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.

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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.
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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.

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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!
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It fills you with a strange glow. Even these leafless plants we saw, with a strange light purple hue seemed oddly hopeful.
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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.

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Spicy smoky zucchini & tomato tart

Smoky zucchini and tomato tart

Here at The Ordinary, we have acquired our first real food processor. It didn’t come with instructions, but we are performing exhaustive experiments in our extensive underground kitchen-laboratories to determine its function and capabilities. We have puréed paper, grated legos, and julienned our entire DVD collection. We would like to inform you that from this point onward, every thing we cook will be diced and sliced to within an inch of its life. You have been warned!! I’m joking, of course, but I’m very excited to finally have a food processor. My friend Jenny gave me her old cuisinart. I brought it into the house and Malcolm said, “Oooooh, what’s that?” And then he and I gathered around our new toy, and tried to figure out how to use it. Did you know that every little piece has to be locked into place, in a certain order, or it won’t work? I didn’t! I kept loading it up, pressing the button, expecting a huge loud noise, and then….nothing! We finally got it all figured out, though. And before I knew it Malcolm had grated two large zucchinis. And then I had to try the knife-type blade, so we chopped up some basil, cilantro, tomatoes, almonds and hazelnuts. We made a chunky sort of sauce. Very smoky and flavorful, because I’d put every smoky thing I could find in … black cardamom, nigella seeds, smoked paprika. We ate it with saltine crackers, and it was very tasty! The next day, I decided to further test the abilities of my processor, and I pureed this chunky sauce till quite smooth, then added some eggs and milk, put it all in a biscuit-like crust with smoked paprika in it, added some fresh cherry tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, and made a tart! What with the nuts and all, it’s almost like a savory frangipane. We ate it with potatoes roasted with tomatoes and shallots, which were sort of saucy, and everything went well together. You could make this with a blender and a regular grater, if you don’t happen to have a food processor.

Smoky zucchini/tomato/nut sauce

Here’s Sly and the Family Stone with Thank You Fallettin Me Be Mice Elf Again to dance to while you puree, grate and julienne. Thanks for the food processor, Jenny!!
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