February, on its best behavior

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.

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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

Serves 2.

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.

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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

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.

Serves 2

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