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.