[Forget-me-nots, April 2011.]
So it’s spring now, even if it doesn’t always feel like it every day due to rain in the forecast and the way that wind still blows something fierce. But — it is. The air feels a little lighter, the birdsongs are different (and there’s more background chatter), dark doesn’t fall until well after 7 p.m., and, at least in Northern California, the hills and fields are poised in that gorgeous, fleeting moment before the dry stillness of summer robs them of their green (and it is dry, man). I don’t grow vegetables — one day, I do hope — but if I did I’d be out everyday with my hands in the dirt planting a kitchen garden to feed me and mine for the rest of the season and beyond. And I’d plant flowers too, though I seem to love best the ones that land where they please, wild and scattered throughout the woods (the spring forest is cool, but by no means unpleasant).
[Lunch, Saturday, April 2011.]
This weekend I cooked a little, which for me constitutes a very fine weekend. I also ate very well, because I am a fortunate girl with generous friends. First, there was a cauliflower-ginger soup that tasted like I should have been eating it during a yoga retreat, or to break a fast — by this I mean it tasted of pure health, fresh and sharp. We ate it with thick slices of a whole wheat walnut loaf I picked from Acme, before the ferry, and good sharp cheddar. The next morning after coffee in town but before my run, I scrambled lots of fresh eggs (by way of Oakland) with some parmesan and dried oregano; that along with toasted homemade bread carried me through the miles to Arch Rock and back. After that, we sat on the deck in the sun and drank beer and ate bowls of savory, substantial minestrone soup from NY Times columnist Mark Bittman’s soup primer published in the magazine a few weeks ago. I also baked a banana bread, adding in a bit of cocoa powder because I couldn’t find any chocolate chips and really, I like my baked goods to at least contain a modicum of chocolate if at all possible.
I’d volunteered for dinner duty and after the afternoon cup of tea and snack I rummaged in the fridge to see what I could put together. Cooking at someone else’s house, no matter if I know it pretty well, is always a welcome challenge (even if I have to hunt for the loaf pan for 5 minutes). Cooking away from my own kitchen, where I know exactly what I have and where it is, forces me to work with exactly what I have, even if there’s not very much. But I swear some of my best, my most creative meals come from these experiences — I rarely use a recipe (even then, I’ll go ‘off book’) and just kind of cook by feel, if that makes sense.
That night I had: fettucine, about a half-head of cauliflower, lots of onions, some frozen spinach, frozen chicken breasts. Not a lot, but certainly not nothing. The chicken I decided to throw in the oven according to package directions, simply roasting it until tender. But just plain chicken? Even a vegetarian such as myself knew that wouldn’t do. So I made good use of all those onions and cut up about three into fine strips which I then sauteed in olive oil and white wine, simmering them until very melting and caramelized. I added a splash of lemon juice and half and half to create a smooth, creamy, onion-infused sauce to serve over the chicken.
The rest was easy: red onion and garlic sauteed with some more white wine, the cauliflower added in along with a chopped red bell pepper and cooked down until tender, spinach, a touch of cream, lots of freshly-ground pepper and dried herbs to finish. I tossed the vegetables with the noodles along with about a 1/4 cup of parmesan and a ladle or two of the pasta cooking water I’d reserved to help bind it all. I didn’t eat the chicken, of course, but I hear it was good — simple fare, and delicious. A throwaway meal, though I like to document it anyway.
But the banana bread and the soup I wish I’d had for lunch today instead of of my usual quinoa + assorted vegetables. Not that I don’t love my usual quinoa + assorted vegetables (and a squeeze of lime), but like I mentioned it’s spring, if a bit chilly, and soup and sweet bread to finish really is just the thing. Bittman’s a genius, and this soup attests to that; the banana bread is my tried-and-true, but with a few substitutions due to the lack of chocolate chips and my thought that whole wheat flour would probably be a good idea (it was). I even — shhh — spread a slice with butter to have with afternoon tea. It was perfection.
Soup and bread, spring flowers, an unexpectedly delicious sandwich eaten outside while looking west from Mt. Vision — this is the stuff dreams are made of, or at least my dreams. Happy spring, and all of that.
I love Bittman’s simplicity, especially in the very way he writes his recipes. Why bother with any fuss? You’re putting yummy ingredients together to create an equally yummy result. Work with what you have (beans, veggies, etc.); the base principles remain the same.
Sauté 1 chopped onion, 1 chopped carrot, 1 chopped celery rib and 4 cloves sliced minced garlic in 3 tablespoons olive oil for 5 minutes. Add 2 cups cubed potatoes and salt and pepper; cook for 2 minutes. Add 1 cup chopped tomatoes (canned are fine) and 5 cups water. Boil, lower the heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Add 1 cup chopped green beans; add one can drained chickpeas; simmer for 20 minutes. Stir in 1 tsp. dried basil and 1 tsp. dried thyme or oregano. Garnish: Chopped parsley and grated Parmesan.
Most times I throw a handful of chocolate chips into my banana bread, but I didn’t have any so … a few tablespoons of cocoa powder instead! I like the way it worked out: the chocolate flavor’s more subtle, but by no means absent.
1 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
4 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup mashed bananas (3 medium)
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease the bottom and sides of a loaf pan. In a medium bowl, combine the dry ingredients plus 1/8 tsp. salt. Make a well in the center of the dry mixture and set aside.
In another bowl, combine the egg, mashed bananas, sugars, and oil. Add the wet mixture all at once to the dry mixture and stir until just moistened. Fold in walnuts.
Bake in the prepared pan for about 50-55 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool in pan for 10 minutes then remove from the pan and cool on a wire rack (note: I just let it sit in the pan until it’s cool). Wrap and store the loaf overnight before slicing —> note: not necessary, though I personally prefer it.