The next best thing

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.

Until.

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.

pate

Mushroom-lentil pate

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

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The right idea

December 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

salad

One weekend morning when I was 10 or 11, or maybe it was summer, I got this idea in my head that I should be eating more virtuously. This resolution was prompted by nothing that I can recall. No one had pinched any lingering baby fat (I didn’t have any); my mother had not embarked on a grapefruit cleanse; my aunt had not yet sounded alarms on the perils of dietary fat, which would see me into untold boxes of Snackwells and ascetic, calorie-counted meals for years to come. I imagine with a memory less stingy, I could find some precursive influence for this day’s whim. But from here, it looks like a first-ditch grasp at a sense of purity and cleanliness that I have continued to pursue, however intermittently (and however interrupted by a range of thoroughly counterproductive behaviors, mostly boozy ones) ever since.

That day, I prepared my 80s suburban preteen notion of a spa lunch: a bowl of cottage cheese, a bowl of honey (the bowl of honey approximately the same size as the bowl of cottage cheese), some fruit. I made my place at the table. I picked at everything for minutes before reconsideration, disinterest, and a little disappointment settled in. I took my dishes to the sink, hoping their untouched-ness would go unnoticed, and I made myself a cheese sandwich. This lifestyle change, it should be noted, endured for approximately one afternoon.

Two decades-plus later, I have, I think it’s fair to say, a much better sense of appropriate composition in meal-making. But I am still captivated by the idea of food as nourishment—as something not only sustaining, but also healing, rejuvenating, invigorating. What I cook, what I eat, any given meal, is largely dictated by pleasure (and I think, really, pleasure is part of the nourishment of eating). That it should be nourishing has become less an active consideration of my cooking than a foundation of it. Still, there are days when I crave something more. For me, damage control restorative leans toward the raw, the minimally fussed with, with extra points for foods bustling with living things, like fermented black radishes, sauerkraut, unpasteurized kefir. Or, increasingly, sprouts, which is what I had waiting in the fridge when T. and I came home last week from visiting with my parents and siblings in South Carolina. It was a visit full of laughter and conversation and love and sharing, but it was also, despite arguably reasonable meal-planning, five days of just a little too much of everything delightful in gastronomic vice, including a pile of pecans I cracked and shoveled into my mouth, standing at the kitchen counter at midnight, in a moonshine-addled haze.

The day after we got home, I sought amends in this salad, a heap of peppery arugula and earthy rye sprouts, slicked with a lemon-shallot dressing and showered with chopped toasted almonds, with slender wedges of dense, creamy roasted sweet potato tucked here and there. It was perfect and, I think, the sort of thing I was really after when the cottage cheese and honey came to mind so many years ago. Virtue may be elusive, but when it is this delicious I suppose I don’t mind chasing after it.

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Arugula and sprouted rye with toasted almonds, roasted sweet potatoes, and a lemon-shallot dressing

2 cups young arugula

1/4-1/3 cup sprouted rye (instructions below; allow two days for sprouting)

1 medium sweet potato

2 teaspoons olive oil

small handful of raw almonds, toasted in a skillet and roughly chopped

Lemon-shallot dressing:

1 tablespoon minced shallot

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil

sea salt and black pepper, to taste

Preheat the oven to 400. Peel the sweet potato and cut it into irregular wedges. Toss with two teaspoons of olive oil (or more, if you want extra insurance against sticking), salt and pepper to taste (I do this right on the baking sheet), and roast, tossing occasionally with a metal spatula, for 20-30 minutes, until golden, lightly crisp, and tender within.

In a small bowl, combine the shallot with the lemon juice and a pinch of salt; set aside for 10 minutes or so. Whisk in the olive oil and season with salt and pepper.

Using your hands, gently toss the arugula, the sprouts, and half the almonds with enough of the dressing to coat lightly, and taste again for salt and pepper. Arrange the arugula on a plate, scatter the remaining almonds over the top, and distribute the sweet potatoes here and there and everywhere. Drizzle any remaining dressing over the top of it all if it doesn’t seem like overkill. If you have some excellent rye bread handy and you’re on the hungry side, it would be a wise accompaniment.

Serves 1, generously

For the sprouted rye:

Soak however many rye berries you want to sprout in water to cover by twice as much, for 24 hours. Drain them, then let them continue to drain, in the jar, for 8 hours, covered with something like a cloth napkin or cheesecloth secured with a rubber band. Keep the jar laying sideways tilted at a slight angle, with the top of the jar on a plate to catch any water that continues to drain out. Rinse the sprouts and drain them again, as before, for 4-6 hours, and repeat as necessary until the grains begin to sprout. They’ll last several days in the fridge.

And! If you want to try making rejuvelac, my new favorite health-geek drink of the moment, you’re already halfway there. Using four parts water for each part rye, soak the sprouts in filtered water to cover for 2 days, then decant. You should be able to get one more batch out of your sprouts, but the second round will need just one day of soaking. It should be peculiar smelling but compelling, like… Epoisses? I store mine in glass jars in the fridge and sweeten them with a bit of cider or lemon nectar or honey. I’m sure you can come up with something more creative.

Lunch for the lazy

December 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

I am swearing at the sun right now. For scattering the clouds, for brightening the dim that was giving me permission to stay inside all day. It’s 50 degrees here today, still, pretty. And it is begging to be noticed. I’m telling you, these anomalous winter days are so demanding, so needy. You cannot ignore a day like this and get away with it without lugging a guilt trip behind you.  Probably I should be grateful for a break from chill, the necessity of wearing a coat, which is doubly a nuisance because I am not in possession of a proper one—a relic from living in the South for so many years. Instead, I’m annoyed. Ordinarily it’s a difficult thing for me, sitting still, like something always pulling my interests in some direction or another. But cloudy days are a kind of moderator. Like a dance class, or a long run, or Xanax a really great back rub. They channel focus in me, or enable it, if all in their own varied ways.

I think, if I ever move to Seattle, as I’ve been promising to do since 1994, I will be a much less fidgety person (I can hope, of course). In the meantime, my sister has been admonishing me to meditate, and because she is wiser than I am, despite the edge I have on her in years, I’m thinking about taking her up on it. And for those days when I’d like my cooking not to ask a lot of me (because I think that’s reasonable when I’m not asking a lot of the day), I’m going to keep salads like this one around, which offer immense returns in flavor for minimum effort, and keep a person from feeling slothish while doing as physically little as possible. Magic.

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I was a little reluctant to write about this salad, because even if we haven’t all tired of raw kale salads (can you?), some of us may be tiring of hearing exultations from every corner of the food world about how amazing they are. And still… so I’m taking my nose down and joining the chorus. Sorry.

I have more loved and adored variations on raw kale salad than I can count. This one, published in the New York Times five years ago, is the one that turned me on to kale salad to begin with. It’s showered with pecorino and breadcrumbs, tart with lemon, and still one of my favorites. Since then, in the interest of sharing with vegan T. and because I like to make things difficult, I worked up a version with crushed almonds and garlic that approximates the effects of pecornio in a really bizarre, terrific way. I’ll write about it here one of these days if I think this blog can handle another raw kale salad post. Then I ran across this piece, which gave me a few more ideas I may or may not have needed, but am glad to have. The Northern Spy contribution reprinted from Food 52 gives the NYT recipe a run for it.

Today’s version takes advantage of one of the only things I bother putting up in the summer, which is to say, pickled eggplant. I don’t have a garden, so without forced surplus of any one vegetable or another and year-round access to local produce (the mid-Atlantic is kind in this way), I’m rarely inclined to spend hours bottling anything up for seasons ahead. Except, as I said, for this pickled eggplant, which I have been making every summer since my friend K., a local farmer and pickling genius, gifted me with a jar and the recipe. The eggplant is boiled briefly in vinegar, then drained and packed in oil, along with coriander seeds and hot chiles. Those turns in vinegar and oil nudge the eggplant—already nutty and sweet—toward something almost buttery, with an almost startling brightness. And its texture… dense, creamy—you know you shouldn’t stand over the cutting board eating it off a fork (it is packed in oil, after all), but it really can’t be helped.

Its brilliance is in how versatile it is, and how easily it escorts you to something delicious. There are those days—tired, without so much culinary industry—and isn’t it cruel? those are the days you need something really marvelous-tasting most of all. That’s why I love this pickled eggplant. It’s a sauce for pasta or a salad of wheatberries, it’s a spread for grilled bread. Generally it will keep boring way, far away from your food, even when you’re not good for much in the kitchen. This salad is one of its beneficiaries, the packing oil—already tasting of vinegar—used as the dressing, rich bits of the eggplant strewn throughout. Golden raisins and toasted pine nuts accentuate everything nutty and sweet in the eggplant, and it takes you longer to finish the thing that it did to make it. Here, that never happens.

Anyway, the sun is out. I guess I’ll go for a walk.

Raw kale salad with pickled eggplant, toasted pine nuts and golden raisins

Obviously this recipe is not of ideal use if you don’t have pickled eggplant (recipe below) on hand. Remember, remember, next summer! In the meantime, if you have any good pickled anything in olive oil, you might substitute for the eggplant called for here.

Wash and dry (or don’t, eek! Sometimes I am really lazy) about 1/2 bunch of kale, preferably lacinato/cavolo nero/toscano. Make sure it’s totally dry, and cut into 1/4- to 1/2-inch thick ribbons. Work about 1 tablespoon of the olive oil the eggplant was packed in into the kale with your hands to coat it completely. Season with sea salt and black pepper to taste. At this point the kale can rest for a bit, 30 minutes to an hour, even. Toast a tablespoon or two of pine nuts until they’re fragrant, chop up a few pieces of pickled eggplant (so that you end up with about 1/4-1/3 cup), and toss them both in with the kale, along with a tablespoon or so of golden raisins (I prefer those little straw-colored Hunza raisins, but whatever you like). Serve with good, crusty bread. If you have any really delicious crackers lying around, those would be nice, too. Or you could just shower the whole thing with olive-oil toasted breadcrumbs, but that’s not really lazy, is it?

Pickled eggplant

For future reference.

5-6 lb medium eggplants

1/3 cup coarse sea salt

6 cups white wine vinegar

about 4 cups olive oil

8 dried chiles

coriander seeds

Slice the eggplants into 1/2″ rounds and toss with salt. Spread out and weigh down, and allow to sweat for one hour.

In a stockpot, bring vinegar to a boil. Add eggplant, bring back to a boil and simmer for five minutes. Drain and pat dry. Pour 1/2 cup olive oil in each (sterilized) quart or pint jar. Add 1 tsp coriander seeds and 2 chiles to each. Add eggplant and top with more olive oil if needed. Allow to cool, then cover. Pickles will be ready to eat in one month.

*As long as the eggplant is covered with oil, it keeps forever at room temperature—at least a year. If you need to add more oil at a later date to keep it submerged, that’s fine.

Patience is a virtue

November 12, 2012 § Leave a comment

I am endeared to salads for many reasons, but particularly for their patience. They’re content to be put together slowly, without sudden movements; they tolerate interruption, like when the dogs demand to be taken out, now, or a thought, less tolerant, needs immediate writing down. They necessarily involve a lot of preparation—washing and drying and shredding and shaving and julienning and tearing into little bits—which gives me leave to think, or not think at all, either of which is generous and appreciated. Once they’re made, they wait to be photographed (unless they’re made up of arugula, in which case, they wait around about as well as pasta, which is to say not at all), and if they’re of something sturdy, like cabbage or kale, they don’t suffer for wilting, so you can take as damn long to finish them as you want. Salads are also easily made beautiful and wonderful tasting, and without much fuss, which is especially selling because every now and then (around here lately it is often), fuss amounts to little more than a nuisance.

This one, with ruffly-leaved napa or savoy cabbage at its core, is as comforting a dish to me as a steamy bowl of pasta with lentils or a bean and farro soup, but invigorating, too, with its pungent winter radishes and sweet carrots, gently spicy red onion, and whole leaves of parsley, cooling and tasting of everything good and green. It’s spritzed with lemon, then glossed with olive oil that’s been warmed through with mustard seeds and arbol chile, heated til the seeds start to pop and both have infused the oil with all kinds of toasted, nutty, faintly bitter spice. It’s one of the things I turn to when what I want to eat, all I want to eat, is a bunch of vegetables and not much more.

It’s gorgeous, too; did I mention? Which brings me to something else. There is something deeply satisfying, and quickly gratifying, about creating food with your hands, and your eyes, your nose, your ears even, that, once it’s made, appeals to all of those senses still. You are serving dual purposes of nourishment and pleasure, the entire process through. It’s a scintillating way about lunch, especially if you spend a lot of your hours doing, but not as much time creating, or a lot of time creating things with such long, demanding trajectories that the rewards for their realization are in perpetual states of dangling, or if you just wonder, sometimes, if what you spend much of your time doing has enough of a point. This is, for me, besides the obvious and essential practicality of it, one of the most compelling reasons to cook. It can’t always be more than getting food on the table, but even that simple act has a purpose. But when you’re able to be patient with the process, it can also be comfort, inspiration, optimism. Or if you think that’s too much to expect from your food: this salad is delicious and good for you and if you make it for friends they’ll fawn over its prettiness. Either way, it’s good to have around.

Frilly-leaved cabbage salad with radish, carrot, quinoa, and mustard seeds

The idea for this salad’s dressing was given to me by a lovely lady I work with occasionally at markets sometimes; let’s call her A., in which you warm mustard seeds in oil until they pop, and pour them, along with the oil, now nutty and fragrant, over shredded cabbage with a bit of rice vinegar and sea salt, some black pepper, and toss. I use this method as the basis for this salad, but include a hot chile along with the mustard seeds, and I often use lemon in lieu of vinegar, though the brown rice variety is very nice. On this day I added a little quinoa; sometimes I toss some tofu in, too. A little torn kale or tiny mustard greens in addition to the cabbage is especially lovely.

1 small napa or savoy cabbage (plus torn or shredded kale, or small mustard greens, if you like), shredded

1 carrot, julliened

2 watermelon radishes, cut or shaved into irregular pieces

a few sprigs of parsley, leaves only, but left whole

1 small red onion, thinly sliced on the vertical

2-3 teaspoons brown mustard seeds

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 dried arbol chiles, halved

half of a lemon

1/4 cup red quinoa, simmered with a pinch of salt and water to cover by an inch until tender, drained

sea salt and fresh-cracked black pepper, to taste

Combine all of the salad ingredients in a bowl, making sure everything is completely dry, so that your dressing doesn’t end up diluted. In a small, heavy saucepan, heat the mustard seeds with the olive oil and the chiles over low-medium heat until the mustard seeds begin to pop, about 6-8 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly while you squeeze the lemon over the greens and season with salt and black pepper to taste. Pour the dressing over the salad and use your hands to toss everything together until everything’s well-coated and glossy. Taste again, re-season if necessary, and serve.

Serves 2

Starring celery

October 28, 2012 § Leave a comment

Several months ago, during that sweet, early space of summer, I stalked the celery at my local markets as though it would disappear suddenly, never to be seen again. Maybe you recall. I went on about how amazing it was for something like three paragraphs, about how thoroughly in opposition it is with supermarket celery, about its wild fragrance and bright, untamed flavor that evades precise description. In the kitchen, knowing the heat would chase it away before too long, I used it everywhere it seemed fit—pasta, potato salad, salads of farro or wheatberries or rye, in ragouts to spoon over grits or polenta. This is, in fact, a habit of mine with every ingredient I love and sometimes results in a surplus of ingredients and impromptu dinner parties designed to trim the excess. Nevertheless, now that it’s cooler, I’m finding celery here and there and everywhere, and I have assigned myself the task of convincing everyone who will listen that it is an ingredient worth lavish, enthusiastic attention.

Celery is so good as a background note that I think it’s easy to forget, or never even consider, how exceptional it might be, put on the spot. And times like now, with all of the romanesco cauliflower, brilliant fuchsia mustards, bunches of sweet, tender leeks and fat, teardrop-shaped Hubbard squashes flashing their goods, how do you even see the celery? Look for it. The best kind will be chartreuse-colored, maybe a little darker, with a shock of even-greener leaves at the top, so thick you’re not sure what you’re going to do with them all (include them in a parsley-walnut pesto; roughly chop a generous handful and stir it, as T. does, into a thick soup of onions, potatoes and beans, just before serving). I suppose it looks a little ordinary, if only because it’s so familiar. But celery with this much flavor was new for me in my adult life, and using it as a main ingredient was something I’m not sure I would have considered without a hint, at least.

I only ever did because I am a disciple of Giuliano Bugialli, an Italian cookbook author and teacher highly underrated in the U.S., and if he suggested, in any of his marvelous cookbooks, a pasta sauce of mint and only mint, I would make it. In Bugialli on Pasta, he features a recipe for pasta with celery. It’s a Roman dish, he says, seasoned only with hot chile, garlic and parsley, and if I had any reservations at the time I first made it, they have evaporated completely. In this dish, the garlic is pungent, the chile is hot, the parsley is green and the celery is celery. I add chickpeas to it sometimes, not because I think it needs improvement, but so that I can get away with a more substantial meal less one dish.

It’s fashionable these days to describe food as honest, or real.  I’m a part of this camp, and yet I still find it a little annoying. But if these descriptors apply to anything, really, it’s dishes like pasta with celery, where the ingredients don’t hide behind anything and are, unabashedly, themselves. And I think there’s a comfort in knowing that even the most seemingly pedestrian ingredients, grown well, treated nicely, can feature in the most joyous dishes. Even if all you have is celery, you already have a lot to work with.

Pasta with celery and chickpeas

Adapted from a recipe for Pasta with Celery from Bugialli on Pasta, by Giuliano Bugialli

So here’s the thing. You can’t use regular grocery store celery with this. I mean, you can, but just, why? It’ll be fine, but nothing special, and I just don’t see the point of making pasta with celery unless it’s something special, which is easy enough to do if your celery is full-flavored, sweet not bitter crisp not watery juicy not stringy. So don’t. Wait to make it ’til one of your local growers starts bringing it to market, and then get to it.

Serves 4.

1.5-2 cups celery, cut on the diagonal (first cut vertically if the ribs are especially wide)

1-2 cloves garlic, smashed with the flat side of a knife

2 chiles de arbol, broken into 2-3 pieces

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 1/2 cups cooked chickpeas, cooked with a bay leaf and seasoned with salt toward the end of cooking

12 ounces pasta, preferably penne or another short, tubular shape

20 large sprigs flat parsley, leaves removed and roughly chopped

fresh-cracked black pepper and sea salt, to taste

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add celery and blanch for 1-2 minutes. Remove with a wire skimmer and rinse with cold water. Add the pasta to the same pot of water.

Heat a Dutch oven or saute pan over medium-low heat. When the pasta is about 5 minutes from al dente, add garlic and chile; cook, pushing them around every minute or so with a wooden spoon, until the garlic is nearing golden and the chile is starting to brown. Add celery, and cook for 2-3 minutes—it should be tender but still have a nice resistance. You want it to match the pasta, in a way. Stir in the chickpeas, season with salt and pepper, and warm through.

When the pasta is done, drain it, reserving about 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid. Add the pasta to the pan with the celery, add the parsley and a couple of tablespoons of pasta cooking liquid, and stir well but gently, making sure to scrape up all the delicious bits of garlic and parsley from the bottom and sides of the pan. If the pasta seems dry, add a bit more pasta cooking liquid; you can also add more olive oil. I usually add both. Ladle into shallow bowls. Offer black pepper at the table.

Alone in the kitchen with an eggplant

October 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

I hope Laurie Colwin would forgive the title. It was difficult not to borrow, being as I was the other day, alone in the kitchen with eggplants. Lavender and lilac-colored ones, slender, with sloping curves and taut skin, too svelte for words, almost. Sigh. I realize eggplant envy is a little weird and that perhaps I’m becoming too intimate with my food. (Although once, on a family vacation when I was younger, I made up names for everyone, firstname surnameisavegetable. I was Emily Eggplant, so obviously there is some kinship here.)

The truth is, much as I adore the looks of these elegant fruits, they always seem less suited to my usual eggplant purposes, which tend to appreciate fuller, more generously-figured varieties with a larger skin-to-flesh ratio. But still I gather them up, almost whenever I see them, because they are so exquisitely good looking. I think about how this time, I’m going to bake them whole, split not quite through and stuffed with something heady and fragrant, or use them for some lively, herby salad or another (like this one from the New York Times I bookmarked two months ago), or make the Vietnamese claypot eggplant I haven’t made in years but used to crave like clockwork. I bring them home, so full of potential, and still they find their way into ratatouille or any number of Sicilian pasta dishes I am compelled to run through before frost signs eggplant off for the year. Let me say, those dishes are all wonderful; there are reasons I keep after them. But eggplant is capable of so much more that I always end up feeling the littlest bit guilty imposing limits on it, as though by treating it just a few ways I’m stifling its repertoire. I am given to wanton immoderation, but there it is.

And then about a month ago, reading through Andrea Reusing’s wonderful Cooking in the Moment, my eyes locked on her recipe for eggplant salad with walnuts and garlic, and I knew I was going to make appropriate use of those eggplants for once, at least.

Reusing owns Lantern, a restaurant in Chapel Hill, N.C., where she uses glorious produce from the region’s profusion of small farms to illustrate a Southern-inflected, pan-Asian menu marked by much more cohesiveness and clarity than it sounds.

Her book offers glimpses of Lantern’s kitchen, but they are modest, secret-sharing ones. And she dispenses stories and personal anecdotes, but where they are occasionally sentimental, they are never gratuitous or self-indulgent. Instead they give you a start; suddenly you’re itching to shell peas or pay an on-farm visit to your favorite local grower, or cook with someone much older than you, or younger. Her text is honest and real, her recipes perfectly accessible, and the upshot is that, unlike so many other chef-authored cookbooks, this one works more, in the end, to inspire and instruct than impress.

I can vouch, at this point, for the simple goodness of her summer squash braised softly with butter, onions and basil; the spinach with melted leeks and cardamom; the pickled hot peppers, whose fiery vinegar bath, I can already tell, is going to rescue my winter cooking from doldrums with regularity these cold months ahead. But it’s this eggplant salad I want to write about, because it’s the thing I’ve kept returning to again and again, and I’m not in the habit of settling. In it, slender eggplants are quartered, steamed until just tender, left to cool, and then tossed with a full-bodied dressing of lemon, olive oil, parsley, garlic, walnuts and hot chile. There is sublime contrast and balance here, flavors and textures egging each other on, but never too far. It is such a delectable, substantial salad that I’ve been eating it for lunch as it is, with some good bread and something else of salad kind, tomatoes, here, radishes there.

The other day I had the idea to add some minced onion to the dressing and use chopped peanuts in place of the walnuts. I served this round with an unruly-looking heap of the first gorgeous mustards of the season, a mix of purples and jades that were full of nutty, fiery spice. I worked a smashed garlic-lemon-olive oil dressing into those, too, which seems redundant next to the eggplant’s dressing, but those mustards are so bossy it didn’t taste that way.

So now, finishing this post, I’m seeing that it might seem terrifically ill-timed, with eggplant taking a bow right about now, making room for greens and squashes and cooler-weather everything. But if you think about it, doesn’t eggplant really deserve an encore? That’s what I’m thinking.

Eggplant salad with walnuts and garlic

Reprinted with permission, from Cooking in the Moment, by Andrea Reusing

8 small Japanese eggplants, about 6 inches long and 1 inch across

2 garlic cloves, crushed

1 teaspoon kosher salt

juice of 1 lemon

1/4 cup olive oil

1 teaspoon mild Anaheim chile flakes, less if using regular chile flakes

3/4 cup walnuts, lightly toasted and any loose skin rubbed off

1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Cut each eggplant in half crosswise into 3-inch-thick rounds and then quarter them lengthwise. In a vegetable steamer over medium-high heat, and in batches if necessary, steam the eggplant for 10 to 12 minutes, until it is tender but not yet falling apart. Let the eggplant cool on a plate, discarding any liquid that accumulates.

Mash the garlic and salt together into a smooth paste, using the side of a knife. Transfer the paste to a medium bowl and stir in the lemon juice, olive oil, and chile flakes. Coarsely chop the walnuts and add them. Add the parsley and eggplant, and mix well.

Serves 4 as a side dish.

The regular

September 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

After my sweetheart, breakfast is my first love of the day. Every one. I love the idea of breakfast, too, the possibilities for the morning meals of special occasions— scones and yogurt and granola and omelets and almond croissants and buckwheat pancakes drizzled with boiled cider. But I only rarely eat any of those things. They are punctuations on a landscape that is determinedly routine. What I really love about breakfast is that I don’t have to think about it, and yet it delights me every single day. I don’t want variety or choice in the morning; I want an anchor. I found it in muesli.

I came to muesli a little late… never keen on the boxed versions, with their 15-line ingredient lists, that suggest, of all things, serving it doused with milk, which, if I may say, completely misses the point. Dry muesli, those not-quite-granola mixtures of dried fruit, nuts, seeds and dried grain, is, though perfectly nice, nothing special. And muesli sugared and toasted, that’s just muesli trying to be something it isn’t. It wasn’t until I started making muesli along traditional lines, soaking rolled oats overnight, that I got it. Muesli is about taking something humble and unassuming and making something revelatory with it. Soaked overnight, oats turn tender and springy; filled out with grated apple, walnuts, pumpkin seeds and raisins, bound with a bit of honey, they taste something near decadent. I have, on more occasions than I can recall, thrown off bedsheets in a panic and run down to the kitchen at midnight, half-naked, because I forgot to soak the oats for the next morning’s breakfast.

But this was all before I began rolling the oats out myself. Because I am prone to culinary obsessions and one of my favorite local growers starting bringing oats to market, I bought a little Italian grain mill and began rolling the oats every morning at home. Fresh oats are a little lower-maintenance, in one way—they don’t require overnight soaking; they rather suffer for it, so all they need is a brief 10-15 minute turn in a splash of liquid just after rolling. The texture is different: they’re chewier, and the flavor is earthier, but also more complex, a little floral, a little mineral. I make them this way and Tim soaks the store-bought overnight, and we take turns so that nobody’s way is best.

One last thing: I am impatient; otherwise I would have waited until fall’s apples started rushing in to post about muesli. In part, what I love about muesli is its adaptability—it is a reflection of where you are and what you have. When apples aren’t available at my local markets, berries or peaches are fine stand-ins. But there is something brilliant about muesli with grated apple, something in the contrasts of taste and texture, and that’s when I think I could really eat a bowl of muesli every morning, happily, for all my breakfasts. Except for an almond croissant or buckwheat pancakes, just every now and again.

Muesli

Muesli translates, roughly, as “little mush,” the original version being little more than grated apple and a bit of oats that had been soaked overnight in condensed milk. So I would argue that dry muesli, really, isn’t muesli at all. A few notes: blending in some rye or barley flakes is a good idea; soaking the oats in kombucha is awe-inspiring. A sprinkle of cardamom is splendid. You can use water with lemon in lieu of the cider or nectar if you’re a purist, or cheap. Don’t forget the pinch of salt.

For one:

1/2 cup rolled oats (and/or rye or barley flakes, optional)

apple cider, fruit nectar, or kombucha to cover, barely

pinch of salt

raisins, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, pecans

honey

1 small or 1/2 large apple, grated—tart, crisp varieties, like Gold Rush, Grimes Golden, or Pink Lady, are especially lovely (or, when apples are out of season, berries or peaches; something with good acidity)

Soak the oats overnight with the salt in a bowl large enough to accommodate the rest of the ingredients. You can, if your memory failed you the night before, soak them in slightly less liquid for 30 minutes or so, though they won’t become quite as tender, which isn’t necessarily the worst. Stir in the remaining ingredients; use as much or as little of everything as you like. Sometimes a bit of plain, full-fat yogurt spooned on top is just the thing.