Creatively using things in the fridge without anything additional or the help of a recipe is a favorite pass-time of mine. Some of my favorite culinary inspirations have been the result of this. (Fennel, carrot, and onion with paprika on couscous topped with poached egg and feta, for one. If you make this dish, by the way, pair it with a white wine from the Roussillon such as Loic Roure’s “Cours Toujours.”)
Last Sunday – Sundays being nights I often lose myself in the creation of a meal just for me – I undertook a round of use-those-ingredients. The majority of the ingredients on hand had been destined for an Ed Behr’s chicken legs braised in wine project that had been abandoned. The chicken legs had been relegated to the freezer, but the other ingredients were still in my fridge. I decided to make a leek and potato omelet, structurally along the lines of a Spanish tortilla but with the comforting flavors of potato leek soup, and grated carrot salad (“carotte rapée”).
The most onerous task in the preparation of this simple repast is the grating of the carrots; I’m proud to say I tackled it first and without procrastination. As I grated, my mind began to wander. Specifically, I started to think about my mother, who departed the planet nearly four years ago… very sad for me, also for the planet, a dull place without her.
My mother – a woman who never used a recipe to make a savory dish yet never attempted a desert without one – was a remarkable cook. I’ll never refer to her as a “chef” because she wasn’t. She was a professional baker for years, then she was a housewife who cooked for papa and me, then, when I reached middle school, she became a teacher who worked with Hispanic immigrant families in rural North Carolina. I spent much of my young life watching and emulating my mom in the kitchen.
I was not very old at all when she taught me how to roll out pastry dough (pate sucrée), one quarter turn for each sweep with the rolling pin, so the dough thins and stretches evenly. I was slightly older when she taught me how to kneed bread, fold, push down in the center with a well-floured palm. There were so many little tips to gather and remember: egg whites whip better in a copper bowl, cream in a chilled stainless steel one, use finely diced vegetables in a tomato sauce to give the textural impression of meat, throw sliced, hard-scrambled egg into a stir-fry to add protein, seal the rice pot closed with a sheet of waxed paper to keep the rice from turning soggy, no sudden moves or jumping when the soufflé or sponge cake is in the oven, the list goes on and on and on… Today, I consider that my culinary instincts are inherited from my mother; my instincts are, in fact, nothing more than a compilation of tidbits gleaned from her and stored away.
We ate a lot of carotte rapée when I was a kid, which is why the act of grating a carrot reminds me of my mom, though her carrot salad was not quite like mine. Hers was simply carrots and Italian parsley dressed with red wine vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper. I spoofilate my carrot salad a bit by adding some thinly sliced celery and dressing the whole business in shallot and grainy mustard vinaigrette. (Sometimes I have even been known to add a touch of mayonnaise; she’s turning in the grave.)
By the time I’d put the finishing touches on my carrot salad, I’d unintentionally accessed another mental file of memories of my mother. When I was a teenager, we began talking about wine. We’d traverse the isles at the local co-op, Weaver Street Market, which had a far better wine selection than the grocery store. Her wine proclivities presented themselves in a stream of consciousness fashion and were often paired with a facial expression. Comments about “a good Bordeaux” were accompanied by a grinding and bearing of the teeth. I later realized this face was evocative of Bordeaux’s firm tannins. “Mmmm Mor-GON” with emphasis heavily on the second syllable implied the superiority of Morgon to any other Beaujolais. “Cahors” was uttered in a wild, throaty undertone.
She liked solid, rustic red wine, high in acidity, tannic, not fruity. She liked wines that went with food and dining was the only context in which she drank wine. Long before I developed a taste for it, I asked what she found to like in the sour-tasting Chianti she would often buy for dinner. Her explanation wasn’t satisfactory, but I’d come to understand down the road that acidity in wine is always needed at the table to enliven the palate and contrast fat in the food.
New world wine never darkened the doors of my home growing up, and when I went through a brief affinity for Shiraz at the tender age of nineteen, she was plainly disgusted: “Yuck. How can you drink that sweet shit?” Oh! And she loved bubbles, even the ordinary Gruet Blanc de Noirs that became the family go-to when she discovered it was drier than comparably priced European bubbles. In a sense, even my wine instincts were heavily shaped by her. I’m fortunate, and I feel fortunate even when my memories inevitably lead me to her death and I recall feeding her little spoonfuls of Fromager d’Affinois washed down with sips of Pepière Muscadet a few days before the end of her life. Sigh.
Moving on, for the leek and potato omelet, I started with diced potatoes, sliced washed leeks, and half an onion also in small dice. Again, I thought of my mom telling me that a mixture of butter and olive oil works well for sautéing. The butter imparts its hedonistic flavor; olive oil raises the burning temperature. Season the whole business with salt and white pepper; black pepper not only tastes slightly different, it makes black splotches in a pan full of spring-like whites, pale greens, and (eventually) yellows. Never use garlic with potatoes and leeks; its pungency will take over and stifle the expression of the leeks. Once the base ingredients were cooked, I added beaten eggs, topped the whole business with a layer of Parmesan, and threw the pan in the oven to finish cooking. Results were good.
I usually dine alone; often, these days with a New Yorker open at the table. To be honest, I was very happy with this meal and I had just opened a bottle of 2010 Sauvignon Blanc “Le Roussignoux” from Christophe Foucher of La Lunotte, which put the finishing touches on my enjoyment of the moment.
La Lunotte is a small Domaine (5.5 hectares, some rented) in the Loire, on a south-facing bank of the Cher, to be more specific, close to Chinon and Touraine. Christophe Foucher came to winemaking because his wife’s family owned a few vineyards here; he began by helping his father-in-law in the vines. Then, as Bert from “Wine Terroirs” writes, he “got the virus.” As with many of my favorite vignerons, he went to winemaking school, where he was taught to use chemicals and inoculate with cultured yeast. He rejected these indoctrinations and sought to make wine more naturally. About half of Christophe’s vineyards are planted to Sauvignon Blanc, the rest to Menu Pineau, Gamay, Cot, and Cabernet Franc.
The first wine I loved from Christophe was his blend of Sauvignon and Menu Pineau called “Trio,” a mystifying name given that there are only two varieties in the blend. “Le Roussignoux,” from one of Christophe’s Sauvignon vineyards, shows some of the qualities of “Trio,” bracing acidity and minerality in an almost creamy, silken frame. I often think that Loire wines attain this type of balance from lack of filtration; there’s richness in part because there are – literally – very fine particles in the wine. The wine has a slight golden hue and is clearly allowed to come into contact with oxygen during the winemaking, in this case because Christophe uses old barrels for the élèvage. There is no sulfur added at any stage of the winemaking, but Christophe, like a number of Loire Valley vignerons, uses a sulfurous candle to cleanse the barrels between racking. (At the end of the day, I’d prefer barrels cleansed with a sulfur wick to wine with liquid sulfur added.) In a recent email, Christophe told us that 2010 “Le Roussignoux” had 29 milligrams total sulfur per liter. This is basically nothing. The wine has great character, the character of Sauvignon, also of terroir, also a bit of the character of the man and his style.
For the hundredth time, Proustian reflections led me through a series of ups and downs: the joy of creating a meal, the nostalgia brought about by memory, the sadness at the loss of a loved one… to a delicious glass of wine harmonizing with two simple dishes. I thought about instinct and the events that have made me a person who cares about the minutiae of food and wine. It sounds cheesy, but I was glad that these events had put me in contact with Christophe Foucher through his wine. Who knows? Perhaps my instincts in the kitchen are a bit like Christophe’s in the cellar…