[Limantour, March 2012.]
March. Suddenly, we’re on the cusp of spring. This strange, dry, sunny winter has turned everything around and the mountains are hardly snow-laden, the reservoirs low, and today a cold wind is blowing out the last few days of the season proper. The time changes soon into more daylight hours, my favorite time of year, the only holiday I could ask for (though of course it is not a true holiday – just in my own wee imaginings). This weekend we walked along a nearly deserted beach (see above), hiked a steep trail up into the woods (throwing sticks for the dog) and around and down to see Tomales Bay at minus tide (you could have walked across it), drank tea, caught some sun. Right now is an in-between time.
But … there is always the kitchen to anchor me.
Lately – or rather, since we’ve gotten back from our lune de miel/vacation – I’ve been cooking Sunday Dinner. This differs from weeknight dinner or even Saturday dinner because it involves a meaningful effort on my part to cook something more than I might on an ordinary night. It needn’t be fancy but it generally involves more components than what I might cook on a Monday night (for example, a pot of polenta and a pan of cabbage stir-fried with white beans and garlic. Good, nourishing Monday-or-Wednesday-night stuff. But not necessarily Sunday Dinner fare.) when I tend to be more sleepy and wrung out from the cruel return to work after a few days off. Sunday Dinner is the dinner to carefully set the table for, the dinner to open a bottle of wine for, the one that sets the tone for the week. It’s more special.
So it’s inevitable I’ll wake up on a Sunday morning already thinking about what I shall cook for dinner later on. Sometimes it means putting on dried beans to soak for a few hours; sometimes it means baking a lemon cake while sipping on my second cup of coffee; sometimes it means making an extra trip to the other farmer’s market (the Sunday one); sometimes it means baking bread; sometimes it means gathering eggs enough for a soufflé and dodging tourists to buy Clover cream at the Palace market.
This last Sunday I decided finally and at last to attempt a little cooking dream of mine: to make a soufflé from freshly-laid eggs. (I just tried to describe to my coworker why exactly this has been on my mind for years, but succeeded only in sounding weird. I can’t explain it but I’ve wanted to try this for a long time – fresh is best! Directly from the source! Right? And souffles are divine. Something like that.) My husband’s parents keep chickens – and keep as many of them as they can safe from raccoons; currently, 3 are still alive and well – and I had my opportunity. There were 4 eggs already in the fridge from the previous day’s laying, and there was a bit of anxiety over whether the hens would produce just 2 more to make up enough for the recipe (they did, fortunately). So – I began.
Soufflés are tricky things but it’s more a mental trickiness than a physical one – meaning, you must trick yourself into confidence that you can achieve it. And yes, creating a successful soufflé is absolutely within reach. First you make a roux, which invariably causes some forehead clutching when it doesn’t seem as though it will thicken enough (and then, like magic, it does). You steep fresh rosemary or thyme and green onions in hot cream. You separate eggs and measure out cheese. You butter a soufflé dish and scatter it with parmesan and then you whip the egg whites until fluffy but not stiff, fold them into the base, slide the whole thing into the oven, and cross your fingers. (Of course you needn’t use just-laid eggs here, but try to obtain some that are as fresh as possible for an overall fluffier soufflé.)
The other night as the soufflé baked I roasted a pan of red and white cream potatoes (cut in half and rubbed with olive oil and salt) and another of cauliflower and broccoli alongside it, and slipped a pound of salmon into a bath of lemon juice, white wine, and salt and pepper (to bake for about 15 minutes). Oh, it’s true that save for the soufflé it was all so very simple, my sweet Sunday supper. But such is my wont, after all.
The table was set, the candles lit, the wine poured. The soufflé emerged: golden brown, gloriously puffed, redolent of spinach and parmesan. I nearly burned my fingers extracting the first slice but it was worth it; o, delicious marriage of egg and cream and cheese it’s good I shall save you for Sunday Dinner rather than every night lest I forget my inclination toward the whole grains and vegetables. The potatoes were nicely crisped, the salmon flaky and pink. I ate and ate of the soufflé and took a little more cauliflower and it was a true Sunday Dinner as best as I could imagine it.
The feeling of Sunday Dinner carried over into Monday, despite the early wake-up by earthquake, long journey back to the city, and bitter wind whipping through the Financial District. It was one of those wonderful nights when dinner comes together quickly, effortlessly and deliciously simple in its ingredients regardless of the cook’s fatigue or the post-work blues. It can be surprising how paring down the amount of herbs or extraneous additions can really make the flavors shine out. They are really tasted.
I tossed a skinny, spindly bunch of asparagus in a bit of olive oil and salt and roasted them for about 20 minutes. While the oil sizzled and their tips crisped in the oven, I boiled three medium sweet potatoes, then drained (reserving the water to add in later) and mashed with a little soy milk, the cooking water, olive oil and salt. I also sautéed garlic, chickpeas and a handful of baby spinach and seasoned with a dash of herbs du Provence. There was a glorious, walnutty, apple-filled salad to finish off.
It was almost Sunday-dinnerish. Imagine that.
Despite this strange dry winter in California, summer is just around the corner, bringing with it all the best things I can think of: blackberries, peaches, tomatoes, zucchini. The markets will soon be laden and dripping with seasonal produce and I bite my fingers, telling myself to be patient.
This weekend the days lengthen. I will soak up as much sunshine as possible.
Spinach Soufflé, adapted from Deborah Madison’s Local Flavors
Makes 4 very generous servings
12 ounces loose spinach leaves
1 bunch green onions, thinly sliced and with the green parts discarded
2 Tb. fresh thyme
1 cup cream
4 Tb. unsalted butter, plus extra for the dish
3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
4 Tb. all-purpose flour
1 1/3 cups milk
4 egg yolks
6 egg whites
salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 375 F. Butter a 6-cup souffle or gratin dish and dust it with a few tablespoons of the Parmesan.
Chop or tear the spinach finely. In a small frying pan, steam the spinach in a tablespoon of water until wilted. Drain.
Put the green onion, thyme and cream in a small saucepan over low heat. Bring slowly to a boil, then turn off the heat, cover, and let steep for 15 minutes. Strain out the thyme.
Melt the 4 tablespoons of butter in a saucepan, stir in the flour, and cook for 1 minute while stirring. Whisk in the milk and stir until it thickens. Add 1 teaspoon of salt and stir in the remaining Parmesan. Turn off the heat and stir in the egg yolks, spinach and the green onion-cream mixture. Season with pepper.
Beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until they form firm peaks but are still somewhat soft. Fold the whites into the base. Scrape the batter into the prepared dish and bake until golden brown and set, about 40 minutes. Serve immediately.