Le Tour & Turnip Soup

July 3, 2011

When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race.
~H.G. Wells

Please excuse my exuberance, but it’s that time of year again.

Yesterday was the grand départ of this year’s ever epic Tour de France —3,430.5 grueling kilometres (2,131.6 mi) over three weeks. Customarily, the Tour has begun with a prologue stage where riders raced solely against the clock. In a break with tradition, the organizers opened with a road stage on the Atlantic seaboard which proved fairly flat but closed with an undulating finish and a brief, yet deceptively arduous, climb. A route which favored riders who can unleash rapid, potent bursts of uphill acceleration.

The supple grace, suffering, precision and outright speed of the team trial was held today…a precise race against the clock, and a reminder to even the most casual observers that the Tour de France is a team sport. Sheer beauty on wheels.

The Tour’s field now heads into Bretagne (Brittany), an almost mystical region defined by the sea and perched on the northwest tip of France. Bretagne stands apart from the rest of France, its peninsular thumb jutting into the blue, separating the English Channel from the Bay of Biscay. The modern administrative region roughly silhouettes the historic province, and is now comprised of the départements of Côtes-d’Armor, Finistère, Ille-et-Vilaine and Morbihan.

Although inhabited by peoples as early as 8,000 BCE and conquered by Romans who occupied the region for several centuries, Brittany’s true birth was forged during the Dark Ages. Then, waves of Irish, Welsh and English immigrants (Bretons) “invaded” and profoundly altered the character of the peninsula, which became Bretagne. They spread their own brand of religion as well as a fiercely insular, sometimes resentful, spirit. A wary sensitivity about their environs. This ruggedly independent attitude is reinforced by landscape—a land which boasts a staggering 1,700 miles of contorted coastline characterized by windswept cliffs, capes, islands, and rocky ports, many with ominous sounding names. While the seascapes tend to be dramatic, the landscapes inland are more mellow. The interior lies on the Argoat plateau (wood country) where small farm plots are surrounded by hedgerows, a patchwork known as the bocage.

The sea’s and land’s bounties are jealously guarded yet so copiously displayed at local markets. A cornucopia of varied flat fish, oysters, sea urchins, scallops, mussels, whelks, langoustines, crevettes, lobsters and crabs rest on ice. Other stalls brim with produce grown on the Argoat farmlands: cauliflower, onions, peas, turnips, cabbages, white beans, and the omnipresent Breton artichokes. Also displayed are lamb raised on nearby salt marshes, along with prized chickens, geese, regional sausages and various offal. Farmers sell fresh milk and the region’s esteemed butter, apples from the Argoat orchards, strawberries from Plougastel, and famed new potatoes from the inland sandy flats.

POTAGE AUX NAVETS BLANCS (TURNIP SOUP)

3 T unsalted butter
2 leeks, thinly sliced (white and pale green parts only)
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and thinly sliced

5 medium white turnips (about 2 1/2 lbs), peeled, cut into 1/2″ slices
1 medium russet potato, peeled, cut into 1/2″ slices
5 C+ chicken broth

1 3/4 C whole milk
1/4 C whipping cream
Grating of nutmeg

1 turnip, peeled, cut into small matchstick julienne

Fresh fennel fronds, chopped

Melt butter in heavy large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add leeks and onion and sauté until onion is translucent, about 10-12 minutes. Add turnips and potato and sauté 2 minutes. Add broth and bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium low and simmer until vegetables are very tender, about 30 minutes.

Purée soup in processor or blender in batches until very smooth, then return to Dutch oven. Add milk and cream and bring to a simmer. Season to taste with nutmeg, salt and pepper.

Cook julienned turnips in pot of boiling salted water until just tender yet crisp, about 2 minutes. Drain.

Bring soup to simmer, thinning with more broth if necessary. Ladle into bowls and garnish with turnip strips and chopped fresh fennel.

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Eat leeks in March and wild garlic in May, and all year after physicians may play
~Old Welsh Rhyme/Proverb

The leek, Allium porrum, is a member of the onion family, but the flavor is much more refined, subtle, and sweet than the standard onion. Thought to be native to Mediterranean and/or Asian regions, leeks have been cultivated at least since the time of ancient Egyptians and are depicted in tomb paintings from that era. The Romans worshipped leeks, and Emperor Nero consumed so many he earned the name Porrophagus (leek eater) among his other more deservedly derisive nicknames; he posited that eating leeks would improve his singing voice.

Together, leeks and daffodils form the national emblem of Wales.

Leeks have long graced European tables in varying forms. During the last century, leeks began to curry favor in America, and are now an ever more utilized and prized culinary element now readily available in markets throughout the year.

In France, the leek is known as un poireau, which is ironically also used as a derogatory term meaning “simpleton”—a far cry from the truly sophisticated character of this critter.

Leeks are cultivated in spring, summer, autumn and winter months. They thrive in cooler climes and are tolerant to frost, which explains their popularity as a winter vegetable. However, late spring baby leeks are preferred here as they have yet to have become too fibrous—an affliction which occassionally plagues the larger, late season plants.

During the growing process, sandy soil is piled up around the base of the leek to encourage a long, thin, white base. This method makes them a dirt sponge, so cleaning them thoroughly is crucial or your guests will be treated to a gritty dish. Remove any tired or damaged outer leaves. Trim the rootlets at the base and cut off around a half to two thirds of the dark green tops. Slice the leeks down the center and rinse under cold running water to remove all dirt and sand, being careful to get in between the leaves; then drain on paper towels.

Overcooking leeks will render them slimy and mushy. So, they should be cooked until tender but still exert a little resistance when pierced.

Below are indoor and outdoor versions of this green jewel. In later posts, I will address other ways to play with this green, such as leek soup.

BRAISED LEEKS

6 large leeks
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
5 T extra virgin olive oil
1 C shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
1 T thyme leaves or 1/2 T dried thyme
1/2 C dry white wine
2 C chicken stock

Preheat oven to 400

Peel any bruised outer layers from leeks. Trim rootlets, leaving root end intact. Trim off tops on diagonal, leaving two inches of green. Cut in half lengthwise. Rinse thoroughly in cold water to remove internal grit. Dry on paper towels.

With cut sides up, liberally season with salt and pepper. Heat 3 T oil in heavy saute pan over medium high heat for 2 minutes. Place leeks cut side down in pan without crowding them. Cook in batches, if necessary. Sear 4 to 5 minutes, until lightly golden, and then turn over to cook 3 to 4 minutes more. Transfer, cut side up, to a gratin dish that will fit leeks.

Pour 2 T oil into pan and heat over medium heat. Add shallots, thyme, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Cook about 5 minutes, until just beginning to color. Add wine and reduce by half. Add stock, and bring to a gentle boil over high heat. Pour over leeks, without quite covering them.

Braise in oven 30 minutes, until tender.

GRILLED LEEKS I

4-6 leeks
Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Prepare, clean and slice leeks as above.

Preheat charcoal grill to medium high heat. Hold your open hand about three inches above the hot grate with the coals already spread and count to 3 seconds before the pain demands you retract (see On Grilling).

Place leeks cut side down diagonally on grill for several minutes until lightly browned. Turn leeks over again on the diagonal and grill for a few minutes more until brown. Remove and lightly salt and pepper (as they are preferred au naturel here, I omit this seasoning step.)

GRILLED LEEKS II

2 C white wine
2 C stock
4 cloves garlic, smashed
2 shallots, coarsely chopped
2 T butter
4-6 leeks

1 C olive oil
1/4 C red wine vinegar
4 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped

Prepare and clean leeks as above, but do not slice.

In a heavy saucepan, saute garlic and shallots in butter for a minute or so—do not burn. Bring white wine and stock to a simmer, and then add leeks and braise for 10 minutes; remove and let cool, then slice lengthwise. Whisk together the olive oil, red wine vinegar and garlic in a large bowl, and the leeks and let marinate 1 hour.

Meanwhile, preheat charcoal grill to medium high heat. Hold your open hand about three inches above the hot grate with the coals already spread and count to 3 seconds before the pain demands you retract (see On Grilling).

Place leeks cut side down diagonally on grill for several minutes until lightly browned. Turn leeks over again on the diagonal and grill for a couple minutes more until brown.