January 22, 2014

Only the suggestion

It’s in a section of a book called, “How to Have Balance,” this recipe that I am going to tell you about. Balance—something that exists for me, in large part, only in concept. It is an elusive concept, somewhat taunting. It’s mentioned in my “about” section as something I’m trying to “shift,” though I’ve never been good at it, really. I’ve always been much better at dramatically hurdling myself into or against whatever thing might have captured my interest or disgust at that very moment. 

Luckily for me, this section about balance has more to do with eating armfuls of bread—stale bread, bread ends, pieces of neglected crusts, squishy insides that have turned rigid and unbending—than it does with “balancing” in grander philosophical terms. It starts with the ethos put forward by M.F.K Fisher in How to Cook a Wolf: “Balance the day, not each meal in the day.” This gives us more flexibility in our notion of balance—we have more time to get there. It also gives us permission to eat meals solely of one ingredient, or primarily of one ingredient. It allows us to focus, more than it asks us to balance. The scales don’t have to weigh evenly at the same moment—they can even out over time. Bread, then, doesn’t have to be taken as an aside, and it also doesn’t have to be banished entirely from our culinary repertoires. Bread can find it’s place in the meal, as the meal. It can come back to us, transformed, in a new molten expression of its prior self. It can, interestingly, become soup. 

Bread soup as a concept is immediately intriguing on a textural level, because it requires, to conceive of it, a sense of transformation that is whole and complete. I don’t really like the idea of balance, but I do really like the idea of transformation. Unlike balance, transformation doesn’t ask for a firm ending; nor does it, I think, want a clear beginning. As Tamar Adler writes in her introduction to An Everlasting Meal, which I mentioned last week, and from which this section on balance comes: 
“Great meals rarely start at points that all look like beginnings. They usually pick up where something else leaves off. This is how most of the best things are made—imagine if the world had to begin from scratch each dawn: a tree would never grow, nor would we ever get to see the etchings of gentle rings on a clamshell.”
This sentiment makes the task of beginning much more manageable—that we will begin not to finish, but so that we can continue later; that things will lead one to the other and elapse over time; that, cumulatively, we will reach a point which, in its apparent finality, asks to be another beginning, or a happily unresolved end. We won’t have to start from scratch, because nothing ever does. 

This makes it acceptable to start something again or to pick it up where you left off. It makes leaving off or setting aside a perfectly reasonable thing to do. It allows you to gather the scraps of old bread that, hard as stone, were doomed for the compost, and to simmer them until they melt, in a warm sputtering tangle of leeks and onions and garlic and stock and parmesan rind, yielding soup. Soup that your ancestors would be proud of for its economy, and that your loved ones will lap up heartily for its richness. 

The recipe for this soup is a very short paragraph in Tamar Adler’s book that contains no measurements, and only the suggestion of a rough timeframe. I will give you something more precise, but I can guarantee that you won’t need it. You will do much better if you cook this simply trusting yourself every step of the way. How much rosemary will make the soup taste medicinal? Is there enough bread? Should I add more oil? More salt? Will fennel work in place of celery?

Smell and feel your way toward these questions, because, quite simply, you’re not going to screw it up. Also because, significantly, it’s just stale bread. When you work with ingredients that are not precious, you immediately have permission to experiment and approach your task lightly. You will learn more about cooking this way, or at least I have, then if you were locked into a recipe whose precision makes you terrified to lift a spoon or to alter a proportion. I don’t like to cook under such rigid circumstances. It makes me feel estranged from my food and from the act of cooking itself—something that, at its best, is an intimate proposal for community. 

Bread soup, as Tamar writes, is “somewhere between soup and solid.” I will also add that it is thick and moderately gelatinous; shimmering with olive oil and flecked full of herbs. The quality of your bread will contribute to the overall quality of the soup—I used a country levain which gave the soup depth and body from the sour, chewy loaf. A parmesan rind, thrown in to simmer with the rest, lends nuttiness. Fresh herbs balance the whole thing. Optionally, you can also whiz together in the blender a quick parsley sauce to drizzle over top. You know when the soup is finished when, as Tamar writes, it “thwart[s] attempts to classify as one [bread] or the other [soup] and, instead of trying, take it off the heat when it tastes good.” 

She’s right. You will just know. And it will taste good. 

Bread Soup with Herbs (Adapted from An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace)

1/2 cup olive oil
2 leeks, washed well, bulb end trimmed, cut in half lengthwise, white and pale green parts thinly sliced, the rest reserved for stock
1/2 small, yellow onion, halved again and thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves, smashed with salt against the blade of a chef’s knife on your cutting board
1/2 fennel bulb, thinly sliced (the original recipe calls for celery, if you have it)
4 cups stale bread, crusts removed, cut into large cubes (you can save the crust for croutons)
4 cups chicken stock (or any other kind of broth or stock you may have)
1/2 cup Italian parsley, chopped
2 small sprigs rosemary, leaves taken off the stem, and then chopped
Parmesan rind (any size piece you may have)

Heat the olive oil in a large soup pot, and add the leeks, onions, garlic, and fennel. Salt the vegetables right away, so they soften rather than brown. Cook until tender, about 10 minutes. Add the herbs and bread. Give it a good stir and then add the stock and the parmesan rind. Season with salt and pepper. Cover, turn the heat down to medium-low, and cook the soup for 25–30 minutes, or until the bread is completely broken down and transformed. It should no longer resemble bread, nor should it look entirely like soup. Add water or other cooking liquid if the contents stick.

Taste the soup for seasoning, and remove the parmesan rind just before serving. Drizzle with olive oil, top with grated parmesan and cracked black pepper. Or drizzle with parsley sauce, parmesan, and pepper. The original recipe states that leftover bread soup can be formed into patties and fried in olive oil. We ate it the next morning for brunch with fried eggs on top. 

Parsley Sauce (Adapted from An Everlasting Meal)
This sauce was excellent on the bread soup, and then incredible the next day when we brought it on an oyster-eating excursion. To have it on oysters, thin the original with a couple tablespoons red or rice wine vinegar and lemon juice.

1 bunch Italian parsley
1 garlic clove
Olive oil

Crush the garlic clove against the side of a chef’s knife with kosher salt until it forms a paste. Put the garlic in a blender or food processor with the parsley, another pinch of salt, a squeeze of lemon juice, and a hefty pour of olive oil, about 1/4 to 1/2 cup. Blend until mostly smooth. 

January 09, 2014

So far, so good

Happy 2014. 

It’s been a good one so far, friends. You? I had a great holiday with family in New York, and now, in the new year itself—all nine days of it—I have managed to bake pfeffernüsse, drink several bloody mary’s (helloooooo, new year, new me!), and MOVE—into a lovely little house in Bernal Heights, San Francisco, with a beautiful garden, a fully equipped kitchen (with a dishwasher!, and a kitchen island!, and a white marble table that is going to be just perfect for rolling out all of the pie doughs in this book! (resolution number 1?)), and a cat named Girard who purrs like he’s twice his size and sleeps cuddled up in an achingly tight spoon, and a someone special, too. So far, so good, 2014.

With all of the changes, there have also been some adjustments. I am confronting a newly domesticated version of my former self—one who likes to bake banana bread at 10 o’clock at night and roast pumpkin and squash seeds as she simmers soup on the stove and who wakes up the whole house with the fragrance of spicy cookies being tossed around in confectioner’s sugar. (Yup, that’s me.) 

Maybe it’s because this new house is actually a house, tricked out with all of the promises of domestic bliss in every amenity and around every corner. (I have to live up to it.) Or maybe it’s me—settling out of single life and into something that, perhaps, has always made more sense: trying to live and love well, with someone who makes life that much better; sharing meals each night; and sharing our lives. It’s good. And it really is that simple. 

There’s been cooking, as I mentioned, and a lot of reading, too. As I plunge headlong into another year, I want to do even more of both of those things. 

I’ve been recently engrossed in Tamar Adler's book, which seems to have taught me more about cooking with economy and grace in its lucidly metaphoric prose than an itemized recipe probably ever has. With sentences like this—that are about so much more than cooking, but which reach toward its symbolic potential with intelligence and beauty—it’s hard not to be immediately drawn in: 
“When we cook things, we transform them. And any small acts of transformation are among the most human things we do. Whether it’s nudging dried leaves around a patch of cement, or salting a tomato, we feel, when we exert any tiny bits of our human preference in the universe, more alive.”
And, if you haven’t read it, it’s based somewhat (in structure, and a bit in tone) on M.F.K Fisher's classic work, which I loved even before cracking open the front cover. (How to Cook a Wolf is, perhaps, one of the best titles to ever grace the literary world.)

Also on my list, particularly now that I live with a pie-loving man, is the aforementioned stunner, The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book, which is pleasingly organized by season, and which reads, for someone who loves pie and food and ingredients in general, like a really good novel. 

On the literary front, I’m planning to read this fictional work. The painting that the book is loosely based on stopped me in my tracks when I saw it in New York this past trip (a small, very simple painting). It’s one of the few remaining pieces by Fabritius (only about a dozen survive), whose works were nearly all lost in the Delft Thunderclap explosion (a fact that makes The Goldfinch all the more potent).

Rebecca Solnit's The Faraway Nearby has also been on my list for a while and was recently leant to me by a friend (which means I’m likely to get to it even faster than if left to my own devices). I’m looking forward to delving into her storytelling.

Lastly, I’m trying to work up the courage to read this book—the review of which, alone, left me sort of breathless. 

In terms of food, I’ll be back soon with an experiment in cooking with economy, à la Tamar Adler, that should be enough to chase away the polar vortex that a good portion of you are currently being enveloped by (a spoiler alert: this will not be for those of you who are newly sworn off of gluten, but I do think it will be somewhat healthy—in that doused in olive oil, vegetable-based, Mediterranean, sort of way). 

For now, here’s a recipe for that banana bread I mentioned, which came out of my oven late one night this week. As has been uttered by many a blogger before me, the world does not need another banana bread recipe. And yet, it’s something that we all should have in our culinary arsenals, for when nothing other than the most simple, unpretentious food item will do. (I’ve been making this one for a decade now.) It will also be there, importantly, when you have a cluster of overripe bananas melting into shadowy puddles on your counter, as bananas are wont to do. 

Simplest Banana Bread
Adapted from Martha Stewart

1 stick unsalted butter (at room temperature), plus extra for pan
1 cup sugar
2 eggs (preferably at room temperature)
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup mashed, very ripe banana (2–3)
1/2 cup sour cream (preferably at room temperature)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a loaf pan with butter and line it with parchment, if desired (this makes removing the bread effortless). 

Cream the butter and sugar in a large bowl with a wooden spoon, until fluffy and incorporated. Add the eggs and beat until well blended.

In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, baking soda, and salt together lightly. Add this mixture to the butter, sugar, and eggs, and stir until just combined. Add the remaining ingredients—banana, sour cream, vanilla, and nuts—and stir until combined. 

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake at 350 degrees for approximately 1 hr 10 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the bread comes out mostly clean. Let cool in pan for 10 minutes or so, and then lift the bread out of the pan with the parchment, and allow it to finish cooling on a rack. 

Serve warm or cold, with extra butter for slathering.