Apr 28, 2013

Flare, Turmeric

This past week I've been so hungry. Hungry and thirsty. I go to bed thinking about what to eat for breakfast, I ride my bike to work thinking about lunch and how fast the hours might tick by until I can eat it and then I spend the afternoon daydreaming and scheming about what strange dinner I can concoct from the ingredients in my refrigerator - the leftover goat-cheese from the cocktail party, the huge jar of chili peppers that's taking over my cupboard, the lentils, the potato chips, the fennel. Oh what to do, especially when I get home and my hunger blinds me from all ration and reason. When photographing the dish below (turmeric and fennel pasta with goat cheese) I admit it took a critical amount of willpower not to put my camera down and start shoveling the pasta into my mouth. I even stuck the fork in the bowl at one point in an amateur food-styling effort to make the photograph more interesting, but that just made it worse. I felt like a dog begging at the edge of the dinner table. The temptation overtook me after only a few minutes of shooting and I ate the pasta standing up, in huge, flavorful forkfuls.

I've also been very aware of time lately, the way it moves through me and around me, the way the light is so different now at 7am, and at 7pm, compared to this past winter. Late afternoon the beautiful light of spring flares up and seems to make everything glow: the budding maples and the red tulips, the cherry trees and church steeples. The wind picks up and brings an ocean breeze with it, and I try to just pause in the moment of it, the light and the smell of the ocean and the trees. Forget whatever happened last week, last night, an hour ago, forget whatever is approaching.

As reliable as anything you will ever know,
time moves its dim, heavy thumb over the shoreline
making its changes, its whimsical variations.
Yes, yes, the body never gets away from the world,
its endless granular shuffle and exchange—

(Mary Oliver, The Leaf and the Cloud)

So we're in a new season here in Boston, this spring that is all of a sudden hot and bright and golden. I can't stop thinking about the color yellow this time of year, as the sunlight permeates everything, like a spice with a powerful coloring agent, making the world glow. Turmeric is a rhizome, which is the underground stem of a plant. It's in the same family as ginger, but when you cut into the turmeric rhizome it reveals its bright orange flesh, the color of Buddhist's monks robes. It's not often used in its fresh form (at least, here in New England), but rather as a dried powder, which makes up the base of many familiar yellow curries. Just touch a few grains of the spice and instantly your fingers will turn yellow. Turmeric is not really in my comfort zone of cooking—it still feels exotic, but also intriguing, like someone I've just met and want to ask a million questions. "What's it like being part of the Zingiberaceae family? How do you feel about being called 'Indian Saffron?' What's it like to be in a curry blend? How do you like fennel?"

Apr 22, 2013

Shelter with Chives & Tea

I made baked beans last Friday. I'd never made them before, and I didn't realize they took five hours to cook. Traditionally the pilgrims cooked them in pits lined with hot stones on Saturday night so they'd be ready by Sunday, the Sabbath, when one wasn't even supposed to cook because it was considered work.

I'd never made Boston baked beans from scratch before, and I'd also never been told by my city to "shelter in place" because there was a bombing suspect somewhere on the loose. So on a beautiful Friday afternoon in April I stayed (mostly) indoors, listening both to the live-news coverage on TV - Suspect #2 Still at Large - while simultaneously listening to multiple helicopters pass overhead searching for the suspect. At one point a group of about ten men in bullet proof vests gathered outside someone's house on my block. The beans boiled away on the stove, getting soft enough to transfer into a nice cast-iron pot where they would nestle with my "Boston Pride" flavoring agents of beer and black tea. Birds sang in the budding trees, the sun blared, and all my digital devices buzzed and beeped constantly with messages from friends and relatives.

I grieve for those lost and injured in the Monday Marathon bombings, and for the policeman who was shot and killed and the MBTA official who was seriously injured during the Thursday night shoot out. I have taken these events pretty personally, this being the city where I grew up and now live. And, whether or not others grew up here or feel a personal connection to this city, it has been an astounding event to try and process. Will we be all right? I have been thinking to myself constantly. As a city, as a country, as a species: will we be all right?

There has been so much press, so much reporting and journalism following these events as people try to unpack everything, turn it upside down, give new perspective. I am overwhelmed by it. The stories continue to pour out and unfold as the hours go by and the world continues to feel more and more like it's made of paper, so thin and flimsy. I want to shut it off and shut it out, but I can't. It brings me closer to the reality that so many people live every day—those in Syria and Afghanistan, in countries where terrorism and war are a pulsing everyday truth.

So I cook, and it helps soften the edges a little. I didn't have any molasses in the house (a traditional ingredient for Boston baked beans) so I used maple syrup, which is just as delicious. The day before, I had been out in the Jamaica Plain Arnold Arboretum with some friends, and we happened upon some wild chives. Since my friend's dog had just wolf-snatched half of my sandwich out of my hands, I was feeling my survivalist 'hunter-gatherer' instincts kick in. So while everyone walked around admiring the blossoming cherries and magnolias, I smuggled a bag of chives out the gates and later chopped them up and mixed them with Greek yogurt to make a delicious topping for the baked beans.

And since Boston has such a history with tea I decided to use black tea as one of the 'spices' in the beans. The tea added a delicious complexity and depth that surprised and also comforted me. While my friends and I ate the hot-dogs I'd bought that afternoon at CVS alongside the homemade baked beans, we watched the final scene unfold on television. The headline changed from Suspect #2 Still at Large to Suspect #2 Captured.

 There is still a cloud of strangeness over everything, but I know picking wild chives and cooking beans made me feel a little better and made me feel pride for this city. Spring in Boston is always beautiful even as it unfolds in the midst of sordid events. "Have you been crying?" a toll booth operator asked me when I handed him the toll after crossing the Tobin bridge. "No," I told him, then "Yes." He gave me my change and said, "You're going to be all right."

Boston Baked Beans
adapted from The Joy of Cooking

Soak overnight or for 3-5 hours:
2 cups dried white beans or navy beans, rinsed and picked-over

Drain and rinse the beans and combine in a greased, heavy pot with:
1/2 cup beer
1/2 cup of brewed, strong black tea
1 medium onion, chopped
5 TB maple syrup or molasses
5 TB ketchup
2 tsp salt
1/2 cup chopped salt pork or pork belly

Bake, covered 4-4 1/2 hours. Uncover for the last hour of cooking. Add liquid (chicken stock or tea) during cooking if the beans become dry.

Chive Yogurt

For a tasty condiment for your baked beans (or burger or hot dog or grilled salmon) combine 1/2 cup finely chopped chives with 1 cup Greek yogurt and 1 tsp salt.  

Apr 11, 2013

Chamomile & Spring Fever

Springtime gets me into a frothy state of excitement. I get the urge to run out the door at work and just keep running, down the streets lined with maple trees just budding with red velvet buds, down the streets lined with houses whose snow-matted yards are now sprouting crocus and scilla, down past the supermarket where English peas and artichokes and asparagus have come into season, displayed in heaps of tantalizing green, past the random daffodils blooming beside the bus stop where empty plastic bags billow in the warm wind.
Sometimes, like this past week, I don't have the chance to get this energy out, to go running or frolicking or even fast-walking in the out of doors and so it turns into maddening anxiety that wakes me up in the middle of the night. The frustration of not being able to get outside during this time of year is enough to make me scream, but so long as I can keep cooking and writing and the days keep getting longer, everything will be alright. I am happy to report that the spice I've been meditating on this past week is a calm-inducing spice, more generally known as an herbal tea, called chamomile. It has "anxiolytic" or anti-anxiety properties due to certain compounds contained in the daisy-like flower. And someone like me, with quite a nervous nervous system is glad to discover a tea that soothes the crackling, spring-fever energy.

I'll admit though that this is a challenging flavor to work with. It is sweet but subtle, slightly bitter, and occasionally smelly sock-like. Your best bet is to purchase chamomile from a tea-vendor you trust, or else from a brand of tea you really love. I found a wonderful chamomile to work with that comes from Karnak Farm in Maine, grown by Mark Mooridian, whom many in the Boston area know for founding MEM tea company. Mark's chamomile is delicate and sweet. It reminds me of the way a hayfield smells mid-summer, with the sun drying each strand of hay into a fragrant, golden thread.
I tried to use his chamomile to make a syrup to flavor granola, but that was a fail (you couldn't taste it) so I then proceeded to make a batch of somewhat-successful honey-chamomile caramels. I think the ultimate use of this delicate flower would be in crème caramel or panna cotta - a recipe that offers an opportunity to infuse the milk or cream with the chamomile. I wish I had had the time or ingredients to make that for you here, but alas, I settled with good old candy.

I'm still tweaking the honey chamomile caramel recipe, but if you're curious about caramels (the possibilities are endless!) I suggest using this recipe from America's Test Kitchen.