Potatoes poached with lemon and bay leaves

A PASTORAL
(With photographs)

We’re heading into the dark season. Last winter was a particularly long, cold, brutal one, in this part of the world, and it’s hard not to feel a mounting anxiety as the days grow shorter. I think everybody feels a little twinge of melancholy this time of year. Even the impending holiday can make a person anxious.

IMG_2604

When you feel seasonally challenged, you should take a walk on the towpath by my house. Most of the green is gone, but there are a few vines and mossy trunks, and they stand out against a background of rich rusts and umbers and golds, a strange warm quiet beauty on a cold day. And after about a mile you’ll come to my favorite field in the world. You’ve just emerged from a tunnel of trees, and now the world opens up and you’re looking out onto a field stretching away under a bright sky, sloping down like a saucer into a line of trees and running down to a beautiful railway bridge that stretches over a creek.

Summer

Summer

Winter

Winter

The light under this bridge is always strangely glowing, even on grey days, perhaps with the memories of summer afternoons spent swimming in the creek.
DSC_0052
This morning when Clio and I scrambled out this way, we came upon a pine tree festooned with blue birds, like the prettiest Christmas tree you have ever seen.

IMG_5070

One of them sat a little distance from the others, on a branch above our heads, and looked down on us like he wanted to tell us something. I nearly cried. They were still there on our way back, but after we walked by they flew off together along the bed of the creek. There is no more hopeful sight on earth than a bluebird, particularly in winter!
113BluebirdInternet
It fills you with a strange glow. Even these leafless plants we saw, with a strange light purple hue seemed oddly hopeful.
IMG_5072

I know I write about hope a lot, but it’s such a mysterious emotion. I’m always a little impatient when people say you can make good things happen just by thinking about it, that if you have a positive attitude the world will reward you with gifts, that if you stop worrying about not having enough money and just feel happy, you’ll suddenly have enough money. (Usually the people who tell you these things have plenty of money, or happen to be paying you poorly for your work.) And yet–it’s not the strange bright branches or the light under the bridge or even the rare and beautiful birds that make you hopeful, it’s something in you that responds to them. Which is an even more hopeful thought somehow. Who can explain it? Not me.

Potatoes poached with lemon and bay leaves

Potatoes poached with lemon and bay leaves

I had a hankering for potatoes, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted them boiled and soft and comforting or broiled and crispy. Then I thought I’d try something new, and see if I could have the best of both worlds. I think they turned out really well. They’re mostly soft, not crispy, but they have a more interesting texture than plain boiled potatoes. Lemon and bay are lovely together, and go very nicely with the mild, pleasing flavor of potatoes.

Here’s Jimmy Smith with Greensleeves from the phenomenal Christmas Cooking album.

Continue reading

Collards with spicy soft potatoes

Collards and potatoes

We had a slow weekend at work, and I passed the time by reading some of the free publications in the lobby. Welladay! One particular publication had me in such a tizzy that I stood in the wait station banging my forehead against a shelf and muttering aloud, to the amusement of my co-workers. It was an editorial about honesty, and in particular about the value of honesty in politics. (Aha! I thought, he’ll discuss Paul Ryan’s little flight of fancy at the Republican National Convention.) I knew I shouldn’t start reading it. I knew I should have stopped reading it. But, I tell you, it was like a verbal train wreck. I couldn’t look away. As a former copyeditor, reading this editorial gave me the vapors. The author’s style is very distinctive. He begins by stating an opinion. Generally a far-fetched opinion, and one designed to offend as many people as possible. Then he says, “You might not agree with this, you probably don’t agree with this. But you can’t dispute it. It is a fact, an indisputable fact. They’ve done studies.” Does he say who has done which studies, or tell you where to find them? He does not. He’ll do this several times in his little essay, and you can feel him shivering with delight at the idea that he’s making so many people angry, but that they can’t dispute his incisive reasoning. And then he makes lists. Halfway through a sentence he’ll stop and try to define something and he’ll tie himself in so many knots that he gets lost and wanders for half a paragraph, and then he’ll try to find his way back into the sentence, and bring it in for a landing, but it’s too late. Ironically, this week he derailed himself by attempting to define the word, “ignorance.”

Oddly, I was thinking about honesty on the way to work this weekend. I remember discovering, when I was little, that telling a lie was a lot more trouble than it was worth, because you had to remember the lie that you told, and it generally spawned more lies, and you had to remember those as well. Oh, what a confusion! I value honesty in human beings, of the not-telling-a-lie variety. And I value emotional honesty, as well, in art, and music, and film, and literature. In my opinion, all of the cleverness and skill and talent in the world are worth nothing if they’re not backed by emotional honesty. It’s a difficult quality to define, but you know it when you see it. For me, it’s closely connected to soulfulness and grace – two other indefinable but necessary qualities. And, as I was thinking about it this weekend, I realized that part of the reason I love certain hip hop artists is that they contain high levels of these particular elements. It’s a fact. You might not agree with me, but you can’t dispute it, because it’s indisputable. They’ve done studies. So many studies.

For instance, Goodie Mob’s Soul Food, which I know I’ve mentioned before, is, to me, full of honesty and, well, soul. And they mention collards, which allows me to gracefully guide this train of thought into the station. We got some collards from the farm, and I was thrilled. I thought about preparing them in a similar style to a dish we have at our favorite Ethiopian restaurant. Flavorful, but simple, with soft, comforting boiled potatoes. So that’s what I did. I really loved this dish! I think I practically ate the whole thing all by myself, and growled at anybody that tried to take a spoonful.

Here’s Goodie Mob’s Soul Food. (again!)

Continue reading

Red beans in red wine & tamari sauce, with roasted mushrooms and potatoes

Nobody stands on the beach getting teary-eyed over the sea birds. That would just be silly. Certainly I would never do that! This week when we were at the beach, I saw something I’ve not seen in many decades of beach-going. The seabirds followed a school of fish so close to the shore that the lifeguards pulled everyone out of the water. The birds frantically ate, circling and calling – two kinds of terns, two kinds of seagulls, farther out large brown pelicans. Small silver fish leapt through the waves, where we had just been swimming. The dolphins had been following the fish, too, but they didn’t swim in as close to shore. It was a dizzying spectacle – the sun white bright on the sand, the horizon heaving and changing with each wave, the birds wheeling in fast flowing arcs, blurring your vision. I found it incredibly moving. The ocean moves me, anyway…literally, with each wave that sweeps me off my feet, high above the sand, and then sets me down again, where and when it chooses; and emotionally, with its vasty vastness and beauty and mystery. Somehow seeing the sea birds made me more aware of just how unaware we are of the life in the ocean. Their frenzied activity hinted at the world in the waves, but we’ll never know what’s in each smoky green swell of water, and what’s living where there are no waves, where the ocean is deep and dark. The birds know…they seemed to sense, as a group, when it was time to move on. (And it just killed me, that in the midst of all of this activity, a handful of gulls stayed apart, floating cooly on the water, not bothered at all.) By contrast, the humans on the beach suddenly seemed endearingly foolish – with our garish colors, our strange skin, our beach chairs and umbrellas and toys and snacks, our lumbering movements into and out of the waves. (I say this as somebody who gets knocked over by 2 feet of water!) We think we know, we think we’re in control, but we have no idea. I love that moment of recognition – I HAVE NO IDEA! – but it’s frightening as well.

And, of course, you love the birds and the dolphins, but you feel a little bad for the small silver fish, leaping through the waves. It’s the unavoidable cycle of life for the birds and the dolphins, but not for me, so when we got home, I cooked up some beans. But these are very very special beans!! They’re in a sauce made with red wine, sage, rosemary, and tamari. It’s a very savory, meaty, delicious sauce (umame-y?) I made it quite brothy. I served it over millet (we love millet!) which I’d made with the same broth that’s in the sauce, and I roasted some mushrooms and potatoes to mix in. I’d thought about cooking the mushrooms and potatoes with the sauce, as a sort of stew, but I really like them best when they’re crispy and flavorful, so this is how we did it. We topped the whole thing with fresh smoked mozzarella and fresh basil from the garden. A simple salad of baby arugula and walnuts was the perfect crunchy bright accompaniment, and a good loaf of crusty bread was on hand to sop up the juices. The broth was the star of the show, and I will make it again! But Isaac loved the beans, and ate them very sweetly one at a time, between spoonfuls of millet.

Red beans in red wine, tamari, sage sauce

Here’s J Dilla’s hypnotic Waves

Continue reading

Potatoes, artichoke hearts and chard

Potatoes, artichokes and chard

I feel like I have a mild case of the doldrums. Some combination of time flying too fast and my creative energy running way too slow has me feeling a little meh and blah. There’s so much I want to do and make, but I feel like I’m cabined, cribbed, confined by saucy doubts and fears. And they’re not even important or reasonable doubts and fears, for heaven’s sake! But there’s probably nothing duller than hearing somebody talk about their doldrums, so I’ll talk instead about something bright and inspiring, that can shake a person out of such a state. Bill Traylor, of course! I think his drawings are remarkable – so pure and vital and strange and perfect. I read once that he uses a “high singing blue” in his drawings, and I’m completely enamored of this idea. A high singing blue! I was looking around for some of his drawings, and I’m very excited to find that somebody is making a film about him! Here’s a preview, which also has plenty of examples of his drawings…

Of course I don’t understand the whole story of Bill Traylor’s life, but he had more than his share of cares and worries, and what did he do? He drew! It feels as though he didn’t over-think and fret about finding the right tools, and make a fuss about his grand projects: he sat and drew what he saw, and what was in his mind, and what he drew was beautiful and fervent.

Your song for today is this one about Bill Traylor by French double-bass-and-string-oud-band Off Duo (omg, another double bass and string oud band?). I just love it!

Meanwhile, I’ve got to get myself back some balance, some perspective. I love day-to-day life. I love the small things we do every day with the boys. I love watching them play, and draw, and build things. I like the creativity we call upon every day, and – for me – a big part of that is cooking. We eat to live, and we cook crazy things to keep our minds alive! And as dumb as it sounds, I find potatoes inspiring! They’re like a blank canvas, or a blank piece of re-used cardboard. We got some from our CSA, and a bag of dirty potatoes is a source of endless possibilities!! In this dish I wanted to combine the sweet crispiness of fried potatoes with the earthy softness of sautéed chard. The strongest flavoring here is rosemary, which is perfect with potatoes, and seems so summery and mysterious.

Continue reading

Grilled veg, pigeon peas, lime, basil and pine nuts

Grilled veg and pigeon peas

Here at The Ordinary’s anti-boredom institute, we believe that you have to be taught to be bored. Babies are never bored. Give them a shaft of light and their little fingers and they’re happy for ages. Little children don’t get bored. It’s when you’re older, and somebody shows you that it’s cool to be bored, that it all comes crashing down, and you lose the ability to entertain yourself. Unfortunately it feels as if this is happening at a younger and younger age. One week into summer vacation, Malcolm announced that he was bored, and needed to watch a(nother) video. I lost it a little bit. I yelled, “you are not that boy – you don’t have so little going on in your busy brain that you need to watch television to keep from being bored!” He sighed, and may have rolled his eyes, my little nearly-ten-year-old-teenager. I’m a big believer in unstructured time, for little ones. Isaac likes to lie on his back in bed, one leg thrown over the other knee, singing and thinking. I always wonder what’s going on in his bright little head. The two of them together can spend hours on some scheme or another. Sometimes it’s better not to know what they’re up to! When I was growing up my mom used to say, “people who are bored are boring.” It’s a lesson that I took to heart. I truly believe that you should have enough inner resources to be stuck in traffic and not be bored – your thoughts should be able to keep you busy and happy. It’s mother-flippin hard sometimes, I know! Inertia, ennui, fatigue, 90+ degree weather – they weigh you down! But it’s what I wish for my bright boys. Now to keep them away from the damn DVD player! Of course it might help if I stopped writing about how I don’t want them to be bored, stepped away from the damn computer, and engaged! We live in such a noisy world! My friend Laura shared this article from the NYT that I found very validating!

OMG, you know what else is totally boring? Eating the same grilled vegetables two days in a row. Sheesh. Unless…you sautée them with pigeon peas, add a squeeze of lime, a giant handful of fresh basil, and a scattering of pine nuts. (Now that I have pine nuts, pretty much every thing I make will involve pine nuts. Until they’re gone. You’ve been warned!) This turned out really tasty. It was an after work – very tired – it’s too hot to cook meal, but it was actually quite special. It was David’s suggestion to use pigeon peas, and it was an excellent one. They have an earthy quality that went well with everything else. You could use any grilled vegetables you have leftover, but I have to say beets, potatoes and mushrooms were lovely. I stir-fried some zucchini, and with the beet juice and nigella seeds, it ended up looking uncannily like water-melon slices! You could, of course grill the zucchini. You could also roast all the veg, or even sautee it all, if that was easier for you, or you don’t have a grill, or it happens not to be summer as your read this. And you could substitute chickpeas for pigeon peas, if that’s what you have on hand. We ate this with basmati rice and some good bread.

Here’s Bob Marley with Lively Up Yourself. I can’t get enough of him, lately!

Continue reading

Roasted mushrooms & potatoes with sage & white pepper

Roasted potatoes and mushrooms

This year Malcolm and I read The Trumpet of the Swan. I hadn’t read it since I was little, and I didn’t remember it in great detail, but I knew I’d liked it. It’s such an odd little story. Nature-guide-worthy details of flora and fauna mix with flights of fancy in a lovely, matter-of-fact style, as if a swan’s ability to read, and play a trumpet, and be a good friend, are exactly the qualities we would expect him to have. As we got towards the end, there was a passage that was so surprising, and beautiful and unlikely, that it made me ridiculously happy. We’re given a glimpse into the thoughts of a minor character – a zoo “head man” who who only speaks a handful of times in the entire book. Nobody else gets this treatment! Sam, the young human hero of the story is describing how his friend, Louis the swan, would die if he were kept in captivity.

“The head man closed his eyes. He was thinking of little lakes deep in the woods, of the color of bulrushes of the sounds of night and the chorus of frogs. He was thinking of swans’ nests, and eggs, and the hatching of eggs, and the cygnets following their father in single file. He was thinking of dreams he had had as a young man.”

And later, when Sam tells him about money Louis is saving to pay for his trumpet, we see inside the Head Man’s mind again.

“The subject of money seemed to interest the Head Man greatly. He thought how pleasant it would be not to have any more use for money. He leaned back in his chair. … ‘When it comes to money,’ he said, ‘birds have it easier than men do…A bird doesn’t have to go to a supermarket and buy a dozen eggs and a pound of butter and two rolls of paper towels and a TV dinner and a can of Ajax and a can of tomato juice and a pound and a half of ground round steak and a can of sliced peaches and two quarts of fat-free milk and a bottle of stuffed olives. A bird doesn’t have to pay rent on a house, or interest on a mortgage. A bird doesn’t insure its life with an insurance company and then have to pay premiums on the policy. A bird doesn’t own a car and buy gas and oil and pay for repairs on the car and take the car to a car wash and pay to get it washed. Animals and birds are lucky. They don’t keep acquiring things, the way men do. You can teach a monkey to drive a motorcycle, but I have never known a monkey to go out and buy a motorcycle.'”

It just kills me!! The details of shopping list, and the way it all comes out in a mad, comma-less rush. I’ve only known the head man for about a paragraph, and he disappears from the story soon after, but I feel like I know him, and I’d feel like I’d like him.

I had such a rotten weekend of work. Discouraging, depressing, not-at-all financially rewarding. I wish money didn’t matter. I wish I could work hard on all of the things I love, and the deeply important projects we’re developing here at The Ordinary, and get by like that. Sigh.

Anyway! When I came home from work one night, I felt like making this fast, delicious, comforting, flavorful dish. We had it as a side dish with our summer tart. I love the idea of potatoes and shallots together – they seem like such earthy, pan-seasonal friends. And of course roasted mushrooms are one of my favorite things in the world. The combination has a lovely, savory meat-and-potatoes feel about it. I cut the potatoes quite small, and left the mushrooms quite big, so they’d cook at the same rate, and because I liked the crispy potatoes with the juicy mushrooms.

Here’s Blackalicious with Swan Lake. I love this song! It has samples of about 500 different versions of People Make the World Go Round.

Continue reading

White beans with figs, potatoes, and shallots

White beans with figs and potatoes

David and I had a lovely friend named Madeleine. She was Belgian, and her husband had been Greek. We used to spend afternoons in her teeming garden, drinking Belgian beer and eating Greek rusks and delicious cheese. She had wonderful stories to tell. She’d met Hergé! Hergé!! Madeleine’s daughter, Sandy, lives in Greece, so I don’t see her very often, but since I’ve started this blog, she’s been sending me Greek recipes. They’re wonderful – eggplant, spinach, savory pastries, lemony potatoes! I can’t wait to try them. Recently, she spent some time in Paris, and she sent me a description of her meal, which she called “two non-recipes from Paris.” I love the idea of making a meal based on a description of a special lunch somebody had somewhere. Wouldn’t it be fun to find old letters (even very old letters) from all sorts of people all over the world, and make a cookbook based on meals that they describe? Yes! It would! Anyway, the meal Sandy wrote about sounded like exactly my kind of thing. She’d eaten a dish with meat, figs, potatoes, and little onions, probably shallots. Doesn’t that sound perfect? Of course, I left the meat out, and I decided to replace it with white beans, and cook it into a nice brothy, stewy type of meal. I’m sure the original was far more elegant, and I’ve peasant-ized it, but it just seemed perfect that way to me, yesterday. I bought three plump, ripe little figs, but if these are hard for you to find, you can replace them with dry or even a few tablespoons of fig preserves. I used red-skinned potatoes, and the whole dish had a lovely rosy hue. We ate this with goat cheese toasts plus extra crusty bread for soaking up the broth.

Here’s a Greek song about a fig tree! Nikos Skalkottas, from 16 Songs, AK 80, VIII. Fig Tree. Strange and beautiful!
Continue reading

Roasted veg with pesto and fried bread

Roasted veg & pesto

I was so pleased with this meal! It seemed so summery. It felt as if all the vegetables were getting along, like a good family should. The cauliflower and potatoes were roasted, because that suited them best. The zucchini was sautéed till it was lightly browned, and then it played nicely with some fresh spinach and a tidbit of canned tomatoes. The mozzarella and pesto were wonderfully yielding to the warmth of the cooked vegetables. And the cubes of bread, lightly fried in olive oil, added just enough crunch to turn the whole thing into a party.

Something about the combination of bread, potatoes and vegetables evokes a peasant-ish meal. But a meal idealized peasants might have. I see peasants in the French or Italian countryside, and it’s constantly sunset or sunrise. They’ve got the wholesome goodness. I see a beautiful, spoiled American woman from LA, or NYC. She’s lost her way, she has no sense of purpose. All it takes is one bite of roasted vegetables with pesto and fried bread to make her realize how shallow her life is. She falls in love with a mysterious, swarthy fellow, who is secretly a count and a millionaire. You’ll laugh! You’ll cry!! You’ll buy the book and all the merchandise to go with it!

I don’t have time to pick a more appropriate song, so here’s a beauty…Fred Williams and the Jewels band with Tell Her.
Continue reading

Vegetable, french lentil, potato ragout

Vegetable french lentil ragout

In which Claire goes on and on about The Two of Us, part 2 of 2.

Did I mention that we recently watched the Claude Berri film, The Two of Us? Oh, I did? I’ve told you that I loved the film, and some of the reasons why. But there was more to it than that. The film spoke to me, about things I’ve been thinking about the last few weeks. I saw myself in some of the characters in a way I don’t usually with most films. I wonder if everybody feels that way when they watch The Two of Us, because the film is so human and honest that it feels universal? Such specific things resonated, though. An old, old dog, loved more than anything in the world. A bright, energetic 8-year-old boy, who doesn’t quite understand why you’re upset by the way he acts. The father’s anxious-angry-loving face was so dear and familiar. And then there were the animals. Pepe is a vegetarian. Not a common or popular position in the French countryside at the time, it would seem. The rest of the populace was trying to find a way to scrounge some meat during the deprivations of WWII, but he proudly announced that he only ate vegetables. By choice. Not because that’s all the rations allowed. His wife raised, killed, and cooked rabbits. But to Pepe, that wasn’t an option, because he knew the rabbits. He loved the rabbits. Exactly in the way he loved Claude, though he was a jew, because he knew him. It reminded me of the film The Shooting Party, in which a parallel is made between children who save their pet duck from a duck hunt, as though she’s the only duck that matters, because she’s their duck, and the fact that the accidental shooting of an old man is only important because they know him. All this in the context of WWI, in which surely it was only possible to kill other humans in fear and ignorance, because you didn’t know them, and they were the enemy. In the way Claude, the little boy, would have been to Pepe, before he knew him.

Anyway…I wanted to make something to go with my couronne bread, and I decided to make something Pepe might eat. So I made a ragout, which as I understand it is a stew substantial enough to be a meal. This was hearty, because of the potatoes and french lentils, but they weren’t the stars of the show. We also had zucchini, broccoli rabe and tomatoes, and white wine and capers for brightness. So it had a certain lightness, despite being completely satisfying. Not the prettiest thing I’ve ever made, but right up their with the tastiest.

Here’s Nina Simone with Turning Point. A devastating, complex song, told with the simplicity of a child’s voice. A revelation of prejudice that makes it all seem so idiotic and unnecessary.
Continue reading

Eggplant, roasted mushroom, red bliss, spinach bake

Eggplant mushroom bake

There are certain things in the world I like a lot. I think of these things as “Claire-y.” Otters, for instance, or green chairs with unexpected drawers, or boxes with little secret compartments and little bottles in them. These things are claire-y. I was trying to think of a way to describe this, and I kept coming back to the word claire-y. I love eggplant, mushrooms, spinach and potatoes. I love them cooked these ways, and I love them all together. I also seem to be drawn to odd dishes that defy definition and categorization. I’m not sure what to call this? Is it a gratin? A tian? A bake? A casserole? (For some reason a casserole seems like something my fourth grade teacher from the 70s would make. The one with the polyester suit and the glasses on a chain.) As I understand it, most of these words describe the dish it was baked in. But I don’t know what my dish is called! ACK! I decided to call it a bake. Because it’s baked. Here’s what it involves…thinly sliced vegetables, each prepared in a slightly different way, layered together with some cheese and baked. That’s about it. The potatoes are boiled, the eggplant is fried, the mushrooms are roasted, and the spinach is sautéed. It’s quite easy though! It sounds like a lot of steps, but they’re all pretty easy and quick. And then when it’s done, what is it? It’s hearty and satisfying enough to be a main course, but it also works quite well as a side dish. It’s whatever you want it to be, I guess!

Eggplant mushroom bake

Today friends, instead of finding a song about casseroles, tians or bakes, I’m going to post this song that has been haunting me. It’s so beautiful and plaintive. When a song like this is an earworm, it’s like having a little ghost howling in your head! It’s Tommy Johnson’s I Want Someone to Love Me.

Continue reading