February 20, 2014 § Leave a comment
I almost posted this entry without a photograph. The first night, when I decided, last-minute, as is my habit, that this dish might prove a nice blog post, I photographed in such a careless hurry, that I was too embarrassed to use any of the shots. At first I had planned to use them anyway, picked the least out-of-focus, bizarrely angled one and threw it up on the page. I rationalized that it wasn’t really that bad, kind of an instagrammed shot in tepid yellow light, and then I decided it was just kind of innocuous, and then I realized it was just kind of bad, but that was okay, too, I’m not trying to win any photography awards, blah, blah, blah. And then I went trotting around on the internet, reading some really lovely blogs I adore, and I came back here to finish up this post, and I couldn’t do it. I drafted a long, obnoxious post about the evolution of photography on food blogs, then deleted it upon reading it the next day, somewhat revolted by how obnoxious it was.
One point worth salvaging was that I am amazingly shallow when it comes to the food I’m eating. I enjoy it more when it’s beautiful—or handsome, at least, and I know good and well that if it’s good looking, I give it a pass if it’s a mite underseasoned. I’d like to say this bias stems from the fact food’s appearance often conveys so much—quality of ingredients, care of preparation. But it doesn’t always tell the whole picture, and sometimes it’s a worthless metric. I’d love, for instance, to just write about the sounds the caraway seeds in this dish will make as they toast, tink tink-ing against metal as I shake them around in a pot; or their fragrance, like a floral resin, as they warm, and how the dish emerges from the oven, wholly transformed, crusty bits of bread caramelized to the edge of the pot, the frizzly ribbons of cabbage on the surface, burnished to a near sable from the broiler, the broth reduced and glistening like syrup, and for a reader’s imagination to fill the voids. When I’m writing about a dish whose looks don’t speak adequately to its merits this reader homework would be especially handy. But I also know how nice it is for the words and photographs to nod along together. So, reeking of contradictions and wanting everyone else to really love this dish, too, I re-made it for lunch, and took some photographs in natural light, which seems to be my only saving grace since I refuse to spend any time on learning how to photograph well, and now I feel even more shallow, but kind of gratified, too.
This dish, a bread and cabbage soup nipped with caraway and thyme, happened the first time around because we had half a head of savoy cabbage whose ruffles were starting to scowl, and half a loaf of spelt bread that was losing its purpose. Bread soups, panades, bread gratins or tians, bread pudding, eh, what have you—claim their own category of preparation in my cooking, like pasta, soup, stuff on grits, stuff on toast. Ever since I tasted acorda, the Portuguese bread soup cooked to a silken pap, studded with shellfish, and almost defiantly liberal amounts of cilantro and garlic, I have been fanatical about the dishes that come out of cooking stale bread. I’m consistently inspired by the diversity of dishes that can result from a change of cooking liquid, style of bread, ingredients, baking dish, mode of cooking, etc., etc., and also the absolute gratification that comes about making use of an entire loaf of bread. Sometimes croutons pitch in for the job, other times bread crumbs, or the aforementioned stuff on toast, which never lets us down. But bread soups are something special.
Over the years I’ve accumulated a host of favorites that I use for guidance—Judi Rodgers’ famous chard and onion panade, and a lovely red onion and wine panade in the original Chez Panisse cookbook written by one of the restaurant’s early chefs, Paul Bertolli, both of which emerge from the oven with utterly succulent interiors and near-caramelized tops; a soothing long-simmered onion and tomato soup full of soft textures in Micol Negrin’s wonderful Rustico, all done on the stovetop and reminiscent to me of acorda, and a cabbage and bread soup in the same book, layered with Alpine cheese. This version was modeled after the last, with the addition of caraway, substitution of a vegetable stock made with dried porcini mushrooms in lieu of the meat stock she calls for in the recipe, and the subtraction of the cheese, which, having made it before precisely, the resulting dish truly didn’t seem to miss. As it was it was stick-to-your-ribs-lite, the earthy flavors of the cabbage and whole-spelt bread softened and rounded out by sweet onions and gentle cooking. It tasted like February, on its best behavior. We could have shared another serving, but perhaps it’s good we didn’t. These things, anyway, kind of smack of being grateful for what you have, and for having the know-how to make the most of them. Sometimes just enough is the just the right amount.
Cabbage and bread soup with caraway, adapted from a recipe in Micol Negrin’s Rustico
This dish comes out soupy, thick, creamy, no matter what, but the texture will be creamier, more supple, the fewer days your bread has on it. We used a whole-spelt bread several days old the first time, and a regular levain bread just one day old the second time. The last was creamier and more supple in texture, more like a quick-acting panade, but I preferred the heartier, nutty, whole-grain aspect of the spelt version. More character, more delicious.
1/2 head savoy cabbage, roughly chopped
1/2 yellow onion, thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, crushed or thinly sliced
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus 2 extra teaspoons (or substitute 2 teaspoons butter)
5 ounces whole-spelt, rye, or levain bread, without crust, a day or a few old
1/2 t caraway seeds, toasted over medium heat until fragrant (omit if using caraway rye bread)
leaves from 1 branch thyme
sea salt and black pepper to taste
2 1/2 cups vegetable broth, made by simmering a few sprigs of parsley, a chopped carrot, a quarter of a chopped onion, green tops of a leek, a bay leaf, a few dried porcini mushrooms, and a pinch of salt in 3-4 cups of water for 30-40 minutes
Heat the oven to 425. Cut or tear the bread into approximately 1″ pieces, and toast them in a single layer in the oven for about 5 minutes, until fragrant but not dry. Set aside.
Saute onion in olive oil over medium heat until translucent and beginning to turn gold at the edges, 7 or 8 minutes. Add the thyme, garlic, and a turn or two of black pepper and cook another minute or two. Add the cabbage, 1/2 t salt and a few tablespoons of the stock and stir to coat the cabbage with the oil and stock. Reduce the heat and allow it to braise lightly, adding more stock as necessary if your cabbage is less juicy to start with, until it’s tender, bright in color and lightly plumped, 5-10 minutes. Taste for salt and pepper; the cabbage should be well-seasoned. Remove from heat and partially cover.
To assemble the soup, layer about half the bread in a small casserole or Dutch oven (I favor my little Staub cocotte). Cover with about half the cabbage, then the remaining bread and the last of the cabbage. I like to muss the top layer a bit so it’s more like a mosaic of bread and cabbage. Now pour in the 2 cups of stock (you may have some left over), pouring in concentric circles, first around the edges of the dish and into the center, than back out again, so that everything is moist. Drizzle with the additional olive oil (or dot with butter), and bake, uncovered, for about 15 minutes, then use a spatula to press the top down so that it’s basted by the liquid. Return to the oven for 15-20 minutes more, until the top is golden and caramelized in parts. A 5- to 10-minute rest before serving doesn’t hurt. Ladle into bowls and serve hot.
December 16, 2013 § Leave a comment
I don’t remember exactly when it started, but sometime after I finished college, soon after I started cooking for myself in my own place, I began writing my menus out each week. I suspect I read about this practice in a magazine somewhere, that doing this sort of thing would help keep you organized, and I am a sucker for anything that promises streamlines. Fifteen years later, after periodically and temporarily following myriad tips and tricks from organized people about how to organize oneself, I am still tremendously disorganized. But I still make menu plans, using the same college-ruled, yellow legal pads I used when first began. I still list the intended courses and accompaniments (when there are such elaborations), I still write in cursive. But a few things have changed: I am no longer freakishly disciplined about following them, and my handwriting has gone to crap.
In those days I rarely cooked the same thing twice, or off the cuff. Tried-and-true was not in my vocabulary. I did have a routine I rarely deviated from: Saturday mornings I would go for a long run, early, because that’s how normal girls have fun in their early 20s, I would come home and clean up, and after that I would sit in front of my cookbooks-only bookshelf, my perimeter surrounded by splayed-open books, dog-eared issues of Gourmet, Food & Wine, and Saveur, one of those legal notepads, a grocery list, and a pen. I would plan out my menus for the week, relatively elaborate dinners that would have me in the kitchen for 2-3 hours a night, usually with the Golden Girls, Friends, and Seinfeld reruns going in the background. Then I would drive to the store, our Whole Foods before Whole Foods, or, a few years in, the farmers market, and I would stick to that menu every night of the week. If you’re wondering, no, I didn’t have many friends in those days. The first couple of years out of college, although it certainly wasn’t bullet-proof, I kept from feeling alone by cooking. And I learned a lot about preparing food, living so many hours in the kitchen. If my life was a little unbalanced, I’m grateful, in ways, that I was so adventurous in the kitchen, that I did give cooking such weight. It helped me to build a repertoire and enough confidence to eventually cook from my own whims.
I still plan meals ahead, to some extent, in part for those days when my brain is capable of synthesizing ingredients only to the extent of bread + cheese (which = delicious grilled cheese if your fiancé is not a vegan), and in part to justify the ceaseless trickle of cookbooks into our home and the stack of to-read food-centric periodicals that never seems to die. I also find the process entertaining, and it’s a way to record flashes of inspiration that don’t stand a chance if I don’t write them down. But I am less likely these days to follow my notes to the letter. In those early days, I planned menus to ensure that I would try as many new things as possible, to keep track of the so very many things I wanted to cook. I still care about those things, but it’s also important to me now to cook spontaneously sometimes, to use what I know to cook exactly what I have a taste for, in whatever moment it is. I think in cooking there’s little else more gratifying than that.
Flash forward to this soup, which came out of a desire to get back to a book of short stories I’ve been reading as quickly as possible, use up a few things in the fridge that were starting to bark, and mend things with my body, still in a sugar reel from the meringue-topped lemon tart I ate on Friday that was so obscenely delicious I finished the whole thing without swearing at myself. Soup-making is such a fluid, therapeutic process, and we’ve been eating a lot of it lately. It offers big returns for just a little inspiration, and it’s forgiving, usually, unless it is a cream soup that you reheat past boiling because you’re trying to multitask, always unadvisable when reheating pureed soups, in which case it fumes and then holds a grudge. This one was not at all fussy—it came together in about an hour, and it was fairly selfless, asking for only two pots for itself. No wait. Three? Well, that sounds like a lot, but it was worth it. I mean, I didn’t do the dishes, but it seemed that way.
Barley, lentil, and celery root soup with yellowfoot chanterelles
I had the lentils for this dish already made, leftover from something else, or I might have used a bit more. You could easily double the amount for something even heartier, but the proportions as is were about right to my taste. Otherwise, cooking and steeping the lentils and steeping the porcinis take a little hands-off time, but if you get them started they’ll take care of themselves while you see to other, non-cooking things.
December 5, 2013 § Leave a comment
I’ve been eating a good bit of things out of jars lately. Things like raspberry jam and tupelo honey, little half bites with a spoon, standing up, of course, in front of an open fridge door or the cupboard—this being how we eat things we’re not committed to and feel faintly ridiculous about, like having condiments for a snack. (Joey Tribbiani, on the other hand, can plow through a full pint jar of jam at the table, and bonus points if you remember that episode. Friends, 1996. I’ve tried desperately to find a clip online, but the internet is good for nothing.) At any rate, I’ve been taking these little bites of little sweet things, not so much to fit better into my currently-too-skinny corduroys, but to take my mind off of what I should be doing, which is writing. I know, Mom, it’s gross, but it’s my jam now.
I’ve been working on one particular story for awhile now, and for a bit it just didn’t want to come together; it started to feel like work, and that, to paraphrase Stephen King, is when you’re up the creek, and there are alligators. Finally, this week, I got the story back on its feet, but I’m still scrounging around for details that I am so. tired. of trying to pin down. On days when I feel like I’ve been chasing them around in circles, I am so frazzled by dinner prep time that when I take a peek at my yellow legal pad scribbled page after page with dinner possibilities, I want to give it the finger. I make a lot of time for cooking, and I’m kind of a slow cook, so 30-minute meals have always seemed a bit of a joke to me. 10 minute-meals are just a lie, unless you’re heating up leftovers or having cheese and bread and arugula, in which case, yes, do that. But maybe add some onion jam if you have some. Mustard, too—this stuff.
But back to my menu suggestions, they tend to err on the side of optimism, in terms of time and energy. I still spend a rather lot of time at the stove, but I’ve begun to understand in the last few years what people mean when they say they don’t have time to cook, or that they don’t want to. And to all those people, I want to apologize for when I didn’t understand, because at one point, I really really didn’t get it. I would also like to make a small offering: Colcannon, one of many brilliant splashes of Irish potato-cooking genius. Because when you know you’re going to be eating a whole bowl of mashed potatoes for your dinner, 30 minutes seems like a fair investment. (Except if you’re making it for like six people it’ll probably take longer. eek. I’m trying.)
Colcannon with lacinato, leeks, and fresh horseradish
I’ve made colcannon with different kinds of kale, and collards, too, and I’m not sure I really prefer one over the others, though kale is traditional, if that makes a difference to you. We had so much lacinato this week, so that’s what I used, along with leeks, though you could certainly use straight up onions instead. What I really loved about this recent version was the fresh horseradish, with its gorgeous earthy heat. If you have white pepper, it would be fabulous here, too. I was counting on it and then realized it didn’t make it into our box of spices when we left for our move. C ‘est la vie. If you want to veganize, just sub the milk for soy (or whatever alternate milk you prefer, though I haven’t tried any others… almond might not be a good idea) and the butter for olive oil.
1 pound yellow potatoes, like yellow finn or yukon gold
1 smallish bunch lacinato kale
couple of leeks
1 clove garlic
2 teaspoons freshly grated horseradish (optional)
1 tablespoon butter, cut into bits
few tablespoons milk, or more to taste
1 tablespoon olive oil
Cut the potatoes into like-size chunks and add to a pot of boiling salted water. Cook until they’re good and mashable, 15 minutes or so depending on the variety and how you cut them.
While the water is coming to a boil, prep the leeks and kale. Rinse the leeks, cut in half on the vertical, then cut each half on the vertical again, for four quarters. Thinly slice the leeks. If your kale is quite fresh and on the younger side, sweet and tender, just snap the bottom, most fibrous parts of the stem off and cut the rest into thin ribbons. If the stems are large and fibrous (taste them to check), strip them from the stems first. Thinly slice the garlic and grate the horseradish.
After you add the potatoes to the pot, cook the leeks and kale. Heat a large sauté pan or Dutch oven over medium heat, add the oil and allow it to warm, then add the leeks and the garlic, a little dribble of water, and the salt. You don’t want the leeks to brown or dry out, so if the heat seems to high, adjust as necessary. Cover the pot to allow them to sauté a bit. When they’re just tender and still bright green, you can cook the kale in one of two ways. If your kale is younger and more tender, add it to the leeks, still on the heat, with another pinch of salt, and cook until it wilts, which should only take a few minutes. If it’s on the hardier side, remove the leeks to a bowl and add the kale straight into the pan they cooked in, with another teaspoon of oil, a pinch of salt, and a dribble of water (or what was clinging to the leaves after you washed them). Cook them over medium-low heat, covered partway and stirring occasionally, making sure there’s the littlest bit of liquid in the pan so they don’t dry out, until the texture just turns silky.
Drain the potatoes over the pot you’re going to use to mash them in, just to warm it a bit, then dump that water. Pour a bit of milk into the pot the potatoes cooked in, off the heat, to heat it slightly. Transfer the potatoes to the bowl with the butter, the leeks, the kale (leaving any liquid behind in the pot; pour it into a shot glass for yourself for later) and the horseradish, and mash everything up with a big fork, or one of those fancy mashing things if you must. Add enough of the milk to reach the consistency you want, season with salt, and crack over white or black pepper. Serve straight away, in giant dollops.
If you really have it together, sear some sausages (or fauxsages; we use Field Roast) while all this is going on. Better, ask someone else to do it.
November 11, 2013 § Leave a comment
One day last week when T. and I were across the lake, we had sandwiches for lunch at a spot I had read some raves about. They were great, hulking things, wrapped in double layers of wax paper, which might have helped contain them a little had we given eating them any strategic thought. With each bite, contents gushed—onto fingers, face, paper. These were very good sandwiches, made onto very good baguettes and slathered, without any sense of restraint, a creamy aioli so garlicky I’m sure it had me in a cloud for hours afterward. But I realized, halfway through mine, sitting on a bench up the street for lack of a free table inside, that I was relieved we were sitting out of direct view of anyone else. After five minutes I quit wiping the aioli off my face, but it’s a trick to be comfortable with charred onion slices hanging out of your mouth in public, even on a sidewalk bench. I mean, what if someone driving by who might not ever see you again—but might!—saw you in such an undignified state? So, I told T., damn good sandwich be damned, I’m not sure I would go back for a second—unless I could secret the thing away to a secluded spot and practice scarfing one down with the paper keeping the whole thing tight.
And I describe this little outing because I want to point out that eating alone is highly underrated, for many reasons, but one being for maintaining pretensions of grace when messy foodstuffs are on hand. I sometimes say that one great obstacle of serving some of my favorite things to eat to company is their unwieldiness on the plate, on the fork, into the mouth. Worse than severe discomfort while eating publicly? Making other people uncomfortable eating something you served and prepared yourself. I could, I imagine, make a few little serving adjustments, plate things a little more neatly, pile things a little less relentlessly high, and it would make a good bit of difference in the bigness of the spectacle of the eating. But, you know, when it comes to piling things on top of things meant to be eaten with the hands, like toast (and about 60 percent of the things I really like to eat involve stuff on toast/grilled bread what have you), I really like a lot of stuff. Stuff piled high and spilling over the sides so that the bread to stuff ratio is quite what I like. And sometimes a knife and a fork just makes things messier—or at least fussier to eat, and who needs that?
So, wow, ramble city today. What I really mean to say is that leeks vinaigrette on toast with some nicely semi-soft boiled eggs is really really nice, and it’s a good thing to make for yourself when you’re on your own for a meal (or with someone who won’t mind the sloppiness of it all).
Leeks on toast are always a safe bet (these two are both brilliant), but I love this version especially because it doesn’t demand much in the way of timing. You can boil your eggs and let them be for a bit, sauté your leeks, and while they’re cooking and cooling, make the vinaigrette, slice toast. And nothing will suffer if your egg shells are a royal pain and take you 15 minutes to clean up. I like taking the leeks just up to tender, so that they’re sweet and succulent, but not meltingly soft. The colors stay vibrant and they hold up to the vinaigrette better, which kicks their sweetness into relief with a little punch of dijon and vinegar. The eggs aren’t exactly necessary here, so you could, theoretically, leave them out. It’s just… these things are always nicer with eggs.
Leeks Vinaigrette on Toast with Semi-soft—boiled eggs
2-3 slender-ish leeks, cut in half on the vertical, rinsed, and sliced thinly (about 1/4 inch thick)
1 T. plus 2 t. extra-virgin olive oil
few sprigs parsley
1 T. salted capers, rinsed
1-2 pieces of toast, about 1 .5 ounces each (or whatever you like)
1 t. Champagne or white wine vinegar
1/2 t. Dijon mustard
sea salt, coarse-ground black pepper
2 medium-sized eggs
Prep the eggs first: Have a bowl of ice water ready. In a small saucepan, cover the eggs with water. Bring them to a boil over medium-high heat. As soon as they come to a boil, take them off the heat, cover, and let stand for 5-7 minutes, depending on the size of your eggs. Six is good for large eggs; mine were on the slight side, so I drained them after five. Transfer to the bowl of ice water to cool for 10 minutes. Drain, gently crack, and peel.
In a small Dutch oven or a medium-sized saucepan, heat 2 teaspoons of the oil over medium-low heat. Add the leeks, a pinch of salt, and a teeny dribble of water, and stir. Cover and cook, removing the lid to stir every couple of minutes, until their color is bright and they’re just tender, 5-7 minutes or so. If they seem nearly done and the liquid is evaporated, remove from heat and let them steam with the lid on for a couple of minutes more—they should finish cooking more gently that way. When you have the leeks right where you want them, scrape them into a bowl and let them cool to room temp.
While the leeks are cooking and cooling, snip the parsley from the stems and chop them fine. Rinse the capers and chop them, too. Transfer both to a small bowl. Make the vinaigrette: Using a small fork, whisk the mustard with the vinegar until smooth, then whisk in the olive oil until emulsified. Taste for salt, and add a few grinds of coarse black pepper.
Depending on the volume of your leeks, you may not need to use all the vinaigrette. Start by adding about 2/3 of the vinaigrette to the cooled leeks in the bowl, along with the parsley and capers, and combining well. If you’d like the leeks glossier or richer or punchier, add the rest of the vinaigrette.
Assembly: Toast the bread—either in a toaster, which I have taken to lately in laziness, or by brushing it with more oil first and toasting it in the oven, which is decidedly finer. When it’s golden, a bit crisp on the outside, but still chewy and tender, pile on the leeks, then a bit of chopped egg. I find 1 egg is usually enough for garnish, so the second one is mostly for eating in halves, sprinkled with a little salt and pepper and any last drops of vinaigrette. I find this toast tastiest when eaten with the hands.
*A note on capers: I call for salted capers here because they taste like capers, not vinegar, which I find is the case with capers packed in brine. They can be a little more expensive and difficult to find, but if you can find them in bulk or in large (kg +) bags, snatch them up. They are marvelous and will last for a looooong time.
November 10, 2013 § Leave a comment
You might check in with me again in a few months. Maybe I’ll be biting at my nails, crazed in the eyes as I plead desperately with the sun to come out, come out, or… or else. But I’m going to say that so far, I don’t mind Seattle’s gray, or the drizzly afternoons, or the winds that make our little cabin roof twitch and creak. It’s partly because our view, for the time being, is onto Lake Washington, and, as our house faces south, Mt. Rainier fills up our breakfast window on a clear morning, so that we can eat muesli with our mouths hanging open, which, if you’re wondering, is charming. But it’s also because those crazy winds, high enough last week that the 520 bridge into Seattle closed, give the lake a look of the ocean, waves crashing into the dock and gulls dashing the foam—and I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it, but I secretly want to live on the beach one day. It also helps that it smells like a Christmas tree everywhere, one of which I have also, at times, wanted to live inside. And because when the sun comes out for even 20 minutes, it feels like a little whispered bit of grace. Besides, when it all comes down to it, gloom is a reason to stay inside and read, or cook, or do other understated things, and I am most often glad for an excuse to be quiet. Maybe it’ll get old; maybe the clouds will bear down and the reminders grow thin and we’ll start losing our wits. I don’t know. I’ve got good feelings, but you know what they say. We have a little waiting and seeing, T. and me.
In the meantime: holy moly, I am glad to be in the kitchen again. I’m not going to go wild about Seattle’s farmers markets yet, because I’m still missing my favorites in D.C., like wonderful Tree & Leaf and Next Step Produce, and there’s plenty of time for that. But I wanted to mention a little dish I made for myself a couple of nights ago. It’s a simple thing, little potatoes split and roasted with olive oil, pepper, salt, and a little caraway. But it’s the caraway that takes these potatoes out of the ordinary. I wouldn’t think of adding anything else, lest it get in the way of its complexity—earthy, with herbal notes of resin, and a woodsy, floral character that is pure seduction with buttery fingerling potatoes. My friend Rachel, a wonderful caterer and cook, taught me the dish, and though she covers them a bit longer in oven so that they steam a bit more than roast, I think they’re lovely either way.
Tim was away on a business adventure, so I held little back in filling out my plate: with a celery root-parsnip remoulade bound by creme fraiche and liberally accented with parsley, twigs of mildly funked Comte cheese, and ribbons of lacinato kale, braised to a silken heap with onions and olive oil. It worked out.
Caraway roasted potatoes
3/4 pound fingerling potatoes
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
1 1/2 T. olive oil
Preheat the oven to 400. Scrub your potatoes clean, and dry them. Cut them into halves, and toss them with olive oil, caraway seeds, and salt and coarse black pepper to taste. Lay them out in a shallow roasting pan (I like an aluminum jelly roll pan best), cover them with foil, and roast for about 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, remove the foil and roast for another 15-20 minutes or so, or until the potatoes are tender and beginning to crisp around the edges and take on a little color. You can also leave the foil on longer, which gives the potatoes a more buttery taste but less crisp exteriors. I’ve tried to compromise with half and half, but there’s no right way about it. Just be cautious of leaving the foil off too long and burning the caraway, which would be a shame.
Serve rather immediately; you should have enough for two.
September 7, 2013 § Leave a comment
I have been remiss. More than
four six months have gone by without a peep from me. I would ask how this happened, but I know. It’s twofold, really. One, I cannot be bothered, most of the time, to photograph my dinner, for fear it will suffer before my very eyes. Have you ever photographed a bowl of pasta, just served? You can hear it weeping. I can never reason that a blog post is worth the pain, the pasta’s or mine. But I don’t eat pasta every night. Or even every week, although I should. Which brings us to this: for someone who calls herself a writer, I spend a remarkable amount of time avoiding it. And that’s all I’m going to say about that. Except that this week I decided that enough was enough, and I asked this little pile of New Zealand spinach to hold tight, just a minute, while I grab the camera.
Because I’ve been meaning, for awhile now, to write about greens. I’m not sure where to start, except by saying that I think my veins must run green with their pot liquor. And so summer can be a difficult time in this part of the country, the weather too hot to suffer the likes of many things green and leafy. Around June we blow a sweet kiss to kale, turnips, collards, mustards, and all their pungent, spicy friends, thanks, it was lovely, we’ll see you in September. Maybe. Maybe October. This year we had the most marvelous sendoff, with weeks upon weeks of flowering greens—collards, turnips, kale—coming around to markets, impossibly tender and sweet, the florets so delectable it was hard to prep a bunch without gobbling half of them raw before they even hit the oil. In those times of abundance, with months of gorgeous summer produce so close you can almost taste it, it’s difficult to sense what the loss of greens will feel like three months from where you are. And then three months hence, you find some of the first great arugula of the season, and you buy two full bags and commence to stuff your face with the leaves, intensely peppery and a little cooling, and you realize you’re filling a void that’s grown deeper and deeper each month since all these greens left off in early summer.
The point of all this is to say that if one is a little more industrious in shopping habits, as I wasn’t this year, the advent of leafy greens in early fall doesn’t have to inspire such desperate relief. Early this summer, I brought home a couple of bags of New Zealand spinach, a marvelous little green that’s not really spinach at all, but no matter—when cooked, it turns beautifully silky, with a sweet, faintly briny flavor I find wholly compelling. Usually I cook a lot more of it over the summer than I did this go-round—along with sweet potato greens, malabar spinach, and a green called molokai some farmers are calling Egyptian spinach—and this tends to satisfy just fine. But I was lazy this year in my sourcing, and so here I am.
In two weeks, we’re leaving this coast behind and driving to Seattle, where, so I hear, leafy things are for the getting year-round. I’m not yet decided on how good of a thing this is; there’s something wonderful about the whole-hearted welcome we give to to those deep green leaves when they show up around here as the weather cools. I certainly wouldn’t want to begin to take them for granted. Perhaps I’ll impose a little greens moratorium every summer as it is, keep the spirit of things going and all.
In the meantime, I’m posting, per my usual, about something nearly irrelevant, at the end of its season. New Zealand spinach should still be around in some parts for a few more weeks yet, though. If you find it, cook it simply:
Sauteed New Zealand spinach with garlic and hot chile
Heat a wide-bottomed sauté pan or dutch oven over medium heat, add a bit of oil, swirl to coat, and when it’s hot, add a clove of garlic, slivered, and a dried hot chile; arbol chiles work well, smoky and sweet. Saute the garlic and the chile for a few minutes, just until the garlic begins to turn pale golden around the edges and the chile is fragrant. Add the greens, just rinsed and with their tough stems snapped off, but leave whatever water is still clinging to the leaves. Swirl them around in the pan to coat with the oil—I usually use my hands, but if you’re more sensible maybe grab a wooden spoon. They should wilt pretty quickly, so keep stirring, reducing the heat a little. Add a pinch of salt and cook just until they’re tender, 2-3 minutes at the most.
March 2, 2013 § 1 Comment
To say that I did not always possess a full sense of pâté’s charms would be understating things. My understanding of pâté, until I left the small Georgia town I grew up in, was as something corner gas stations sold at $2.99 a pound, advertised in black block letters on roadside signs along with fishing bait and chewing tobacco. My mother claimed pâté was vile stuff, and, let’s be clear, I always listened to my mother. Pâté was one of those things you didn’t want to get too close to, to whose mention the only appropriate response was ew, one of those things you knew people ate but weren’t at all sure why.
It was many years later, post-schooling, that I came to appreciate pâtés hooks of taste and texture— musky, complex, almost surreally sensual. During one several-year period of excess I can only interpret as an attempt to make amends for my previous errors of judgement, I rarely passed over a menu listing for pâté without summoning it to the table. It might have been a chicken liver mousse, a terrine of duck, or rough-hewn pâté de campagne, itself a study in pork—whatever it was, it seemed an offense to ignore it.
And then a few years after that, I stopped eating meat. I waved pâté off, goodbye dear friend, and I never tried to fill the void.
Let me say first that I never been a great fan of vegetable-stuffs masquerading as meatstuffs. But I have always, ever, been a tremendous fan of vegetables as vegetables. And it’s my thinking that vegetarian cooking, applied to without apology, doesn’t ask or want for anything.
There are some things vegetables simply cannot be, and one of those is liver. Or rabbit, or pork, or whatever else your pâté is of. But I have come to think that it’s not at all fair that meatstuffs alone should lay claim to pâté and all its implications—intense richness, creaminess sometimes, a powerful depth of flavor. At least, this was my thinking when, a couple of years ago, I needed something to bring to a picnic, quick, something that could make friends with cheese and crackers and wine and wouldn’t make a fuss transported in a backpack. Until then, vegetable pâté seemed to me a reminiscence of 70s counterculture, hold the sun-dried tomatoes, and Mollie Katzen’s Moosewood Cookbook (copyright 1977), in which she offers, without any apparent irony, a vegetable pâté of green beans, walnuts, mayonnaise and hard-boiled eggs that “really does taste like chopped liver.” I owe a debt to Mollie Katzen for helping to rescue me from processed food-lifery and I will always have a space on my shelf for her books, but I have never been tempted to try that recipe.
The day of the picnic, though, I was short on time and trying to escape a guilt complex, inevitable if I’d chosen to show up empty-handed. It was March, just barely spring. I thought of cheese, but my new vegan boyfriend wouldn’t have been able to share it. I thought of salumi, more wistfully, but neither of us would have been able to enjoy it. In a flash of masochism I thought of pâté and cursed my dietary decisions. But then I thought of pâté again, or at least, everything I’d expect in pâté, channeled through vegetables. I’m sure my most relentless snob died right then. But we cook rashly when pressed. I caramelized onions, simmered lentils, pounded walnuts, soaked a few porcini mushrooms and tumbled everything into the food processor with a splash of ume plum vinegar in a frantic dash for something extra, then another. I would be lying if I said every one of my impulse creations turned out nearly so well. It was primally earthy, a little smoky, woodsy, supremely creamy, with a curiously bright finish. T. and I arrived to the party late, two rounds of triple cream cheese and a bottle of wildflower honey deep, and the experiment, which I introduced as lentil-walnut pâté, nearly vanished nonetheless. It was even better the next day.
I’m writing about it now because that picnic happened just about two years ago, and I can no longer count how many times I’ve made some variation of it or another. It still doesn’t taste like liver pâté. But I think it’s as good.
1/3 cup brown lentils
2 sprigs thyme or rosemary
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 clove garlic, smashed with the flat side of a knife and minced
1 tablespoon medium-dry sherry
8 ounces cremini mushrooms, chopped
1/2 cup walnuts or pecans
1 1/2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon medium-grain sea salt
In a small, heavy saucepan, simmer lentils in water to cover by 1 inch until tender, about 20 minutes. When they are just tender, remove from heat, add thyme sprigs and 1/4 teaspoon salt, stir, then cover and rest for at least 30 minutes.
Heat a large, heavy skillet over medium heat until warm. Add 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, onion, and 1/4 teaspoon salt, and saute until translucent, 7-8 minutes. Add garlic and cook a few minutes longer. Add mushrooms and 1/4 teaspoon salt, toss to coat with the oil, cover partly and cook until mushrooms have released their liquid and reduced in volume, about 10 minutes. Remove lid and cook until most remaining liquid evaporates. Add sherry, and cook until it just glosses the bottom of the pan, about 1 minute. Remove skillet from heat and set aside, covered.
In another heavy-bottomed skillet or saucepan, toast pecans over low-medium heat until fragrant, about 5-7 minutes. Transfer to a bowl to cool, then chop.
Process pecans in the bowl of a food processor until finely ground. Add mushrooms and onions and process until just combined. Drain lentils, reserving cooking liquid for another use, and add to mushrooms and pecans along with remaining olive oil, salt, and black pepper. Process until smooth, 2-3 minutes. Add vinegar and pulse just until combined. Serve with whole-grain crackers or rye toasts, garnished with additional thyme, if desired.
Yield: 1 1/4 cups