Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Seeded Winter Slaw

This is the salad I keep coming back to this winter. It’s like a song stuck in my head, except there’s a bit of a different riff each time, depending on what vegetables happen to be in the fridge that particular day—and we've been wealthy in winter vegetables thanks to our Local Roots CSA share. The basics are the same: celery root, apples, and beets, all julienned matchstick thin. Sometimes I throw in some shredded cabbage, other times fennel bulb, sliced wisp thin. If I’ve come into some sunflower sprouts or lacy micro anything, I’ll throw those in too, to remind myself that Spring is right around the corner. Another punchy addition is quick-pickled shallot, which is easy enough to make if you don’t mind the extra step and just a tiny bit of advance planning. Always, I dress the whole thing up in a tart apple cider vinaigrette and scatter crunchy seeds on top with abandon. This salad—or slaw, or whatever you'd like to call it—is sturdy enough to keep until the next day with minimal change in texture…and the color is undeniably pretty. May I present:

Seeded Winter Slaw

Ingredients:

  • 1 ½ cup shredded raw cabbage (leaves sliced thin)
  • 1 cup finely julienned raw celery root*
  • ½ cup finely julienned raw beetroot*
  • 1 small apple (keep the peel), cored and julienned*
  • 2 TBS sunflower seeds 
  • 2 tsp poppy seeds (more if you'd like)
  • Pinch of flaky sea salt 
*To julienne the vegetables, cut away the outer peel and discard, then either use the thin ⅛" (not super fine) setting on a mandoline**, OR do it by hand: cut vegetables into very thin cross sections, about  " thick, then crossways into matchsticks of about  " thick.  
 
For vinaigrette:
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard 
  • 1 tsp honey 
  • 2 TBS apple cider vinegar 
  • 7-8 TBS extra-virgin olive oil (or sunflower oil) 
  • Hefty pinch of sea salt 
  • A couple cranks of ground black pepper
Instructions:
  1. Mix up the vinaigrette in a small bowl: whisk together mustard, honey, and vinegar. Whisk in oil very gradually so that it does not separate. Taste it as you go, until you achieve just the right tartness. Add salt and pepper to taste. 
  2. In a medium bowl, toss all vegetables and apples, adding the dressing gradually and tasting occasionally, until you've gotten the right amount—you don't want it too heavy or greasy, and you will most likely have some dressing left over. 
  3. Toss with a couple big pinches of flaky sea salt and the seeds, saving a few extra to put on top of the salad when serving. If you're adding sprouts or microgreens, wait until the very end so they're still spritely when served. 
Variation: Quick-Pickled Shallots
To quick-pickle shallots, simply remove the outer layer of skin from the shallot and discard. Slice the shallot very, very thin crosswise. In a small bowl, mix a bit of vinegar (2-3 TBS) with a pinch of sugar and a pinch of salt until dissolved. Toss the shallots in this mixture and allow them to stand at room temperature for an hour or two (stir occasionally if they're not covered). 
Variation with pickled shallots and sunflower sprouts

**A note about mandolines: If you're interested in investing in one, the Japanese Benriner is relatively inexpensive on Amazon (I've linked to the older, cheaper version). They're great for slicing things very thinly, making French Fries, and julienning all sorts of stuff. You've been warned, though: they will just as easily remove a chunk of your thumb, as I've done. 

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Beginnings

Twenty years ago this month, New York City’s January air welcomed me with a fresh slap. I arrived trailing a suitcase and a folder full of resumes on thick paper. I also carried a binder case filled with my CD collection, whose contents hinted at former lives: “le Meilleur de Flashdance et Fame,” purchased in a bout of homesickness and nostalgia from FNAC in Paris during the previous post-college year, huddled reluctantly beside the Grateful Dead and Widespread Panic CDs still hanging around from high school (I was too sentimental to jettison them).

At first, I crashed at the little-used apartment of my godparents, in the East 70’s, where it was easy to pretend I had fast-forwarded over the hard first part of life in New York. I worked my way through the Pellegrino and Sancerre that stocked the fridge, until I was told in polite but unmistakable terms that it was time for me to find somewhere else to freeload. I took a bus crosstown through the park and landed in the living room of Em and Jo, dear hometown friends who told me I could occupy their sofa bed for as long as I needed to, the assumption on both sides being that I was closing in on a job and would soon be able to afford an apartment of my own (ha!).

When I wasn’t interviewing or checking my email at an internet café somewhere, I was getting in touch with anyone at all in the city who would hang out with me during the chilly days; the city has a way of shaming the idle and plus, there was so much to see. A guy I knew who was creatively employed had time during those long weeks to show me the New York sights I should know, like the lobby of the Chrysler building, and Grand Central Oyster bar, which had recently suffered a fire that sent tiles from its vaulted interior raining down like so many fall leaves; the ceiling still had a wounded, blistered look, but waiters bustled about and lunchgoers bent over their chowder as though nothing had happened. It was there that I learned to love raw oysters on the half shell. I checked out every museum I could and followed up nervously, a little desperately, after interviews—most of which yielded something along the lines of “we don’t currently have any paid positions, but if you would be willing to accept an unpaid internship…” I laughed at the thought of living unsalaried in New York City for any length of time, even though I knew I was lucky to be enjoying that life, if guiltily, for an interval.

In the evenings, and the early mornings before work, I looked forward to time with my roommates, because we laughed together non-stop and had known each other as children. In the mornings over coffee we watched Pat Kiernan on New York 1, and when everyone was home from work we drank cheap wine and rehashed the weekend’s escapades. Around that time the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal broke on the living room’s boxy TV, and we howled in disbelief when the grinning, big-haired shot of Monica flashed across the screen, looking like a high school graduation picture of someone we might have known peripherally not too long ago; she was our age. With each new sordid layer exposed we sat more riveted: the stained dress, the outrageous duplicity of Linda Tripp. “What the fuck?” was about all we could say to any of it*.

At night, after everyone had retired to their rooms, I would drift off to the otherworldly sound of steam pipes clanking and groaning, something powerful and mysterious asserting itself
within the walls of the prewar building. Finally, by the next month, my quest for a job panned out and I’d started looking at apartments: dusty, unbelievably expensive little boxes. I ended up taking one in the west 80’s, near my friends: a tiny basement studio I couldn’t afford, but which had a quasi-kitchen with a black and white linoleum floor that was evocative of something, and a Magic Chef stove—potential for me to experiment and create feasts, even if I had nowhere to serve them. As for the job, they wanted me right away. It wasn’t the position in food media I'd sought—it was with a group of shelter magazines—but my rationale was that at least by getting in the kitchen I would be close to food. The title was Administrative Assistant, with the potential for writing opportunities and upward mobility; this much turned out to be true, quickly, even if I never did muster the requisite enthusiasm for faucets and furniture. I worked for Hearst, in a building on West 55th St. whose front door led straight across the street to the original Soup Nazi, lunch lines and all. During that time I ate mostly bagels and lentils and pasta, and occasionally soup.

Those New York beginnings weren’t edgy or cool or opulent as the mythical ones you always hear about; I was no Patti Smith. Late 90’s NYC had already lost its frisson of danger for the most part, the East Village a playground for post-college kids like me. The soundtrack to “Rent” already sounded contrived and outdated. But as with all the best beginnings, mine were built on kindnesses and connections, and the everyday incandescence of a new, big city. When you’ve lived somewhere else, you think you know yourself as an extension of that town, until you move and that layer is ripped away, leaving you open to everything the new place hurls your way. I felt at once exposed and cocooned. And then at some point during that year, without even noticing, I’d grown a shell—thin and fragile at first—that marked me as a New Yorker.

Over the next couple of years, the friends who had made my first days in New York so colorful and warm flew away like butterflies. New York, for them, had been a post-college palate cleanser—something I truly expected it to be for me, too—and other places beckoned them with more permanence. I’d met someone fortuitously at a party (do people even meet this way any more?), and that someone turned out to be my husband, with whom I began a new, big chapter whose roots sank deep into the city’s pavement. His friends became my friends, and eventually many of us ended up in Brooklyn, where we have added a growing family of friends to the bunch, including many children—a whole other wonderful and still bewildering thing.

There were endings among the beginnings. The building where I’d worked my first real job was torn down to make way for a taller, more efficient one, and I don't even recognize that part of town anymore on the rare occasion when I go there. The boy who’d taken me to the Oyster Bar died suddenly, I heard, a few years after I’d lost touch with him. Then there was 9/11. The attacks shattered the city while we were living downtown, within viewing distance of the blazing towers and close enough that our apartment filled with acrid smoke when we fled, leaving a window open. For a time it felt like the world was ending and our neighborhood's fences fluttered with hopeful, awful "missing" pictures until they faded or fell or were taken down, but in spite of the feeling of unbelievable fear and sadness, resilience eventually won out.

As for my old CD collection, those that weren’t sold at a stoop sale are buried in a drawer somewhere, and my children will never know what it’s like to pop in a disc, because any time they want music they just tell a speaker what to play.

Would I live anywhere else? Could I? Of course. Everywhere I visit, it seems, is a reminder that things could be easier, slower, and for better or worse, less full and noisy. I think we’ll stay put for a while.


Caccio e Pepe
Serves 1 (multiply for company)

Ingredients:
  • 4 oz. dried spaghetti noodles 
  • Salt (for the water)
  • 1/2 c. finely grated pecorino Romano cheese
  • Freshly ground pepper (about 1/2 tsp., or to taste)

Instructions: 
  1. Fill a big pot of salted water (should taste like the sea) and put it on to boil. Once it's boiling, add pasta and monitor closely. Have a skillet at the ready alongside the pot.  
  2. Once pasta is almost done, put the skillet over medium heat and ladle about half a ladle full of pasta water to start, then mix in cheese and pepper vigorously with the back of a spoon until cheese is fully dissolved and the mixture is creamy and thick; you may need to play around with the amount of water. Turn down low. As soon as the pasta has reached the al dente stage (only way to know is to keep trying it—should resist slightly between your teeth), scoop it out with tongs and transfer to the skillet, where it will cook for another minute or two. Stir constantly until noodles are coated with the creamy sauce; drizzle in a little more pasta water at a time if it seems to dry. 
  3. Serve immediately, sprinkling with additional grated cheese and pepper. 

I wish I'd had this Roman classic in my back pocket all those years ago—it's frugal, simple, quick, and comes together almost magically.

*I have come to admire the advocacy work Monica has done against cyber-bullying and regret to remember her for that moment in time.



 








Thursday, November 9, 2017

Something Else

About 10 years ago, when I had two toddlers under three, I dragged my sorry self into a holistic doctor's office. I could write an endless list of complaints I had at the time, but to sum it up, I felt like complete crap and thought that surely I must not be long for this world. After filling out forms and going through basic health questions, I moved on to a doctor-led dissection of my lifestyle. It was here that she pounced on our evening routine, which involved cooking two dinners—one for the kids and one for us parents—separated by an elaborate bedtime routine and all of it wrapping up somewhere around midnight, about five hours before the younger child awoke. 

The doctor looked at me in vague horror as I sheepishly finished describing all of this to her. "No wonder you feel the way you do! You're pouring all your energy into other people." She was right, and someone with a medical license didn't need to be the one telling me this.
The truth was, the last thing I was trying to do was martyr myself—I simply love to cook and hadn't yet figured out how to be efficient about it. More importantly, having a later, adult dinner was a way to feel human and eat exactly what I wanted to, and enjoy the meal (and a glass of wine or two) with the other grownup of the house once all the kid toys were kicked to the margins of the room and the sippy cups were stowed in the dishwasher.

But this daily slog was wearing me out more than it was giving me fulfillment. Fortunately, 10 years and another kid later, I've gotten saner about evenings, and that has enabled me to survive an increasingly complicated life. One of our crutches is getting takeout here and there; no shame in that! Another trick: teaching my older kids—11 and 13—how to cook, and assigning them dinner some nights (if you're going to have kids, you might as well raise helpers, right?). But then I have a few "something else recipes" in my back pocket: the tasty, wholesome ones that can be served two different ways, but which we all sit down to enjoy together. I serve them with punchy, add-on garnishes that instantly gin up the flavor for more sophisticated (or spice-tolerant on our case) adult palates. I'm all for getting away from the concept of kid food, but in reality some of the hotter, stronger flavors don't fly yet; I hope this will soon change. 

The soup recipe below is my new favorite fall "something else" recipe. It's also a change from the version I had on repeat for way too long, which relied on ample butter for comfort. The one below is vegan, but that's really just a side bonus. The flavor profile is tangy, bright, and clear and makes me believe it wouldn't be hard at all to give up dairy (for a day).
Butternut Squash Soup With Lemongrass and Red Curry Oil
Serves 4-6 (more if you are serving kids' portions)

Ingredients: 
  • 2 TBS vegetable oil (sunflower, coconut, olive, or similar)
  • 1 small yellow onion
  • 1 tsp. ground coriander seed
  • 1 very large butternut squash (or 2 small ones), peeled, de-seeded, and cubed*
  • 1 stalk lemongrass
  • 1" section of fresh ginger, peeled and minced very fine
  • 1 pint (approx.) unsalted vegetable stock/broth*
  • 1/2 can (less if you prefer) full-fat, unsweetened coconut milk (I prefer the canned kind since it's creamier, but you can also use about 1/2 cup or more of the lighter kind that comes in cartons)
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • Sea salt to taste
 
Ingredients for garnish: 
  • 2 TBS virgin coconut oil
  • 1 TBS minced ginger
  • 2 TBS Thai red curry paste (the brand I use is Thai Taste)
  • Fresh cilantro leaves, roughly chopped
 
Instructions: 
  1. To prepare lemongrass: remove  2 or 3 outer tough, woody layers and discard them (or reserve for stock). Chop off the dry, wispy tops and root end. What you should be left with is a long core that is still relatively tough but feels slightly damp and alive. Put this on a cutting board and with the blunt side of a large knife's blade, pound the lemongrass up and down on all sides to tenderize it. Now, with the sharp side of the blade, mince the lemongrass finely. 
  2. In a large sturdy saucepan or Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium-high heat and add the onion and ground coriander, and a sprinkle of salt. Stirring occasionally, sauté for about 5 minutes, or until the onion is slightly translucent (do not brown). Add the squash and minced lemongrass and stir around a couple of times, then pour in enough stock to reach halfway up the vegetables. Bring to a boil then quickly lower to a simmer and cover. 
  3. Meanwhile, make the red curry oil. In a small skillet, heat up the coconut oil for a few minutes. Add the ginger, sizzling briefly, then add the red curry paste. Cook, stirring, for a couple of minutes to bring the flavors up. At this point, add a few drops of water until the consistency is liquid (drizzle-able) but not watery. Reserve in the pan until you're ready to serve the soup.
  4. Simmer squash mixture for about 25-30 minutes total, checking occasionally. Stir in ginger after about 20 minutes. The vegetables are ready when the squash is soft and yielding when pierced with a knife, but not gone to mush.
  5. In a good blender, whir the vegetables and their liquid until they are velvety smooth with no lumps (do this in batches if it won't all fit in the blender at once—you can mix it together in the pot afterwards). Add the lime juice and 1/2 cup coconut milk at first (stir if separated), taste, then add more if you like. Rinse out the pot you used for cooking, then add back the blended soup and turn heat to low, adding more stock or water if it seems too thick. Important: now taste and add salt bit by bit until the flavors are where you want them. I don't like including precise salt measurements in my recipes, since everyone's tastes are different and the other ingredients vary. 
  6. Serve soup hot in bowls, then swirl in red curry oil and scatter with cilantro leaves if desired. Offer extra garnishes at the table. 
*Stock-making tip: You can make your own vegetable stock, using the peels and seeds as a base. Put these in a medium pot along with the following: discarded lemongrass husks, a small chopped onion and/or leek, a smashed garlic clove, chopped celery or fennel, a chopped carrot, a bay leaf, a few peppercorns, and a strip of kombu (aka kelp - if you don't have it, that's fine!). Add just enough water to cover and simmer for up to an hour.