Cannellini with kale, fennel and yellow peppers

Penne with chard, fennel and yellow peppers

Penne with chard, fennel and yellow peppers

    All great deeds and all great thoughts have a ridiculous beginning. Great works are often born on a street corner or in a restaurant’s revolving door.
    Albert Camus
    At any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face.
    Albert Camus
    Don’t you stay at home of evenings? Don’t you love a cushioned seat in a corner, by the fireside, with your slippers on your feet?
    Oliver Wendell Holmes
    If you leave the smallest corner of your head vacant for a moment, other people’s opinions will rush in from all quarters.
    George Bernard Shaw

Maybe success is just around the corner. Maybe you’re sick of being stuck in a corner. Maybe you like being stuck in a corner, because your little corner of the world is your favorite place. Maybe you’re standing on the corner like just-got-in-town-Jasper, and you’re deciding which way to turn next. Maybe you’ll stop in at the corner shop for directions and gossip. Maybe you’re just standing on the corner, watching the world go by. Whether the corner is the center of all the action or a dusty forgotten place, today’s Sunday interactive playlist is songs about corners. Add your song to the list, or leave a comment and I’ll try to remember to add it through the week.

This is a quick meal! But it has lots of flavor and good textures. Anise-y fennel, earthy beans and kale, sweet peppers and raisins, tart goat cheese. The boys ate it with penne, but I ate it with arugula and pecans, as you see in the picture.

Here’s a link to the playlist.
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Chard “lasagna” with fennel, roasted reds, olives, and walnut ricotta

chard lasagna

chard lasagna

One summer, when I was 11 or 12, I fell down a lot. I skinned my knees so many times in one summer that they’re still mapped with scars. I don’t remember being all that bothered by it. At some point scabby knees became normal for me – itching and peeling and catching on my clothes. A few years later I fell off my bike on the way to my piano teacher’s house and I cried for a week. There’s no accounting for my irrationally fervent response, but everything seemed suddenly so fragile and vulnerable and poignant. My boys seem to like falling. When Isaac’s nervous and trying to impress someone he’ll make a silly face and topple to the ground. Pratfalls never fail to amaze! When they’re riding skateboards and scooters, it always seems to me that they’re learning how to fall as much as they’re learning how to ride – it’s an equally important skill. Of course, raising children is a pattern of watching them fall and then get back up again. When they first sit up, and they’re so proud and so happy with their new vantage point, and then they just…tip over. When they’re learning how to walk, and you brace yourself for the sickening sound of hard little head on pavement. Sometimes they bounce back, sometimes they crumple and wail. Malcolm has always loved to climb – chairs, tables, trees, rocks. I could create an extensive photo essay of “Malcolm sitting on top of things.” It was hard to let him go, at first. I remember consciously telling myself not to blurt out “be careful” as he clambered from chair to table. And, of course, that was the exact moment he fell. Mostly I let him go, now, because I trust him to know what he can do. I close my eyes and hold my breath and wait to look till he’s safely on the earth again. I’ve been thinking about falling a lot, lately, for some reason. When I’m running with Clio, or walking down the stairs, I can imagine myself falling, I can almost feel that it’s going to happen, so I go very cautiously. I feel gravity’s pull more. I dream about falling and wake myself with a start, like a newborn. When Clio and Malcolm jump and climb and clamber, it’s not just that they’re young and strong and agile, it’s that they don’t doubt themselves. It never occurs to them for a second that they might not make it. If Clio is behind the tall-backed couch and wants to be on the other side, she doesn’t run around the couch, or get out a measuring tape and calculate the height of the back of the couch, she doesn’t take a few trial hops. She doesn’t imagine what would happen if she wipes out before she reaches the top of the couch. She leaps! When Malcolm scales a giant rock-face, he doesn’t catastrophize about what would happen if he slips, he clambers happily to the top and beams down at us from on high.

I love giant chard leaves. It always feels like such a shame to chop them up. So I decided to leave them whole and use them in a sort of lasagna, instead of noodles. I have layers of braised fennel with roasted peppers, capers and olives, layers of melty mozzarella, layers of walnut ricotta, and layers of chard leaves. It turned out very tasty indeed! The walnut ricotta is made with walnuts, olive oil, balsamic, rosemary and honey, and it’s very earthy and good. Nice all together!

Here’s Tom Waits with Falling Down.

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Fennel & walnut croquettes

Fennel and walnut croquettes

Fennel and walnut croquettes

Olga Von Till was born in the 1890s. As a girl she lived in New Brunswick, New Jersey. She played piano for silent movies, providing a soundtrack for their voiceless antics. She was sent to Hungary to study with Bela Bartok, and became stranded there when World War I broke out. She made a living as a companion for wealthy, eccentric women. When she returned home she lived in New York City for a while, and she taught classical piano to Bill Evans, amongst many others. In the 80s she lived in a small town next to New Brunswick, and it was at that point that I met her – she was my piano teacher all through high school. She was an intimidating teacher, exacting and persistent. She heard the tone of each note, and she heard the silence between notes, which were as important as the notes themselves, and needed to be given their exact space, their exact weight. Ms. Von Till would hold your arm with her strong hands, feeling the muscles, and she’d put her hand under your hand, so that your fingers stretched to the piano keys from a seemingly impossible height, but with just the right force when they finally touched. She had a hard round belly that she’d prop a blank music-lined book on, and she’d write careful instructions for the week’s practice in strange and wonderful felt tip pens that I coveted, but never found in the real world. She had two pairs of glasses, one with round thick lenses and gold frames, and one with horn-rimmed frames and small blue flowers. Everything in her house was exactly as she wanted it, and she could tell you stories about choosing the fabric on the walls or the rugs on the floor. She had two steinway grands, and she talked about them as if they were living creatures – each had its own tone, its own voice. Her husband Sam played the violin, and he’d been a child prodigy, but his career had been disappointing. He heard music in his head, and would gesture passionately as he listened to it. I was a mediocre student, we all knew I would never amount to much as a pianist. But I loved to sit with Ms Von Till. After I left for college, I would visit her every time I came home. I’d bring her flowers every time, and I’d sit and listen to her stories. As she got older, she wouldn’t come down the stairs, and we’d sit upstairs in her study, side by side. She would tell stories of her remarkable life, sometimes the same stories over and over, but they were worth hearing again. She’d hold my arm, and feel the muscles, she’d support my hand with her strong hands. She could tell I hadn’t been playing piano. Sometimes we’d sit in silence, and then she’d look at me with a beaming smile through her thick round lenses. I didn’t talk much, she couldn’t have known much about me, but I felt that she loved me. I felt that she was a good friend, despite the more than seventy years between us. I still dream about her sometimes, about the world that she created with her music, her elegance, her strength, her stories, and her expectations.

Obviously I admired her very much! So this week’s Sunday interactive playlist will be about songs of admiration for other musicians. The tribute can be in the lyrics or in the tunes. I thought I had a lot of these stored up, but I’m struggling, so I need your help!

And these fennel croquettes – I wanted to have a combination of comforting and wintery and bright and fresh and summery. I used fresh thyme and fresh rosemary, and I made them light and crispy. But they also have bread crumbs and melty cheese to get you through the winter evening. We ate them with a simple tomato sauce, but you could eat them with any kind of sauce you like.

Here’s the interactive playlist as it stands so far. Feel free to add whatever you can think of!

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Zucchini fritters with goat cheese and pine nuts

Zucchini Fritters

With a ringing of bells, a man entered our store. He was slim and elegant and quite dapper in an understated 60s Greenwich Village way. He wore some of the coolest sneakers I’ve seen in a while. He walked straight to me, without looking around, and he clutched something under his arm. My heart sank. We have more people come into our store trying to sell things than the other way around, sadly. I was late to meet someone, we can’t afford to buy anything at the moment – but he held a book of photographs, and I took the time to look. They were beautiful – black and white, quite dark in tone and mood. He explained that they were of Bosnia, his home country, during the 70s and 80s. I told him we weren’t in the financial position to buy anything, however much we liked it. He turned to leave, but halfway along, he stopped. He told me he loved the store. He said that “they” were trying to squash craft and art and creativity, but that a wave was coming that they couldn’t stop. He said it would wash right over the bunkers that they build out of all the crap that they make us watch and eat and read. He was very eloquent. He said we would be okay because of a good way of life (he rubbed his belly) and a pure soul (he put his hand on his heart). It was like a strange benediction. When he left I felt a slight trace of regret – that I didn’t have more time to talk to him, maybe, or that I couldn’t help him by buying his prints.

My favorite cooking utensil – the one I use for absolutely every meal I make, is a wooden stirrer-scraper that David made. It’s made from curly maple, and it’s the perfect combination of beauty and function. It’s long-handled, but the handle is tapered, so it doesn’t fall into your pot, or fall out of your pot and clatter in a big mess on the floor. Its straight beveled edge is absolutely perfect for scraping the bottom of the pan when you add white wine, to get all the lovely caramely tasty bits mixed into the sauce. I love that David made it, and that I use it to make meals for the family. I love that it takes on the colors of the food I cook, and that, as it does, its beautiful, rippled grain becomes more visible.

Of course I used it to make these zucchini fritters!! They’re fairly simple – crispy outside, soft in, melty with goat cheese and crunchy with pine nuts. (My god they’re good! I haven’t splurged on them in a while and I’d forgotten how delicious they are!!) The fritters are lightly flavored with fennel, lemon, and basil – summery! Malcolm invented the dipping sauce. We’d been eating salted limes, and he thought that if limes were good with salt, they’d be good with tamari. The sauce is full of flavor – ginger, garlic, lime, tamari and hot pepper. It’s unusual with the fritters, but really lovely. You could, of course, make any other sort of sauce you like with them.

Here’s The Specials with Too Hot, because it’s close to 100 degrees here, and we’re melting!
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Summer tart

We drove through the pine barrens on the way to and from Cape May. There are a lot of religious radio stations down that way, and signs along the road, and trucks with religious messages painted on them. In keeping with the burnt and barren landscape, the messages are all fairly dire and doom-filled. We were driving back in the lightning-lit gloaming of one of the longest days of the year, and I saw a sign that said, “God still talks to us.” And then we passed a darkened field under a sky cut across by strange horizontal lightning, and the field was filled with the slow glow of lightning bugs. I’m not very religious, in any traditional sense of the word, but it occurred to me at that sleepy moment that if God talked to us it would be through fireflies. Not that they’d communicate a message in some sort of coded pattern, but that God could say, “See? Lightning bugs.” And that would be that. This is the time of year for fireflies. The fireflyening. We were talking about them last night, sitting in our dusky garden, the boys reaching up from their seats and catching fireflies, which is really just letting them land on your hand for a moment. Or maybe them letting you feel their nearly imperceptible weight as a kind of blessing. We were imagining how they make themselves glow. Do they screw up their little faces and clench their little fists with the effort of lighting up their little butts? I was thinking of that phrase from It’s a Wonderful Life, “She lights up like a firefly whenever you’re around.”

Surely one of the nicest moments in life is when somebody is glad to see you. There are a gazillion people in the world, and when one of them has a face that brightens at the sight of you, it’s a gift. When somebody wags their tail when they see you, it makes you happy. This is why babies are nice. You might only be away from them for a few hours, but when you come back to them, although they don’t tell you in words, they let you know that you are their link to the universe, and they feel a little lost without you. Older children, however, are a little different. You could be gone for weeks, lost in a desert, fighting for your life, and when you walk into a room they would look up from the couch and say, “Mom! What do we have for a snack? I’m thirsty! Why don’t we have anything good to drink?” I remember many years ago I was talking to my dad, and without looking he knew David had walked into the room behind him, because, he said, my face never lit up that way for anyone else. I still feel that way! Yesterday when I came home from work, David seemed really glad to see me, and instead of appreciating that moment and letting myself feel happy, I let loose with a long stream of curses because I’d had such a rotten day at work. I brought everybody around me down into my tightly knotted coil of crankiness. Damn!

Well, one of the reasons I was cranky, is that I’d bought some new tart pans in Cape May, and I really wanted to be home making tarts! Silly, I know. In the end I did get to make this tart, and we sat outside and ate it, and then we built a fire and watched the sparks float up into the night and talked about fireflies. The tart has a white pepper walnut crust (I bought white peppercorns in Cape May, too!), which is a nice grounding, savory container for all the summery insides. In a garlicky basil custard, we have a little bit of fennel, some fresh tomatoes, and some thinly sliced zucchini that has been browned in olive oil. Simple!

Here’s Nina Simone’s Jellyroll, because it’s one of the best songs ever, and she says, “you could wrap me up in black, and still I shine and glow!”
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Black quinoa & beluga lentils 2 ways; And semolina buns!

Black quinoa & beluga lentils

We ate quinoa a few times last week, and – as I promised the boys – we turned into Incan super heroes. (It is a “superfood,” you know!). Oh the adventures we had! I’d love to tell you about them, but I’m legally bound to silence, because they’re going to make an animated series based on our exploits. The animation will be a collaboration of Ray Harryhausen and Jules Bass, the music will be supplied by Damon Albarn and Harry Mancini, and Saul Bass is working on the credit sequence as we speak. Each episode will follow a set of normal, modern characters who will suddenly find themselves faced with a problem that only a family of Incan superheroes can solve. When our super powers wane, we eat mounds of quinoa to restore them. (Quinoa companies are currently duking it out for endorsement contracts) In one running gag, the littlest Incan super hero, based on Isaac, refuses to eat his quinoa, and the rest of us say, “We’ll have to go on our adventures without you!”

But let’s get back to the food, man. I remember when it was all about the food. I went to Whole Foods a few weeks back, and I stocked up on black grains. Black barley, black rice, black quinoa… (What, quinoa is not actually a grain, it’s a “pseudocereal”? Good god.) I like black grains and grain-like products because they’re very pretty, and because they usually have a nuttier, meatier taste than their paler cousins. Black quinoa is no exception. It stays a little crunchy, it turns a lovely garnet color, and the little pale squiggly spiral comes out to tell you that it’s done. I thought the quinoa would taste nice (and look good!) with beluga lentils. I wanted to try something a little different with the seasoning, because I feared I was getting stuck in a rut. So I opted for tarragon, fennel seed and ground coriander in a sauce made from white wine and orange juice. Fruity, citrus-tart/sweet, and anise-y! I thought it was nice! I thought it would go well with sweet potatoes and carrots, so I added some of those, too. And I threw in handfuls of baby spinach at the end, because everything is better with baby spinach! We ate it with basmati rice and a salad of arugula and more baby spinach. The rice is probably overkill with the quinoa, but it was one thing I was sure the boys would eat. I grated some sharp cheddar on mine, and I thought it was a nice addition.

Quinoa burgers

We had some quinoa mixture left over, and some extra beluga lentils, so I decided to make them into burgers. I added a little smoked paprika and tamari, for that smoky, meaty edge. I added an egg and some bread crumbs, for substance, and I fried them in a little olive oil. Delicious! They’re a little delicate, but very tasty. I wanted to make rolls for my burgers, so I made some out of semolina. I wanted to keep them simple, but I kept thinking how nice the chinese dumplings we made were, with a little extra sugar, and a touch of vinegar, so I added that. The rolls were tasty, but quite dense. Which was a funny combination with the delicate burgers, but I liked it, although I concede that nice soft store-bought hamburger buns might make more sense in this instance. I heaped some lettuce and fresh spinach and fresh sliced tomato on, and I ate my whole burger! The boys ate them with barbecue sauce, and we made some oven roasted fries to go with them.

semolina buns

Here’s Talib Kweli & MF DOOM with Old School. It’s about cartoon superheroes, and it’s one of my favorites ever!
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Butternut tart with caramelized fennel

Butternut tart

Tart pan, tart pan
Who’s got a tart pan?
I do, that’s who.
Salty or sweet,
messy or neat,
Who can make tarts now?
I can.

Did I tell you that I got a tart pan? I did? I’m totally not excited about it at all. I’m, like, pfffft. Tart pan, whatever.

I used it last week to make a sweet tart. And I used it this week to make a savory tart! I wanted it to be a bit like a pumpkin pie – with the butternut squash roasted, pureed and mixed into a sort of custard. And I thought the fennel would be pretty AND tasty, it’s bright distinctive taste mellowed by a bit of caramelization in white wine and balsamic vinegar. I put some lemon zest in the crust, to tart up the tart, because squash and fennel are quite sweet. I thought very hard about the seasoning, because I’m making a real effort to keep it simple – to choose two or three herbs and spices that go well together. I chose nutmeg and sage – both very nice with butternut squash, and quite lovely together!

Here’s Art Pepper with Nutmeg
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Artichoke, walnut and feta croquettes

Artichoke croquettes

We don’t have cable in our house (conscious choice, cable companies! Don’t come calling.) But sometimes at work I can persuade my fellow restaurant patrons to watch the cooking channel. My favorite is Chopped. I can imagine a version at my house. Instead of gleaming counters and well-coiffed judges, you’d have tables full of school work and drawings and old bills, walls coated with little hand prints and globs of paint, and an elderly dog clattering through, bumping into everyone. And the challenge would be to look in my fridge, pick 2 leftovers packed away in plastic boxes, and make something special out of it. I’d win this round!! I had some leftover mashed potatoes, a half-used can of artichoke hearts, and a bit of extra sandwich bread on hand. What did I make? Lovely croquettes – crispy, flavorful and delicious. Croquettes can be a little stodgy, what with the bread and potatoes, so I wanted them to have bright flavor – something that would go well with feta and artichoke hearts. Hence the fennel and lemon. They turned out really nice! We ate them with a smooth roasted red pepper sauce (open jar of roasted peppers!), which the kids later happily ate on pasta for lunch.

Here’s Vaios Malliaras with Aginara (artichoke) Greek folk clarinet music from 1933. Odd and really lovely!
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Fennel, white beans, walnuts …

… tomatoes, olives, capers, white wine, rosemary…
We’ve decided to have a lot of saucy soups and stews this week. Not sure why, it just seems like a good second-week-of-January menu. This particular saucy stewy dish is the kind of meal that is quick and healthy, but that you would make even if it wasn’t, because it tastes so good. Everybody in my family ate it in a slightly different fashion. I had it as a kind of warm salad, over red leaf lettuce and arugula, topped with gorgonzola, which got a little wilty and was really nice with the walnuts and fennel. My littlest son had it with pasta. Which is to say he ate a bowl of pasta and butter. My older son had the white bean … ragu, shall we call it? over gemelli pasta, and my husband had a mixture of pasta and arugula with his ragu. My favorite part of this meal was the walnuts. A nice unexpected crunch, a lovely toasty flavor. This would also be good with rice, or just a nice loaf of crusty bread.

Here’s King Curtis’ wonderful Memphis Soul Stew. I love this kind of song, I really do.
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Fennel in a sherry & green peppercorn broth

Fennel in a sherry green peppercorn sauce

Sweet fennel in a spicy, smoky, buttery broth. Garnished with toasted slivered almonds and gorgonzola. Delicious, but what is it? Whatever you want it to be! We had it over basmati rice. It would be good with couscous or orzo, or any other kind of pasta you like. If you add white beans or chickpeas it could become quite a hearty stew. If you cook until the fennel is very soft and the liquid quite reduced, you’ll have a delicious compote that would make a nice vegetable side dish. I was in the mood for something light and brothy (post thanksgiving search for clarity!). So I had mine by itself, with several large handfuls of baby arugula tossed on top and stirred in to wilt very slightly. And some toasted ciabatta bread. I think there’s something so pleasurable about combining ingredients, giving some thought to the flavors of the vegetables or beans, and choosing herbs and spices that match. And then tasting a spoonful of the broth, and finding it wonderful! Such a feeling of achievement! Such anticipation of the meal about to be eaten!

Here’s JJ Barnes singing about Sweet Sherry. I used dry for this, but we don’t need to tell him that.
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