Ohio has this neat thing called a Winter Weather Advisory. Probably, other places have it, too, but I never took note until we moved to the Midwest. Actually, my awareness of weather in general changed pretty substantially, right around then. Time was, I considered weather to be the lowest rung of conversational fodder. The dregs, the last-ditch, the thing that follows ummm... Weather was what you talked about after you exhausted "I like your shoelaces!" and "Thoughts on beige?"
I thought there was no there there. Really, I just grew up in the wrong state.
In Seattle, see, the weather doesn't change. Oh, I know it does, really it does. Forties in winter. Fifties in Spring. Seventies in Summer. If you're lucky. I know about this December's cold temps and last Summer's hundred-year hundred-degree day and the occasional completely debilitating snow. I know. I do.
It doesn't change.
I know, because I keep Columbus and Seattle weather, side by side, on my phone. Partly, I keep Seattle's clouds in the queue to see what sort of skies friends and family live under. Mostly, I do it to amuse myself.
Columbus, 5-day forecast: 7° 22° 56° 31° 70°
Seattle, 5-day forecast: 43° 45° 45° 43° 45°
Statistics were never my strong suit, but I'm pretty sure Ohio leaves Washington in the dust on the standard deviation front. (Or, for you fellow non-statisticians: If you find yourself in Seattle, searching for subject matter? Stick with shoe ties and neutrals.)
Thing is, dull unchanging is what I always thought weather was supposed to be. In the grand narrative that is a day, weather's the backdrop. The setting. Fixed. Given. Rare exceptions only proved the rule: snow is HUGE NEWS in Seattle precisely because it almost never happens. (An average street grade of 17% does add a certain something.)
Not so. Or, not so in Ohio. Weather here—maybe elsewhere, possibly most everywhere, save Seattle—is no backdrop at all, but a full-fledged character, often with a starring role. Had Shakespeare set his star-crossed lovers here, their tale would've been way less woeful. Juliet, all gung-ho to fetch her sleep potion, would've surely been stopped by some tornado siren. Or Romeo, on his way to mourn the not-dead J, would've checked the radar, been all DUDE, can't leave the house! Mercury's falling forty between now and nightfall! And by morning, she would've awoken again, and we'd skip the whole messy dagger bit, and have a good chortle over silly misunderstandings, and the play would be re-classed a comedy, and high school students the world over would no longer know how to define IRONY.
On second thought, Verona's probably a better setting. Where was I?
They're not much to look at, weather advisories, big blocks of illegible all caps text, poorly formatted and oddly arranged. But they're timely, and useful, and can contain truly juicy little tidbits. And I quote: "BRUTALLY COLD" and "WIND CHILLS... FALLING TO 30 TO 40 BELOW ZERO" and "ARCTIC AIR MOVING IN BEHIND THE STORM WILL USHER IN THE COLDEST WEATHER IN 20 YEARS." White, maybe. But not beige.
Did I mention that school cancellations, here, are not called "snow days" but "calamity days"?
Also, that tomorrow's purported first day back has, already, been called off? Also, that that was a direct quote from the National Weather Service's latest? Also, maybe no Tuesday, too?
So I thought, seeing as I may step out Monday morning to fetch the paper and FREEZEINSTANTANEOUSLYTOMYFRONTSTEP, that I'd best get you our break's best bits, a.s.a.p. To clarify: potholders are awesome; Emily's paper dolls, awesomer still; making either with Mamo, a slam-dunk. Also, candy wrappers worked in 1000 pieces and peculiar children inhabiting loops were recent excellent distractions. Fires, Kaplas, Legos, Games? Always best bits. But for our purposes here? The best bit falls squarely in the cream-braised leeks camp.
(There are those who might argue that on the food front, the Double Fried Egg + Tonkatsu + Cheddar Dagwood Deluxe won out soundly. I respect this opinion. And encourage those holding it to please apply for food scholarships now. Because if this is what breakfast looks like at eight, when this one hits the hungry years? I am toast.)
Braised leeks. That doesn't really start any engines, does it? Should I share that I think of these, privately, as Divine Revelation Leeks?
I mean, what comes to mind when you think about leeks? Do you think about leeks? Ever? Me, I mostly slide them into soup, maybe slip some into pasta, or softly scrambled eggs, and they're always lovely, but for the most part, they read like onions' lighter, kinder, user-friendly cousin. Nice.
I like nice. I really like magnificent.
These are magnificent leeks, the stuff of daydreams and anticipation. These are leeks cooked so slowly, so gently, they hold the better part of their long slender selves. These are leeks softened an hour and then some in a large slurp of broth and cream. Stippled with tarragon, brightened with salt, smartly exempted of anything else, these are leeks made lyrical. Unmuddled. Essential. Way beyond nice.
Because what happens, thanks to all that non-effort, is a mysterious and wonderful thing. The tough crisp leeks melt into the cream. Or maybe, the cream melts into the leeks? I'm not sure. Either way, the two exchange juices and souls and wind up in the end, somehow, as one. I can't quite explain the chemistry. I can only explain that a leek that buckles and slumps and weeps cream is a mystery worth entertaining.
Speaking of which: I've often reserved these for entertaining, serving them alongside the Christmas ham ever since Molly wrote them up, way back when. (Remember Molly, way back when? Before June? Before Brandon? Before the book, even? When the words were white, the background black? That girl's been surfacing gems for nearly a decade, now. Shouldn't there be an award for such things?) But holidays come with their own constraints, namely stomachs too snug to fit thirds.
This year, I finally came to my senses, and made a lunch of leeks, alone. Christmas had passed and snow was falling and we were housebound and it seemed a good fit. At the last minute, we added white rice, just under the crumple and tangle of leek. I originally thought it a compromise for the baguette we didn't have. Until I took a bite, and realized the rice had gone swoony in the anise-scented, allium-sweet cream. This got us talking about how said leeks would so flatter a side of salmon. And just how completely they would devastate a roast chicken. And how they would cook so companionably alongisde, in the same gentle oven, for the same length of time. And pretty soon, we were back where we began, squeezing them into one feast and another.
And truly? They merit a feast. But greedily? I liked my thirds. Either way? You won't be sorry.
Molly's original calls for chicken stock, and it is lovely. That said, I've used vegetable stock, and even plain old water (with a dash of extra salt), all with grand results. Use what's at hand. I prefer scattering salt directly over the leeks, as I find it distributes the flavor more evenly. I specify salt quantities here, as seasoning uncooked dishes with a "pinch" can be tricky. Still, taste when finished, and cast a few sea salt flakes over all, as needed.
So much depends on your leeks' personalities. We used six chubby, well-endowed leeks, by which I mean 1 1/4" leeks with a good 6" of white. Earlier, we used ten 1/2" Ebenezer leeks, by which I mean those with a mean 3" of white. Leeks vary wildly. Be flexible. Adjust your quantities of cream, stock and seasoning up or down, depending on useable bits. And know that no matter, this dish will soar. Extra tarragon cream is a wonderful thing.
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup good chicken broth, vegetable stock, or water*
3/4 tsp dried tarragon
1 teaspoon kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 375°
Trim roots and dark green tops from leeks, reserving the white and pale green stalk. Halve leeks lengthwise. Rinse each leek half under cool running water, fanning and taking care to wash away any dirt trapped between layers. Arrange leeks cut-side up in a shallow baking dish just large enough to hold them in a single layer. Scatter the teaspoon* of salt over all. *If using water or unsalted stock, increase salt by another two pinches.
In a small bowl, whisk together heavy cream, chicken broth (or stock, or water), tarragon (crush lightly between fingers, while adding, to release oils), and a few grinds of fresh pepper. Pour over leeks, cover with foil, and slide them into the preheated oven. Bake for 30 minutes, then remove foil, and using tongs, turn leeks over to uncut side. Return them to the oven, uncovered, and bake another 30 to 45 minutes, until they are bronzed and very tender and napped with sauce. Serve hot or warm.