#augustbreak: crave the chill

I’m writing during the mornings, so my posts for the rest of the month will be coming in the afternoons (or evenings if I head into the city). You’ll live. The book needs me more than you do.

I finally got around to making coconut cream popsicles that Heather told us about a little while ago. They are intoxicating, even though I screwed something up somehow that caused all the coconut to separate out from the rest of the bar. Do you think I care? No, I do not. It’s hot.

How to make my Arnold Palmah: Well, you need Boston tea, of course. (If you don’t want to drop your R, you can make an Arnold Palmer with some other high-quality black tea.) Make it double strength and don’t oversteep it. Harney’s Boston has notes of cranberry and almond, but nothing too fruity or overpowering. It just tastes grown-up. Now:

  • Shake sugar and cold water in an airtight container until the sugar dissolves (a minute or two) because you are not the kind of person who keeps simple syrup in the house, although when you take your first drink you resolve to do so in future
  • Fill a glass with ice cubes
  • Shake five parts tea—two parts water—two parts fresh lemon juice—one part sugar syrup and pour over ice

Suddenly, it’s no longer too hot to write. How about that? I think my desk is about three feet deep, which is quite a deep old desk. It loves when I leave the internet.

fiddle dee dee

Near the end of the vegetable section, a man stood between me and my target, rocking back and forth, moderating a debate between himself and the brassicas. As I approached, he stepped backward and let me in. I picked a large handful of green pinwheels and put them into a thin plastic bag.

“Excuse me—what are they?”

Not cleaned yet!“They’re fiddleheads,” I said. The signs at the end of the vegetable rack were clustered together, but I’d have thought that anyone could figure it out if they had the slightest gift with process-of-elimination problem solving. Maybe not, though. Broccoli looks like broccoli, green beans look like green beans, but fiddleheads look straight out of Doctor Seuss or Sarah Hennessey’s Etsy store: tightly furled ferns that look adorable, but not edible. If you were out on a hike and you saw them, you wouldn’t think they were food, but you’d play with them, and who could blame you? You watched time-lapse video of plant life cycles when you were a kid, and looking at a fiddlehead is like looking at time suspended. The fronds have to be cut before they unfurl into ferns, or else they’re no good for eating.

“What do they taste like?” He seemed genuinely curious.

“I guess the closest thing is asparagus.” I stopped myself from adding and spring, and sunshine, and bouncy grass under your bare feet. I’m the kind of person who wants to eat things that taste like spring and sunshine and bouncy grass, but some people just won’t trust you if you talk that way. “They’re good. You should try them.”

“How do you cook ‘em?” He was older than me, and a little tired, but it looked like “asparagus” was the magic word.

“Brush off the brown bits, that papery stuff? As much as you can. Give them a good wash and then steam them for about ten or twelve minutes. Then you just do what you like for your asparagus. I finish them off in olive oil and garlic, with a little bit of lemon juice at the end.”

I tied up my fiddleheads and headed for the bakery, but then turned on my heel. He was still looking askance at the box of mysterious greens. “They aren’t around all year, so if you’re even curious, now’s the time.” And if he didn’t take a small handful after that, well… some people can see the bouncy grass in me no matter how I try to keep it in.

Sunday dinner was salmon with pimentón and thyme on a bed of spinach, a side of Rose Finn fingerlings, and the spiral green fiddleheads, prepared exactly the way I’d instructed the curious stranger. They do taste kind of like asparagus, nothing that would upset anyone with a healthy appreciation for green vegetables. And god they are fun. We picked the extras from the serving dish and let them unreel into our upturned mouths at the table. (We play with our food, but only ‘cause you’re not watching.) It’s a little late for fiddleheads this year, but since spring barely graced us with her presence, summer is carrying her sister’s load as well. Around here, we take what sunshine we can get, whether it comes gently or with a little attitude or fashionably late.

flexible, fruity, and not five-twenty-five

Detail of Lundberg Black Japonica and Mahogany rice. See? Dark rice, short and medium grains. That’s the stuff.I dashed into an eatery a little while ago and picked up a dish of curried rice salad when I was pressed for time. It was a perfectly serviceable lunch, and really the only problem with it was that it cost an egregious amount of money for what it was. Okay, that and the fact that it had enough turmeric in it that the white rice glowed yellow, but the curry flavor was nonexistent. It was the kind of dish that, when you taste it, you know you can do better than that. So I did.

I call this easy. It takes a long time to prepare, but none of the steps are hard ones. I’ve made it three times since that rainy day, in varying proportions, which is what you have to do when you’re cooking without a recipe with a goal in mind, and I know I’ll tweak it and probably never make it the same way again. It’s a good jumping-off point, though. Scoop out a cupful for a quick lunch and think about the way you’ll adjust it for next time. Or do what I do and eat it for breakfast. Anything with cranberries and walnuts is good for breakfast. It IS.

Curried Rice Salad with Cranberries and Walnuts

  • ½ cup uncooked basmati rice or other long-grain white rice
  • ½ cup uncooked dark rice (my fave was the Lundberg Black Japonica and Mahogany blend, but the finished image below shows Colusari red)—ordinary brown rice is not what you want here
  • ⅓ cup flavorless oil
  • 2 or more tablespoons extremely fresh curry powder
  • a little cayenne, optional
  • 1 cup chopped cooked chicken or 1 cup cooked chickpeas
  • ½ cup or more dried cranberries
  • ½ cup or more dried currants
  • ¾ cup walnut pieces
  • salt to taste
  1. Place the cranberries and currants into a heatproof glass bowl. Pour boiling water over them until they’re well submerged. Place the fruit in the refrigerator to rehydrate.
  2. Prepare the rices separately according to directions, including salt. Rinse the basmati well, and after cooking, rinse it with boiling water and allow it to steam. Prepare the dark rice until it’s just done, not overdone. Combine both prepared rices in a large bowl.
  3. Prepare a curry oil: Heat the flavorless oil gently on the stovetop. Add the curry powder (and cayenne if using) and mix well. Allow the curry powder to flavor the oil for a few minutes, and then pour some of it over the combined rices. (You want just enough oil to keep the rice grains lubricated but not enough to make the salad oily; you should have some left over.) Mix well. 
  4. Add the chopped chicken or chickpeas. Mix well. Taste for salt. Spread the rice mixture in a baking dish or other shallow container to aid cooling, if desired. Chill.
  5. —dance interlude—
  6. Drain the fruit well and add it to the rice mixture. Toss. Toast the walnuts in a skillet for a few minutes until fragrant; add to salad and toss one more time. Taste and salt as desired.

Suggested modifications:

  • If you have the time, the rice is even more separate if you make it a day in advance and chill it before you make the curry oil. This is probably a little impractical for most people, though, so let’s just call it a modification.
  • Feel free to throw in more turmeric to turn the rice very yellow. (I did, with one batch. I like happy yellow food.) You can also adjust the seasoning of the oil as desired. My favorite batch had more cumin and coriander than the others.
  • A little lemon juice at the end will bring out the flavor of the fruit. Just squeeze a few drops on each serving at the table.
  • Cilantro. Of course.
  • If you choose chickpeas over chicken, you will probably need a little more curry powder in your oil.
  • I think this would be awesome with chopped bits of snow peas. You do too, right?

what not to rush: roasted tomatoes

Tomatoes are such variable little things. You can do just about anything with them. But January tomatoes are about the most uninspiring tomatoes there are, except maybe February tomatoes. I see them en masse and it’s like a pinprick in my balloon. Pink, unpleasant handfuls; inside they’re as mealy as watermelon and tasteless besides. Choosing which ones to take and which ones to leave behind is no choice at all.

In this place, if I tried to eat local and seasonal, I would starve for a fair amount of the year. So I release anything similar to locavore guilt until May and I do what I can with what I can get. And I don’t see a point in raw winter tomatoes when a few hours in the oven takes them past edible into pretty damn good.

Once again, this is not a recipe. It’s trial-and-error all the way, because you never know what you’re going to get inside those winter tomatoes. These are plain old romas, ripened on the counter for a few days after purchase, with all the seeds and some of the cores removed, halved and tossed with olive oil, black pepper, and gray salt. You can peel them beforehand if you like, but I never do. There’s also one gigantic shallot in eight pieces, each chunk nestled in a tomato so that it can soak up some olive oil too. Only a little bit of oil is required—this looks glossier than it is because of the harsh winter light coming in through my only decent window. These particular tomatoes were heavy, but they didn’t have much in the way of seeds and such inside. I throw them on parchment just to aid cleanup.

You can go two ways with this: slow-roasted tomatoes, which put them in the oven for eight to twelve hours at very low heat (200° or so), which results in a consistency closer to a sun-dried tomato. They’re incredibly sweet and will last for a long time if you store them in a jar of olive oil in your fridge. You can use them to intensify tomato sauces, strew slices of them over pizza, or chop them up to top a side of broccoli or green beans, just to start. But most often, I just put them in for half an hour at 350° and then drop the temperature to 300° for 1.5 to 2.5 hours more. After the first 1.5 hours, you have to be a little vigilant and keep your eye on them so that they don’t get too dry—remember how I said you never know what you’re going to get? But until that time, you can walk away and do something you’ve been putting off. Call someone you meant to call before the holidays. Send some snail mail. Figure out what you’re going to put in that bare spot on the wall.

So, what are you going to do with these when they’re done? Anything you feel like. They are amazing just by themselves if you like tomatoes. Plunk one on top of a dull chicken breast or fish filet, serve a few as a side dish with kale and garlic. Steep them with the shallot bits in some broth with a few stems of thyme and then puree it with a blender (if you hate bits of tomato skin in your soup, peel them before cooking for this preparation, but it doesn’t bother me). Personally, I don’t think they add much to my spaghetti sauces, but those are already flavor-intense; your mileage may vary. And don’t feel like you have to use them while they’re hot. If you put them in the fridge, they’ll last for a few days. Two of them on a rice cake with hummus and baby arugula is a great lunch. They’ll even make cold cuts in a wrap into something to crave. All this for about five minutes of prep work. You’ll still be sad when tomato season ends next fall, but everything will be all right. We’ll just call it Tomato Season II. Sequels are never as good as the original, but the best ones have their own charms.

what not to rush: slow-cooked beans

I did not grow up eating beans. This is a shame, because now I eat them all the time. I do get cans of them from time to time, but for the most part, I keep two-cup containers in the freezer that can be thawed overnight in the fridge or thrown into a pot of simmering soup. They have eighteen billion times less salt1 than beans in a can. And they taste better, and you can control their place on the firm-to-mushy continuum, and they are a great foundation to fast, cheap meals. What’s not to love? Oh, yeah. They take hours. Think of it as time when you can walk away from the kitchen and pay attention to someone else.

I have a slow cooker, and if you have one, beans are no problem at all. But even if you want to do them on the stovetop, they aren’t hard. You don’t even really need to soak them if you don’t want to; I almost never do. I’ve used this method on black beans (the favorites in our house), chickpeas, white beans, pinto beans, and borlotti beans, but kidney beans should only be cooked in the traditional way because of a toxin they carry. To be honest, we use kidney beans so rarely that if I need them, I get a can of Yves or Eden beans. 

After the beans are done, you can go nuts with them. My current favorite is to sauté them with garlic, onion, cumin, chili powder, chipotle, and salsa and put them in tortillas, tacos, or on cornmeal or rice. However, slow-cooked black beans make amazing soup, too. 

Slow-Cooked Beans (any quantity; 1 cup dry beans yields 3 cups cooked beans)

  1. Pick through a quantity of beans to sort them. I spread them out on a baking sheet for this part. I have found stones in my beans, but it’s rare. Mostly, you want to pick out ones that aren’t the best color or that are damaged in some way. When I picked through my black beans, I took out ones that were closer to gray and any ones that I caught that were cracked or broken, and a few that were so tiny or wrinkly they gave me a little shudder.
  2. Pour the beans into a colander and run your fingers through them to give yourself an Amélie moment. This is “what not to rush,” remember? Then rinse the beans completely in fresh cold water. I like to see black beans in a bowl full of water, because their tiny white spots become shockingly bright somehow. If you let them sit there for a few minutes, some beans will float to the surface; get rid of those, too.
  3. SLOW COOKER: Pour the rinsed beans into the slow cooker and cover them with a large quantity of fresh water. This weekend, I used 2½ cups of dry black beans and about 2 quarts of water, which fills my slow cooker up halfway. Turn the heat to high and replace the lid.
  4. STOVETOP: Pour the rinsed beans into a large pot and cover them with water by at least two inches. Bring to a boil and cook for five minutes, then turn off the heat and let them sit for an hour. Then pour off that water, replace it with fresh water, and simmer away.
  5. I don’t season most varieties except for a little salt, because I never know what they’re going to be put into. For my black beans, though, I season after about 90 minutes of simmering: cumin, a crushed garlic clove or two, salt, and a bay leaf or two.
  6. Cooking time will vary; it depends a lot on how long your beans have been hanging around the grocery shelf (or your own shelf). Figure at least three hours and give yourself more than four; chickpeas always take less for me. I test beans by squashing them on a plate with a fork before I’ll taste one, because I’m namby-pamby that way. 
  7. Remove the beans you’re using right away and store the rest in freezer containers. I measure out two-cup portions just because that’s close to what’s in a can for recipe purposes. If you’re freezing beans, let them come to room temperature in the cooking water first. I think it helps keep the skins intact, and a little superstition never hurt anyone.

1 My math may have a tricky decimal in it somewhere.

Bonus: This recipe for black bean tostadas just came in my email. Synchronicity, yeah?