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?"

Like getting to know anyone, it takes time. In my time with turmeric this past week I've made a number of attempts to capture the essence of this spice. I made turmeric focaccia that was a gorgeous color but a slightly bland taste; I made turmeric-chamomile tea that just tasted a little too earthy; I made turmeric with lentils and rice that was fine. When I was about to give up and give in and admit I really don't understand turmeric - I don't understand you, dammit! - I rummaged through my fridge and found an old bulb of fennel and a half eaten log of goat cheese. Pretty soon I was braising the fennel in a little butter and olive oil and then cooking it down with a simple broth of water and turmeric until it turned into a gorgeous golden pile of melted fennel. I then just boiled up some pasta and tossed it with the fennel, some dried chili pepper, cherry tomatoes and crumbled goat cheese. Divine.

Just like when I was standing outside breathing in the salty sea breeze and the pollen from the maple trees and feeling time stop, so it was when I brought this food to my lips. Not that the pasta itself or the ingredients were all that extraordinary, but that my hunger was suddenly sated, my senses enlivened by the spices. Suddenly my attention shifted and shuffled away from the crazy day at work, the sadness of the past week, the darkness of everything we have to hold in our hearts. Suddenly all I could think about was the earthy turmeric with the caramelized fennel and the sweet pop of cherry tomatoes against the tang of goat cheese. Not an escape, but a centering.

Yes, yes, the body never gets away from the world.

Turmeric-Fennel Pasta with Goat Cheese

For 2 servings

1 fennel bulb
1 TB butter
3-4 TB olive oil
1 tsp turmeric

2 cups pasta, such as penne
handful cherry tomatoes
1/4 cup goat cheese
chili pepper, such as aleppo pepper, to finish
fennel fronds, to garnish

Start a pot of water to boil for you pasta. 

Remove the top stem of the fennel bulb and save some of the fronds for your garnish. Core and slice the bulb into thin slices. In a medium skillet, place your butter and olive oil and turn on the heat to medium-high. Once the butter has started to melt and bubble, add your chopped fennel. Cook until slightly brown on all sides, about five to seven minutes then add the turmeric with 1 cup water. Cover and lower your heat. Cook for about 20 minutes or until the fennel is totally soft and melted.

Meanwhile, cook your pasta and slice your cherry tomatoes in half. Once the pasta is done, drain and keep warm until the fennel is finished. Then toss everything together in a big bowl and top with the goat cheese, chili pepper and fennel garnish.


  1. Mmm... Sounds really tasty, almost tasty enough to get up and go cook right now. I've been stumped with Turmeric before too Claire. I think I have alot in common with Turmeric.

    Keep them coming Sparky!

  2. Also, is that crabapple? I didn't realize how quickly summer is approaching until I noticed spent blooms in that really great picture. I guess it is time to slow down and smell the breeze.