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There are those with their secret paths, their weather pattern forecasts, their barometers AKA bad knees, and secret language of trees.
And there is me who cares not for mountain biking, skiing, snowboarding, and the like. I still have yet to grasp why I would pay hundreds (or thousands) of dollars to go through terrain I can damn well travel through on my own two feet. With shoes. It makes me go slow. It doesn't make feel like an awkward, uncoordinated git which I usually am. (True story, I recently rolled my ankle walking down my STAIRS).
And it allows me to pay attention to the leaves, the dirt, the sky, and sometimes I see things that I like to eat. Sometimes I bring them home. Other times I just gather them because they are gorgeous and mysterious.
Some people call this foraging. I call it walking with benefits. Someone asked me how I forage. My answer: "Fuck if I know. I just go for a walk."
Let me preface what I'm about to say with "I love creative, adventurous food. Cooking and dining, give it to me."
But after a marathon of 5-page recipes and multiple mini courses of culinary-combination genius, I dare you to find anyone who would say no to a simple roast chicken or a heavy bowl of lentil lamb soup.
Simply put, we underestimate the power of simplicity.
I've often been in kitchens of friends and friends of friends who slather on their impressive skill and relish in a 3-day orgy to create a good cassoulet. I've been asked for recipes for a "complete" dinner. When I hand over a first course of nothing but good charcuterie (awesome cured meats), I get a disappointed frown as if I had let them and every other home cook down. Poser, their looks seem to say.
It is not my job to stress over what I cook for myself and friends. Yet, we've all become rather pros at it. Nevermind the orchestration of technically-challenged and awe-inspiring dishes for your book club. I'm talking even getting a meal on the table to foster conversation flowing around it.
So we "do" take-out. Don't get me wrong. I enjoy my pastrami burger and gyro as much as the next person. But, the stuff is not the sustenance of a life. We think it's easier to commute, order, pick up, and serve. We think if we have to cook, we have to sweat considerably.
My delcaration to you all now: THAT. IS. SOOOOOOO WRONG.
The best cooks I know are the relaxed sort. They aren't harried when you come over. They take their time in the kitchen and dig it when you join them there as they prepare cheese and dried fruit plate for the sliced baguettes. Voila. An appetizer.
They don't tarry about finding toothpicks to secure neatly rolled bacon dates. They're aren't half-assed in listening to you bitch and moan about the latest batch of middle-class troubles.
They are fully invested in the moment of having you around. Fully invested in their glass of wine and still mindful of the cauliflower roasting alongside an untrussed chicken.
They believe that a good meal can be nothing more than a piece of fruit with all the ripeness nature can truly muster, a hunk of good bread, and perhaps some cheese or prosciutto.
To them and those who have inspired me in my lazy eating, therefore lazy cooking, I owe every dinner party and self-indulgent meal.
I cannot even begin to tell you about the bliss of radishes, fresh from my friend's garden and their greens still rugged and wrinkled, simply washed and piled onto a plate. Serve them with another small plate of room temperature, cloud soft butter, the best you can get your hands on, and a mound of coarse salt. Dip, sprinkle and crunch. If this is the bulk of your meal it's nice to have a baguette around. My friend, the pastry goddess known as Amber, likes to thinly slice hers and shingle them daintily atop a sliced baguette already slathered with butter. Sometimes there is herbage involved. Sometimes not. But always, the sandwich is enjoyed.
If you insist on some sort of gussying, a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt before going into a hot oven revealed a treat I have only recently known -- roasted radishes.
Radishes and butter are the most unusual and satisfying pairing, the herald of a season characterized by lazy cooking. Assembly is more like it when you have the bosomy vine-ripened tomatoes, just snapped beans and ears of corn that should really be categorized with candy. When we proceed to eat these things there should not be a trace of shame for not having done a step 1, 2, or 3 in order to enjoy it.
Some things are so simple, so pure and too good to embellish with flair and ego. Food tastes better without anxiety, even if it is nothing but a meal of fresh radishes and amazing Italian butter.
A few other such virtuous recipes ...
LENTIL LAMB SOUP * simple summer joys * PANDORO FRENCH TOAST * german pancake * SOFT BOILED EGG & BUTTERED TOAST * spicy anchovy greens * corn on the cob slathered with feta and many things * CREME FRAICHE * feta biscuits * ROASTED APRICOTS WITH BRIE * ajvar cracker * CHOCOLATE CROSTINI
I know. The title sounds like a bad '70s easy listening hit. But even now with bouts of sun and cloud duking it out for seasonal dominance, I'm rooting for the sun, betting every single metaphorical and metaphysical buck I have on the warmth and the life giving, soul-drenching sunlight.
My argument: Sunlight brings me fresh chili peppers from small pots on a patio. Little lightning strikes of fiery reds, yellows and oranges. Some are as hot on the tongue. Others wonderfully mild and perfect for dipping like a carrot stick in something as simple as olive oil and salt or my mom's favorite, a paste of Korean miso paste, Korean chili paste, rice vinegar, sugar and salt.
Sunglight also brings me a basil plant. Strike that. A basil tree. From one lowly plant that managed to outlive the once thriving tomato, it gave me bushels and bushels of fragrant greenery. Some I plucked as I needed for the lazy summer cooking (assembly is more like it) for a salad here and there. Maybe some goat cheese.
When the sunlight started to fade, I rushed all the tender leaves inside for one last good-bye with the help of my food processor and some ice cube trays. Fresh pesto is simple enough -- take basil by the handful (the way Scrooge McDuck would grasp handfuls of his cash), wads and wads of it, stuff it into a food processor bowl that has already in it some fresh garlic cloves, pine nuts and salt already pulverized.
Pulse until the leaves are no longer leaves, but confetti. Slowly stream in a waterfall of extra-virgin olive oil. Something sweet and mild like almonds, versus punchy like a radish and cut grass. Stir in some grated pecorino cheese (I love Fiore Sardo). Season to taste. I kept one jar in the fridge. The rest in tupperware or ice cube trays to deliver some warmer memory in the depths of winter.
Sunlight also allows me big ripe tomatoes from friends and neighbors (I am not a good gardener. Thankfully, my friends are) that I stuffed with goat cheese, chopped basil or whatever other fresh herb was abundant. Sometimes I added in some fresh corn kernels to pop like sweet candy with the soft fresh tomato. Olive oil and some sliced zucchini into the same pan before going into a hot oven. To be flashy, I finish it off under the broiler until the cheese reaches this gorgeous cosmetic flourish. It tastes good, too.
I look out my window and imagine these flavors the moment I tasted them. The pesto is almost gone. The chili peppers in my fridge from some other place. And tomatoes? The ones I've come across are more appropriate as blunt force weapons as opposed to seasonal bliss.
But even as the memories fade like the morning fog, the sunlight usually shows up just in time. I no longer have to rely on memories for the promise of sunshine because it will be here.
I'm not a religious person in any sense. But I can see how people for generations on end prayed for and to the sun. We might not have temples for it or ceremonies to exalt it, but as I look around me the throng of responsible adults look out their own windows and long for the same thing the ancients did.
Bring us light.
For the most part, it's an irresistible buy. As I write this in the height of summer, farmers display rows of aromatic bundles. Fresh basil, woody thyme, piney rosemary, wise sage and frilly fresh dill. In the depth of winter, the greenery cradled in plastic cartons offer a bit of sensory respite that is almost worth a steep price tag. Inevitably though, like a romance, the passion wanes. From hot and heavy plans of a pesto-making orgy to the sad, limp leaves sitting in some lost corner of the fridge. The produce industry term for it is "loss." I don't think many greengrocers understand how poetic that is.
Because as much as a chiffonade of basil or a sprinkling of chopped Italian parsley is almost an afterthought in this Food Network-happy world, the fact remains that herbs uplift anything and everything, intended and unintended. To me, it's a sappy amazing grace sort of moment. The basil was lost, but now is found. Maybe not for pesto, but ... something. Leftovers have purpose, too.
"How thin do you want this pasta?" My friends stood next to the flour-dusted pasta crank, holding up fresh sheets of precariously long pasta. It looked as if they were going to hang up a "Happy Birthday" or "Welcome Home" banner.
"Not too thin," I dictated quickly. The pasta was in capable hands and by now, there were sheets and sheets of stretched out dough, generously dusted with flour and ready to be cut. All the messy effort was for what I was attending to in the pan -- deeply fragrant gems of crisping guanciale -- cured pig jowl -- favas, peas, shallots and ... who knows what else we decided to throw into the pot.
Emboldened by a few glasses of wine and the coaxing of good friends, anything is possible. Take recipes. Most people are slaves to them. They plan. They organize. They worry and fret. But inebriation and hunger are prime motivators to toss the whole regimented lot in favor of some past knowledge, intuition and most importantly, bacon.
"Cooking" requires a degree of heat that isn't appealing at the height of summer. Without air-conditioning. Little wonder then that Mother Nature made it so that the food emerging from the soil and pops up in markets Farmer and Super particularly good. The point being, you don't really need to do anything to it.
My sort of summer cooking is more assembly than anything. Despite the allure of pies, I try to keep baking to a minimum. The less time with heat the better for me — and the food.
In that list of assembly-friendly food, of course, is the salad. Its attained an iconic status, synonymous (with bottled water) with the ascetically healthy, the Sizzlers of the world and their buffets. The salad is almost regarded as a punishment for past gluttony which is a shame considering how it's best suited to the bountiful part of the year.
So why the hell am I using cabbage? Simple. Ever heard of coleslaw?
Last winter, not too far from the month of November, my friend Amber planted a few ordinary onions that had started to sprout. We didn't think anything of it other than how sad it would be to toss these green things into the garbage, dank with decay and biting winter cold. She put them into a large container, empty save some brown dirt, and left them for the winter.
The following summer, a few green stalks snaked out of the pot. Each week, they reached higher and higher toward the warmth of the sun. As my half-assed garden was tended and herbs planted around it, it grew independent of my worry, my attempted care, strong and beautiful.
The blossoms were bunched into a pom-pom, of sorts. Sometimes, they reminded me of summer fireworks. The tiny white things smelled and tasted of onion in a soft, echoey way. They were the most beautiful things that came out of the dirt. The stalks eventually waned, as all living things must do, but before it disappeared from this earth, it passed on quiet, lovely memories, a few endearing photographs and above all, four small, perfect yellow onions.
It's winter again. The sun hasn't shown its face in a good three days. Snow already blanketed us once. I'm not good in winter with the cold and the grey. I try to keep spirits up with plenty of liquid spirits, a grotesque number of candles and every sort of twinkly light imaginable. I crave the light much the way the onion stalk did when it was planted in winter soil.
So I keep the ideas of possibilities in my head. That winter is a time to plan and plant in the rhetorical sense and that whatever I decide or achieve now, it has to blossom later. I can't promise onions, but I at least do promise more writing.
I know, I know. I sound like the ass-hole neglectful boyfriend. But as the day job gets busier and more practical pursuits ensure the bill-paying abilities, I crave ... writing. The freelance life can get wily and out of control. A big chunk of my time is spent eating out, knowing about restaurants and chefs at home and beyond. When I put away the computer or send out the last draft, the thing I miss most in my sullen fatigue is cooking.
Looking at my prospective winter budget, I can afford meds, but not therapy. So I'll pursue my own psychological prescription: more time in the kitchen, in front of the stove.
Will you take this medicine with me?
For the record, I've killed mint. Unintentionally. I'm an absolute shit gardener. Though I have Barbara Kingsolver's ambition and ideals, I've none of her experience and luck with the dirt. If it weren't for the farmers' markets and the generosity of my all-knowing gardener friends, I'd have nothing to feast on come growing season.
Backyard plots, community gardens, containers plants and window sills -- woe to any plot that comes under my surveillance. May all those past roots, sprouts and starters rest their dried out, fried out, over-neglected and under-neglected souls and next live a life of a seed that makes it into the packet that makes it into the hands of someone entirely more capable.
I've spent a good deal of my life feeding people. One of my few strengths is to go into the kitchen and, regardless of how constrained I was by finances, cook something delicious to feed my beloved friends.
But in the last little while something funny happened: I lost my appetite.
My mind usually crowded with ideas of what I'll cook next suddenly didn't have room for feasts, large and small. As winter set in, it was crowded with something that ate at me from the inside. It was sudden. And it was voracious.
Let's just say, I've always had that constant, dull gnaw of anxiety with me. Even as a kid, my stomach would churn when Dad's voice hit an angry octave or when I thought about how to "plan my future." But this anxiety was different. It lay so thick on my tongue that nothing tasted good.