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Vegetarian on the Inside: It is big goopy tomato weather, but only March

March 22, 2011

This is my third spring here in Mississippi and I have to admit I haven’t quite gotten my head around it.
It’s like constitutional reform, progressing in fits and starts.
The mornings smell rich and musky and we’ve had a wonderful parade of blooms and fanfare over the last month. Also, the pollen is yellowing the light and covering everything in a thin film of virtue. Even the dog looks a bit golden today.
And yet there’s nothing to eat (imagine that in plaintive, 13-yr-old Alix voice, complete with a pitiful sigh). The weather is perfect for sitting on the back deck until bedtime. It’s heart-breakingly sweet peach weather. It’s big, goopy tomato weather. But, it’s also only March.
There’s not much besides the dregs of the winter crop. The only fresh-ish, local-ish produce is lettuce and leeks.
Yes, I was that weirdo in the grocery store furtively squeezing every single roma tomato in the store.
Meine Kameraden! We cannot continue to live off potato peelings and shriveled onions alone! Wir weben, wir weben! (ja, a shout-out to the Heine fans)
So here’s what we’re going to do comrades: we’re going to get this party started. Let the ruling classes tremble at the coming summer. We rise.
Which presents the very practical question of convincingly executing summer cooking with winter vegetables.
Or, continuing this theme of political reform: how do we drape our fledging republic with legitimacy recognized by the international community? Well, it’s all about hitting the right tone. Controlling the media. Tomato-ey without requiring fresh-off-the-vine tomatoes, let’s say.
The recipe that follows is a variation on a Catalan dish and a nice way to summerize your winter vegetables.
The romesco sauce can be made well ahead and refrigerated until mealtime.
The leeks can be made ahead too, though you’ll want them at least up to room temperature before serving.
This dish is perfect for a light summery dinner, leisurely consumed on the back deck as the sun sets, rounded out with a salad and a glass of white wine.
Almost makes you want to sit this one out and wait for the next revolution.

Leeks Romesco
Originally by Grace Parisi
of Food and Wine

Serves 4
Time: 1 hour total, 35 minutes active

Ingredients

1 small red pepper
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup unsalted almonds
1 loaf of crusty, firm white bread (sourdough is best), use about three slices to make 1/4-inch cubes without crusts and reserve the rest for serving
2 garlic cloves, smashed with the flat side of a large knife
2 plum (Roma) tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and coarsely chopped
3 tablespoons sherry vinegar (I used rice vinegar)
1/8-1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
salt
4-6 leeks, white and tender green parts only, washed and halved lengthwise
1/2 cup vegetable stock
4 oz. crumbled Garrotxa or other tangy, semi-soft goat cheese (optional)

So does everyone know the trick for peeling tomatoes? Boil a small pot of water, submerge the tomato in the water for 10 seconds, pull it out and rinse with cool water to stop the cooking, and peel! While you’re bringing your water to boil, lightly brush the bell pepper with olive oil and roast it as close to the broiler as you can get it, turning frequently. When it is charred all over, put it in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap for at least 15 minutes. Peel, de-seed, and coarsely chop as well as the tomatoes.
In a medium-sized skillet, heat 1 Tablespoon of olive oil over medium-high until shimmering. Add the almonds and cook, stirring constantly, until they begin to darken, about 5 minutes. Remove to a plate or bowl to cool. Add another 1 Tablespoon of olive oil to the skillet and cook the bread cubes over medium heat until golden, about 5 minutes. Remove to the plate with the almonds.
Add another 1 Tablespoon of olive oil to the pan and cook the bell pepper and garlic over medium heat until the garlic is lightly golden and starting to soften (take care not to burn it though; burned garlic tastes very sharp), about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook for another minute, until the mixture is sludgy.
In a food processor, chop the almonds into nearly a powder. Add the pepper-tomato mixture and process into a paste. Add the bread cubes and 1 Tablespoon of olive oil. Then, with the processor running, pour in about 1/4 cup olive oil gradually, until the mixture is an emulsion. Transfer to a bowl and stir in 1 Tablespoon of sherry vinegar, the cayenne, and salt to taste. The romesco sauce can be refrigerated for up to four days. I used leftovers for romesco-cheese sandwiches the following two days.
In a large deep skillet (my 12-inch cast iron skillet worked great), heat 2 Tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the leeks and, turning occasionally, cook until lightly brown and starting to soften. Add the chicken stock, 1 Tablespoon of sherry vinegar, and a dash of cayenne and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over medium heat until the leeks are tender, 10 to 12 minutes. Let the leeks cool and then drain any remaining stock.
Arrange the leeks on a platter and spoon half the romesco sauce on top. If you’re using cheese, crumble it on top. Serve the leeks with the crusty bread and remaining sauce on the side.

Alix Hui is an Assistant Professor of History at Mississippi State University. She can be contacted at alixhui@gmail.com.

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