese, as my lunch or dinner.

Carrots with Cumin and Orange
The combination of carrots, cumin, and orange is classic in Algerian and Moroccan cuisine. This recipe is a French interpretation of those flavors, adapted from Patricia Wells' "The Paris Cookbook."

2 lbs carrots, peeed and sliced into rounds
2 tbl cumin seeds
1 large garlic clove, sliced
1 tsp sugar or honey
1/3 cup fresh orange juice
1-2 tbl butter

1. Toast the cumin seeds: Heat a small nonstick skillet over medium heat for 2 minutes. Add the cumin and toast, stirring and shaking the pan constantly to prevent burning. Watch carefully, for the seeds will brown quickly. (Lower the heat if the cumin appears to be browning too quickly.) Toast just until the cumin fills the kitchen with its fragrance and turns dark brown, about 4 minutes total. Immediately
transfer the cumin seeds to a plate to cool.
2. In a large skillet, heat some oil over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking. Add the carrots, garlic, sugar and toasted cumin seeds, stirring to coat. Add enough water to cover the carrots by half and salt to taste.
3. Partially cover the carrots, either with a lid set askew or a piece of greased parchment with some holes poked in it. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce to a simmer and cook for 25 minutes. Add the orange juice and cook over low heat, uncovered, stirring from time to time, until almost all of the liquid has evaporated, about 10 minutes. At serving time, stir in the butter. Taste for seasoning and serve.

Braised Leeks
Adapted from Julia Child and Margaret

6 large leeks, green parts and root ends trimmed
4 tbl butter
4 cups stock or water

1. Preheat the oven to 400 F. Halve the leeks and carefully wash any grit from inside the leaves. Arrange the leeks tightly in an oven-proof braising or roasting dish.
2. Fill a saucepan with the stock or water and add the butter and salt to taste (I find if I am using good stock I need only a tablespoon of butter, but if I'm using plain water I want more butter, your choice). Bring the liquid to a simmer, stirring so the butter melts, then pour over the leeks in the pan so that the leeks are half-way submerged. Add more water if necessary. Cover the dish very tightly with foil and transfer to the oven. Braise for one hour.
3. Remove the foil from the dish and return to the oven. Braise for another 30-45 minutes, stirring occaisionally, until the leeks are golden and the liquid is reduced to a glaze.

*You can also do the first half of the braise on the stove top, stradling the covered pan over two burners on very low heat, then uncover and transfer to the oven for the final braise.

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