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Leave it to the weather to reveal our most fickle natures. Marinating in 99 degree weather, eating, cooking and food shopping is mostly a cooling affair -- melon and cured meats, refreshing salads, and maybe the purple raspberries dribbling with a bit of heavy cream for dessert.
Then, the clouds swept in. I had forgotten that a sky even existed within the small walls of my "cubice" (neither cubicle nor office, rather an office constructed from cubicle walls) when my friend Jesse beckoned me. "You have to look at this," he said facing out the window.
Before him the technicolor summer had dissipated into a gray gradient. Huge trees swayed like kelp in a strong sea current with the violent wind. Overhead, the clouds stampeded, one on top of another, toward some eastward destination to deliver a thunderous blow of piercing rain. We took this all in for a few moments, our eyes thankful for the reprieve from computer monitors. Even with the shelter of the office, I felt the raw power of the summer storm and it infused me with an energy no vitamins or cups of coffee could've provided.
I drove home with the windows down, letting the post-storm air flush through my car. For once in a long time, I felt like I needed a sweater. By the time I stood in my kitchen, the lights were on. The clouds covered the late sumer sun and even though I knew my calendar read "August," it could've been November for all I cared.
I stared at the melons in my fridge, but even their alluring scent couldn't convince me to do something with them. Salad greens seemed anemic. Even the artisan salami couldn't lift my spirits into motivation.
In the freezer I saw one solitary sausage link. This was made by the same group of artisans that crafted the salami in the compartment below. The sweet, fatty heft, even in little amounts would be good. Then I remembered the half open container of vegetable stock in the fridge.
And so it was that in the middle of summer, I cooked up a heavy, filling soup. With less liquid it could've been a stew. But I say in my defense that cooking was nominal. Weekday cooking can sometimes contribute to the daily drain one can feel. But this was more the meeting of a few good tasty morsels than preparation of any sort. Like all soups, it's even better the next day, diluted with a little water or stock.
Kale Sausage & Cannelini Bean Soup
Water is fine to replace the stock. Either way, it never hurts to add a nubbin of Parmigiano-Reggiano rind or the "butt" end of a prosciutto leg. It goes a long way to deepend the flavors of any liquid. You can obtain those from a very nice cheesemonger or specialty grocer who understands your soup-needs. Frugal cooks and Italian grandmothers keep a stash of their own in the freezer. I wrap mine in plastic and throw it straight in frozen.
1/4 pound sausage or 1 Creminelli link * olive oil for sauteeing * 2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed * 5 big leaves of chard, kale, etc. * 1 teaspoon toasted fennel seeds * 1 dried red chili * 1 quart of vegetable or chicken stock * 1 can of Cannelini beans, drained
Heat a soup pot over medium heat and the sausage and oil. If the meat is in link form, release it from the casing with a twist and squeeze, the way kids like to dispense of toothpaste. Dispose the skin. Saute and stir with a wooden spoon to break up the sausage into miniscule particles. Add the garlic - peel and crush it in one go with the flat side of your knife placed on top of them on a cutting board. Give it a good thwack with your fist and you'll find smashed cloves with skins barely hanging on. Cook for two minutes being careful not to let it brown.
Meanwhile, rinse the leaves and cut or tear off the tender leafy sections from the center stalk. Chop the stalk as finely as you can and it to the pot. Tear in the leaves. Grind the fennel seeds add this to the pot along with the dried chili, crumbled between keyboard-weary fingers. Stir to combine.
If you have some booze to spare - a glug of ale, a glass of white wine, some dry sherry - pour it in and amplify the aromatherapy before you. Then add the broth (water is fine, too) and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer let it cook until the greens are tender, about 12 to 15 minutes in my case, but it will depend on how big your greens are cut.
When tender, add the cannelini beans. Purists can also add their soaked and boiled dried beans instead of the convenient canned variety. Smugness is not desired. Cook for another five minutes and season it with as much salt and pepper as you (I find sausage salt content varies, so really do taste it before adding salt so you don't overdo it with the sodium).
To serve, drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil and top with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Eat in huge bowls standing by the windows.
The lentil and the lamb. The humble and the meek. Or at least, that's what they have supposedly represented. But to me, the lentil has long been the stuff of easy luxury. Hearty, filling, but a lot more elegant than boiled potatoes. Likewise, lamb has a distinctive gait across my tongue. The good stuff has trodden green, green pastures under the sun or trampled the cold-packed dirt of a milder winter pasture. It tastes of the earth in cycle and I love any cut of it. The obvious loin chops, shoulders for sauteeing or braising. But I have a soft spot for the shank.
This is a cavegirl's cut (they had to eat, too, right?). The centerpiece being a sturdy leg bone fat with marrow that along with the meat around it can be coaxed into the most unctuous tenderness.
Often, I do just that. Lentils and lamb shank into a pot. Add water and simmer. It is a lazy means to a luxurious result. And it is ideal for weather that straddles the line between heavy wool sweater and light pink cardigan/
I make this with Laurie Colwin in mind. How many times she literally made her beloved lentil soup. Always with onion. Sometimes with bacon. But yes, she, like me, extolls the addition of lamb. It is because of her I have no problem sousing my soup right before serving with a good glug of cognac, brandy and even dry sherry. It is because of her I have tried this soup at all.
The most appealing virtue about it is that it is entirely personalized according to your mood, pantry and disposition. Add some tzatziki (cucumbers shredded into thick yogurt), pita and perhaps a plate of fresh radishes with crazy good butter, and well, I call that my Monday night feast. Mondays are days where I often make the time to spend at home at my table. Usually there's the Voracious One and a good friend or two (they always show up at dinner time). The friends are even better when they arrive with a bottle of wine.
When Spring and Winter are fighting over who gets to be around, it's time for stew. The new willow tree outside is holding onto its light green buds through the flurry of white flecks. Wood for planter boxes sits ready to transform into a garden. The chickens peck around looking for grubs and warmth away from the wetness. Spring in a snow globe.
Ground meat often gets a bad wrap. Often associated with meatloaf, forgotten rather than rhapsodized about, or those unassuming grey burgers of school lunches, we tend to forget it's often the basis of the most comforting, filling and easy recipes. Most of its life, it lives in the dark cold of the freezer. Case in point: Lamb Ragu. I know. I cheated. But that's part of the deal when you're on a budget: you forage into the icy crevasses of the freezer and in the dark corners of the cabinet to figure out what else to transform into your next restorative. In my case, it was a couple of nests of fresh pasta, delicately frozen, and a block of good, organic, grass-fed lamb.
Who knows what would've happened to that lamb had I never been hit by this economic wake-up call? It could've remained untapped, like a wooly mammoth under yards of ice, undisturbed until something cataclysmic finally revealed its priceless remains. Perhaps I'm being dramatic about the emotional effects of the freelance life, but at times, it sure as hell feels like the earth beneath your feet is giving way. When that feeling kicks in, it's time for ragu AKA bolognese.
Mom and anyone else who speaks better Korean than I do calls it sam gye tang. I call it Chicken Ginseng Soup which is a bit of harmless misnomer. Only because the chicken is actually a Cornich Rock Game Hen -- a long name for a tiny bird that's usually found rock hard deep in the freezer section. Along with a handful of ingredients, it transforms a pot of water from something merely hydrating to a healing pot of soft broth that can make you feel good down to your bones. And it's what I can only resurrect when I or the people I care about need something that tastes better NyQuil.