LIFE GOES ON, and I write about food. It feels a little strange, after the outpouring of charity on the Helping Haiti post (and with haunting images of earthquake rubble still in my mind), to return to a celebratory meal, and yet . . . It’s also true that the best thing to do—once you’ve paused to acknowledge tragedy and to help in whatever way you’re able—is sometimes simply to carry on with your life. To separate yourself from the rawness of someone else’s (or even a nation’s) devastation, because this is what it means to live in the world: there is always joy somewhere, in the same moment as there are tears. There is always something being created, while something else is brought down. What good am I at performing the immediate tasks required of me (caring for my son, feeding my family) if I let myself go catatonic in response to all the bad news out there?
So I return to the food. To my father’s birthday lunch, which seems like it happened a long time ago now, despite the fact that it was just last week. As you know if you read my cornbread post, the meal planning started there. I’m not sure what exactly compelled me to move on to quiche, eventually creating this recipe, but I’m glad that I did. I think it was some lovely leeks I found at the Union Square Greenmarket. They were winking at me in the winter sunlight.
Now usually, I do not make quiche; it’s my husband’s domain. He is French, après tout, and he has his mother’s recipe, and he’s been making darn good quiches for years. A bit traditional—you know, ham and cheese, Lorraine-style—but so good that he would get regular requests for them from the staff at my son’s preschool. For years, my husband fed them all quiche. His quiches have accompanied us on countless picnics and camping trips, too. I remember eating miniature ones in the sunshine on the peak of Slide Mountain in the Catskills, one weekend before my son was born and right after 9/11. They were the ultimate comfort food then.
Anyway, I had the leeks. I had some feta in the fridge, too, because—well, because I always have feta in the fridge. Leeks, cheese . . . and I remembered that one of the first cookbooks my parents ever gave me was a collection of classic French country home cooking recipes. I had the book in college, and it was that book that introduced me to leeks via a “Flamiche” or “Tarte aux poireaux” recipe (yes, I know this is Belgian in origin, but it was in the book). Until that recipe, I had no idea leeks even existed. I got to thinking about that tart and about leeks and about how maybe I could make inroads to my husband’s territory, carve out a little space for myself in there, too. After all, how far removed is quiche from a pita—that excellent phyllo-wrapped “pie” that Greeks know how to make so well, adapting it according to whatever ingredients are available. I took the base from my mother-in-law’s recipe and let it rip.
What resulted is pretty delicious, if I may say so, and it truly feels like mine: a mish-mash of ethnicities that come together, somehow, into something new and worthy. For my father’s birthday meal, I made individual quiches instead of one large one, and I served it with a salad of wild arugula on the side. I’m happy to say that the guest of honor enjoyed every bite. I hope you will, too.
Postscript: The ultimate triumph came when I made the recipe again as a bon voyage meal, the day my husband was set to leave on a business trip to France. Although he does not usually like messing with tradition, he had a generous second helping of this quiche and pronounced it “bonne.” From a Frenchman, what more do you need?
Leek, Lemon & Feta Quiche . . . with Ouzo
While a leek quiche seems indisputably French, this recipe brings a Hellenic “Opa!” to your table with the addition of lemon, feta, and a hint of ouzo, the classic Greek aperitif. The ouzo is optional, but highly recommended. In a small dose, it brings a subtle sweet anise flavor that balances the sharp saltiness of the feta. With a fresh grating of lemon zest to brighten everything up, this quiche becomes light and cheerful, not at all heavy as some quiches can be. It’s perfect for a casual celebration meal, a Sunday brunch, or lunch to go. If you’re cooking just for one, make individual-size quiches and freeze some for later; you’ll be glad to have them on hand.
Yield: 1 large quiche, or 4 individual-size quiches
1 sheet frozen puff pastry
1 pound leeks
2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup half-and-half
1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons ouzo (optional)
2-1/2 ounces feta cheese, cut into 4 (approx 1/2-inch) slices
Preheat oven to 375F. Thaw puff pastry according to package directions.
Prepare the leeks. Rise off any visible dirt and slice the roots from the end. Remove the dark green tops, leaving a couple inches of light green with the white portion of the leeks. (The dark trimmings can be reserved for another use, adding them to a vegetable or chicken stock, for example.) Halve the leeks lengthwise, then cut crosswise in 1/2-inch slices. Dump the slices in a colander or salad spinner and rinse thoroughly; if you don’t, you risk having a gritty, sandy quiche, as leeks often hide dirt deep in their layers. Let the leeks drain well, or spin dry.
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat until it shimmers. Add the leeks and cook until they are wilted; don’t cook them so much that they give off liquid. Turn off the heat and let sit.
In a mixing bowl or large measuring cup, using a whisk or fork, beat together the half-and-half, eggs, lemon zest, salt and pepper. Add the ouzo, if using.
Prepare the pastry crusts. On a lightly floured surface, or between two layers of plastic wrap or parchment paper, roll out the thawed puff pastry to a thickness of about 1/4 inch. Line a shallow pie plate or cut the pastry into four circles to fill individual baking dishes. Press the pastry up the sides to make a nice edge.
Fill the quiches. Distribute the leeks evenly across the bottom of the dish(es). Pour the milk mixture over the leeks. Top the quiche(s) with the slices of feta. (If you have feta that crumbles apart, don’t worry, just sprinkle it on top.)
Bake 30-40 minutes, depending on size of the quiche(s). The center should be solid and the crust and top nicely browned. Let the quiche cool for at least 10 minutes before serving. The quiches taste great hot, room temperature, even cold.
A simple green salad and a glass of chilled assyrtiko from award-winning Domaine Sigalas in Santorini, Greece.
Omnivores may want to dice 1 package of Canadian bacon (about 8 slices) and add it to the quiche at the same time as the sauteed leeks. I’ve tried it this way, too, and it’s just as nice.