May 22, 2012

To Begin and to End

What you do in between is really up to you. I offer you today only the beginning and the ending of something. But a delicious beginning and ending it shall be, I promise. I’ve recovered from all recent whirlwinds, found myself on stable ground again, bought a guitar (a relief—living without one was like a cruel form of torture or sensory deprivation), and I am beginning to cook again. (Did anyone else feel like the recent astrological activity made everything and everyone crazy?) I’m also beginning to realize that spring is quickly slipping through my fingers and that it is time, high time, to seize hold of its finest before the deluge of summer squashes and corn and tomatoes begin vying for attention. It’s already starting—last night at the Headlands Center for the Arts I ate my first cherry of the season, and my first plum, all swirled and rosy in a bit of cardamom-scented honey-yogurt. But we’ll save that for another time.

What I have for you today concerns asparagus. And it concerns a way of eating asparagus that was previously unknown to me. Most likely you are all fluent in this method. Probably you’ve been doing this since you could walk. But to me, it’s been a revelation. That method is raw, that is: DO NOT COOK THE ASPARAGUS. It seems wrong at first—you think back to all of the asperges au vinaigre you have consumed, or the grilled spears with parmesan that you buy pre-made at your local specialty food shop, or the steamed kind that you slide a poached egg over, and you feel in some sort of a deep, intrinsic way, that this just simply can not be. But of course it is. David Tanis said so—and when, I ask you, is he ever wrong?

The recipe is not even a recipe: I didn’t measure a single thing while I prepared it. But that’s honestly my favorite way to cook. Baking, of course, is another story all together, and as we learned here and here, I tend to be soothed, in those moments, by the careful and precise need for measurements and weights, ounces and teaspoons, leveling off and carefully folding, and all of those other little details that come together to make the baked thing what it is—in all of its delicate complexity, coming down, essentially, to the touch and the hand of the baker. Cooking is similarly defined by touch—by individual nuance—but in a way that tends to be more forgiving I think. And you can often adjust as you go.  

The difficult thing about this recipe is a practical, skill-based one. It has to do with the shaving of the asparagus. Tanis recommends using a sharp knife or vegetable peeler, or a mandoline. My guess, after sweating through the process and mildly cursing the dull blade of my vegetable peeler, is that the mandoline would be your best bet. But I don’t like to be dissuaded by a lack of fancy tools and neither should you. The vegetable peeler works, it’s just harder than you think it will be, and it took me a little practice to get the method down. I worked toward my body rather than away from it, which seemed to be easier, and I also tried to apply a firm and even pressure. The great thing here is that if you mess up, it really doesn’t matter, you just need to have achieved, in the end, some relatively thin strips of the vegetable, to be tossed in that magical combination of lemon and olive oil and salt.

What you will have as you progress through this “recipe” is a layering of thinly shaved asparagus; a few leaves of arugula—just enough to catch and fill all of the spaces between the thin, long spears; a generous squeeze of a lemon; and a drizzle of slippery olive oil—all bedecked with salt and pepper and thin shavings of parmigiano reggiano. This salad is an ideal springtime beginning for a meal of any size or scope. It could even, truth be told, make a meal all on its own. The asparagus, when raw, is crisp and fresh and tastes like the purest essence of asparagus that you’ve never tried. It also stands up sturdily to the acid of the lemon, making this salad something that could be prepared (with the exception of the arugula leaves) a day or so in advance.

It is truly my new favorite thing; and above all, my new favorite way to do asparagus.

Now, I take you to the end of the meal. Fast forward through time a bit—you’ve started with that delicious salad, you’ve received rave reviews all throughout: raw asparagus—they will cry—what a revelation! You’ve served some bit of fish with dill and capers, or a pistachio-crusted bird of some variety, or some nice, tender, well-marbleized piece of beef. Your guests are happy and full and sighing and letting the warm, springtime sun graze their bare shoulders. The glasses are being emptied. The beginnings of an evening light are starting to descend. You—calm and collected, effortless and relaxed—take out a bowl of gleaming, juicy strawberries, and set it next to a dish of just-whipped cream; cream that has been, in all manner of ethereal beauty, infused with chamomile blossoms.

May 14, 2012

This Is Not a Food Post

They can’t all be, I’m realizing. Nor can every day bring something inspiring or uplifting, or even, for that matter, remotely interesting. It’s been a confusing week.

I’ve not been sleeping. I’ve been eating in little dribs and drabs: hobbling together some cheese on toast here, a bit of soup there, some little piece of fruit in between. Nothing really, whatsoever, to photograph; nothing to report on; no inspiration at all in terms of what to make. I had a brief glimmer midweek of shaved asparagus tossed with lemon juice and parmesan (from this guy, my hero). Then I had a thought about strawberries with chamomile cream, which I felt would probably be even better if one (meaning me) could make a cookie that was thin and crisp and scented of cardamom to go along with it.

But then something would interfere (namely the exhibition of 100 artists that was being produced at work), some bit of life would intervene, and I would find myself, somewhat inexplicably, eating a Vietnamese pork sandwich that cost $3.50 and hastily slurping an Orangina. Not a bad lunch exactly, but not a blog-worthy one either.

I’ve learned a few things this week, in the midst of the chaos and tumult and what felt like, on my part, one misstep after the next: (1) don’t make decisions on no sleep and an empty stomach; (2) first impressions and first instincts are usually correct (and sometimes trying—so ardently trying—to see the best in people can be a curse); (3) friends are more valuable than lovers; and (4) there’s always something better, something more, um, appropriate?, well suited?, comfortable?, waiting on the horizon. This last one is uncharacteristically optimistic, I know, but I’m learning to believe in it. It’s what I tell my dearest friends when they are going through tough times.

I know this post is oblique, but that is how my life has been in these past couple of weeks. It’s time to get back to some semblance of normalcy and some vague idea of self, however tattered, however complicated and flawed, however fraught. I tell my students that it is important to never lose sight of beauty and of poetry, and I want to remind myself of the same. These are not easy things, and they are not often simple. But nothing simple ever really endures. And it’s in the complexity of life that we often find meaning.

I solidified a friendship this week with one of the strongest women I have possibly ever met. She is on her way to the middle of nowhere New Mexico, where she runs an amazing off-the-grid artist’s residency. We laughed and talked and commiserated. We made a little more of a home for one another in each of our hearts. She reminded me that one can be alone and also full of life at the same time. I imagine her in the next few weeks looking out over the mesa with a sense of strength and radiance and courage and calm. We’re learning the hard way her and I, but that’s sometimes the best that anyone can do.

For now, here’s to that. Next week we’ll eat strawberries.