January 28, 2015 § Leave a comment
For the last 15 months, we’ve lived in a little cabin on a big, beautiful lake, a result of extraordinary family generosity. It is a serene, enchanting setting, running with mosses, framed by gnarly old trees lacy with lichen, and pervasive smells of fir trees, brine, and wet earth. When the sky is clear, we have an unbroken view of Mt. Rainier, snowy and grand, in the distance. The house is lovely and rustic, and I love to stand outside, gazing at the shorelines out across from ours, and imagine the landscape when its frame first went up in the early part of the 20th century, when our house’s neighbors were not unlike itself, modest little summer homes for Seattleites taking respite from the city. Now that we’re finally launching into looking for a place of our own with some vigor, I am simply trying to absorb its splendor, which, amid the stresses and anxieties of the past year, I have occasionally slogged through in a mist or, worse, taken for granted.
Which brings me to the reason I began this post. Most days when it’s not raining, there’s a kayaker who glides out just past our dock. He wears a very wide-brimmed hat, even on overcast days, which I find amusing, and a quilted jacket, and he paddles with smooth, measured strokes, his slim, lacquered boat looking a piece of the water. I always smile when I see him, and make mental notes to self: plan to go kayaking one weekend soon! And, making some assumptions about our paddler and ignoring obvious advantages of setting, I remind myself, because it is helpful to me, that repetition can yield the most serenity.
I started writing this post months and months ago, in fact. I’d been reading this particularly lovely blog, whose author writes only tangentially about food but so richly with imagery and really ringing, resonant prose, and I had thought, I should practice writing about place more. It’s not just about the food (I don’t really believe this, but we should all try to transcend ourselves sometimes). I should do that. So I did, for one paragraph. Then I went back, just now, and edited the hell out of it.
Well, it’s a new year, folks. Look for more place in 2015. But not just yet. There are crude analogies to be made.
I don’t kayak
regularly, but I used to run. I’m not sure I was built for running, but I became fit enough within it that at a certain point it lost its edge. I could make a workout more difficult and therefore more demanding psychologically, but by default it was a respite—somewhere to think, somewhere to just be, which I find is increasingly difficult as we give our attention over to more and more things (I’m looking at you, internet). That kind of place, if you can find it, is a relief. It’s reenergizing, it’s restorative, it’s affirming. It’s surely no surprise that the kitchen is one of the places where I find mine.
Once, I might have spent hours with ingredients in the lead-up to a meal. The sorry challenge is that each year that’s passed, the time and energy I have to cook has dropped while my need for cooking as a space to find calm and creativity revs. Fortunately, I spent many years filling my head with enough techniques and methods and ingredient-combining know-how that these days, even when I am dead-tired and can’t generate a new idea to save my life, I can still feed us well, and variably, without getting too bored. I’m grateful for this.
I had been imagining—I say imagining because I can no longer find it, despite acrobatic googling—an essay the lovely Tamar Adler wrote for the New Yorker a couple of years ago, in more or less an echo of An Everlasting Meal. In it, she argues against cookbooks, against recipe-following, and for, more or less, a more organic approach to cooking based on technique, the ingredients at hand, and the needs of the day.
I have some disagreements with this alleged piece, which perhaps I’ll devote some space to later, but I fully appreciate her sentiments that dogged pursuit (and adherence) to recipes obscures one of the most powerful aspects of cooking, that of possessing the autonomy, the skill, and the occasional inspiration and creativity to feed ourselves well. Alas, I think that for anyone with more than a utilitarian approach to cooking, there’s increasing pressure to weight the latter two elements as the most important when we approach the kitchen. Anyone with a relentless trail of bookmarked food blogs surely understands that pull, the difficulty of settling in with your own easy comforts when the community you immerse yourself in puts such voracious focus on new ideas, new inspiration, and the next must-cook thing (which I have far more to say about, some other time when I haven’t gone on for far too long already). While that attitude may serve us well in energy-, time-, and enthusiasm-fueled moments, I would argue that it can be a hindrance when all we really want to do is cook, rhythmically, fluidly, and eat. And so
sometimes often, I find myself ignoring the very sources of material—cookbooks, blogs, food journal—that I adore, lest I compare and contrast and generally drum up a self-disserving sense of overwhelm.
Better, in those times, to just cook. Not without a some small flourish, but without fanfare. Now, I would be the last cook to upend her cookbook collection—half the joy of cooking is in the discovery of the new. But the other half is in the security of knowing what you know, no matter how much or little it is, and, sometimes, resting on it.
So I guess the appropriate thing here would be to not provide a recipe, which I’ll hew to, sort of. This isn’t a formula so much as a sketch, and I offer it as illustration, and as proof that when I say simple, I mean really darn simple.
I love this combination, and others like it, for many reasons. One is that the only thing it asks of me is that I cook—without peeking at an ingredient list, or a pesky instruction, without pondering over which bottle of preserved, salted, something or other, or which spices and herbs would be most revelatory. I am only cooking.
Quinoa, Greens, Egg, Black Sesame (omission of adjectives not meant to be annoying but because preparation is flexible)
I’m actually a little embarrassed to post about this dish, because, really. And yet…
This is not so much a recipe as a template. Some greens, some grains, an egg. You could use any sort of braising greens you love and have on hand—I used collards and kale here because that’s what the gorgeous mix we had was made up of, but you could use mustards, turnips greens, flowering broccoli, flowering overwintered kale, collards, or turnips. Baby bok choy or pac choi would be splendid, gai lan, too. You could use any grain, cook your egg in other ways—fried, or rolled up into an omelet. You could use good, coarse black pepper instead of the black sesame, or plain unhulled sesame, or ras el hanout. The point is to spend a short, blissful amount of time preparing it, incorporating a small flourish without thinking too long about it. It’s not to be careless, but to be efficient, which is something I never thought I’d say, but when you’re drinking cranberry juice instead of wine, making dinner for two hours is scant less appealing.
Some people say I have a way with greens. I won’t argue with those people. So I’ll offer a few tips. I like them tender and giving, but still vibrant, their flavor mellowed, but still green. If you cook them right, they will be succulent and rich-tasting, bathed in the savory gloss of the oil they were cooked in and their own liquor, which you’ll always do well to drink from the pot, no matter how unwieldy, its brim tipped up at a 45-degree angle with your face. Speaking only personally, mustards will bring the most joy here, although turnips are a close second.
The trick to this result is cooking them very quickly over medium to medium-high heat, so that they become tender but hold their lush texture. Starting them in oil ensures they’re rich-tasting and glossy; adding a couple of tablespoons of water as you add them to the pan ensures they stay bright. Skip the water and you will miss the succulence that makes really fresh greens so incredible to eat.
For this meal, start the quinoa while you prep the greens, toast some black or unhulled sesame seeds, and bring a little pot of water to a simmer. When the grains are close to finished, I warm a sliced garlic clove with a torn dried red chile in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat, stirring things around until the garlic’s a bit golden, and the chile smells warm, and the oil is loose but hasn’t overheated. I quickly drop the greens in by handfuls, still dripping from the wash, sprinkle on some salt, and swish them around with my hand, to coat them in the oil. The pan should be a little saucy in the bottom; the greens will absorb some of the liquid after you take them off the heat; the rest is good for drinking. Stir them around with a wooden spoon for a minute or two, maybe three, until they’re barely tender and not too wilted. Take them off the heat, cover the pot, and let them steam for a few minutes—gentler than merely cooking them a bit longer.
Poach your egg for 2-3 minutes while the greens are steaming, plate, serve.