Archive for January 2011

losing my religion (and coming home for a visit)

January 12, 2011

Alliums are a religion in south Louisiana. Everything I ever learned to cook there began with the “holy trinity” of onions, peppers and celery, followed by a heap of minced garlic. I’ve heard some cooks extend the sacred metaphor, likening garlic to the Virgin Mary. This might seem to relegate the pungent bulb to secondary status, but in Catholic Cajun country, the daily rosary can take on a greater importance than weekly mass.

Any ritual worth its salt soon seeps out of its learned context. The funky sludge that forms the background of jambalaya, gumbo, etouffee remained with me even as I expanded my culinary repertoire. Italian red sauce, southwestern black beans, even vaguely Asian stir-fries — all began a hefty pile of onions and garlic. Streaming eyes and fragrant fingers were an inevitable by-product of feeding myself.

I’ve heard some preachers warn that yoga has the insidious power to distract souls from the faith of their fathers. Well, in my case, it wasn’t insidious at all. As a newly minted teacher, I became a regular studio assistant, which meant getting up close and personal with practitioners in a small, sweaty room. And so, in an effort to practice kindness toward my fellow yogis, I deliberately abandoned the holy trinity (not to mention the heavenly bulb).

These days I only teach three months of the year, but I’ve broken with those early cooking rituals for good. Part of it, I think, has to do with the fact that I’m growing so much of my own food, and I mostly prefer to let each bright shining vegetable speak for itself, without too much complication. When alliums do figure into the equation, I’m aware of them in a way I never used to be, and I’m now picky about not only the particulars of the plant, but also the size of the dice and the amount of moderating heat applied.

Last summer, as an experiment, I grew some garlic. A very modest investment gave me a good-sized crop, and this winter I find myself cooking more in accordance with my upbringing. A pot of soup might begin with a head of roasted garlic and end with a raw clove, ground to a paste with a bit of salt and stirred in before serving. In the height of the sniffle season, I figure my body is glad for its natural antiseptic qualities. And I’ve spent much of December and January in Roseboom, so in the mornings I practice alone—no one but me notices the faint odor that  clings to my fingertips and seeps from my pores.

raiding the pantry

January 6, 2011

It’s taken me awhile to figure it out, but now I know: eating well in winter is more about planning than canning. Shell beans, winter squash, potatoes, garlic go from the ground to the pantry with no processing required. So I planted lots of them. This December, I spent more time in Roseboom than anywhere else, so it was a great opportunity to enjoy the fruits of my labors.  

I. Spicy peanut-squash stew. Hack a giant squash in two and set it to roast in the oven, along with a head or two of garlic, anointed with oil and wrapped in foil. On the stove, soften chopped onions and garlic in olive oil, then add spices (I used cumin, coriander, cayenne) and toast a bit. Scoop in some peanut butter, plus maybe a little water, and stir until melted; turn off heat. Squish the roasted garlic into the pot. When the squash is manageable, peel and chop into cubes. Add these to the pot, along with enough water to get the consistency you want. At this point you can puree into an elegant bisque-like creation (maybe add some cream or coconut milk) but I prefer a chunky, inelegant stew. It is especially good with brown rice added, but all I had was crushed wheat, and that worked pretty well. Something green added just before serving is always a good idea, and I was able to dig some kale out of the snow—at least the for the first few servings.

II. Black beans, brown beer, purple potatoes. I once read a recipe for black beans cooked in dark beer until the beans were soft and the beer reduced to a syrup. With company expected for dinner, I needed to stretch the recipe a bit, so while the beans simmered in Ommegang I sauteed onions in oil, followed by spices, then added water and some chopped purple potatoes. (Regular potatoes would work as well, but they take on an unappetizing gray color in black bean soup.) Combined the pots, added some garlic, and voila: a nice hearty supper. I also chopped up some of last summer’s dried tomatoes, added them to warm olive oil, and served on homemade bread provided by my guests.

III. Extravagant lentils. Sometime in January, my kitchen is going to be gutted. So this business of cooking from the existing larder is not just about feeding myself and avoiding the trip to the market. It’s also about spending down the stores before I have to move the contents of my kitchen into the living room. This makes me feel a lot better about decimating supplies of luxury ingredients like dried porcini mushrooms. I put them into a stew of lentils, roasted garlic, celery, and leftover red wine.

IV. Bean, tangerine…  Cook chopped-up tangerine (with peel) and onion until carmelized,then throw in some chopped ginger and red pepper flakes. Add squash seeds and cook til toasted. Green beans can go straight from the freezer to pot.

V. Nightshade elixir. Ground cherries were this year’s garden discovery. They look like small tomatillos and taste something like a tomato crossed with a pineapple. Starting in August, my one plant threw off a handful or two of ripe fruit every day. Just before the frost hit, I picked it clean, gathering more than 700 full pods, some more ripe than others. I put them in jars with vodka and honey. I’ve read that this kind of preparation should sit for six months, but I threw caution to the wind served them in shot glasses following a recent dinner. They taste like strawberries.

VI. Cornmeal mush. I’m glad the Quaker company has retained the traditional name for the most basic recipe on its cardboard canister. The Italian title may be more musical, but cornmeal mush is good enough for me. I had it for breakfast with butter and maple syrup, for lunch (after a freak thaw revealed perky greens under the snow) with kale and carmelized onions.

VII. Something Asian….ish. On New Year’s Day, my friends up the road host a party in their sweet little straw house. Guests are asked to bring an Asian dish to share. I had a few relevant ingredients on hand—a lime, ginger root, coconut, sesame seeds—but I couldn’t figure out how these might combine with the other ingredients in my winter pantry. So I mixed them up with an egg and some sugar and made macaroons.