Well. That was an adventure.
Back in August, I wrote about being overwhelmed and making jam. Sad to say, the jam-making tapered off soon afterward, but the being overwhelmed continued for a while. In the four months since I last blogged, I’ve been working through a little cascade of life changes. I moved in with my boyfriend. I quit my job. I started a few tentative steps along a new career path. I’ve spent an awful lot of time lately unpacking boxes and sending out applications and jumping on every networking happy hour invite that comes my way, all while slogging through a particularly grey bout of SAD. It’s been a challenge.
But things are settling now. The move, at least, is done. We’re slowly making our new place into a home. And as a big part of that, I’ve been cooking almost every day. Our new kitchen may be tiny, but it’s getting a workout.
The very first thing I cooked, the day after we moved in, was a pot of my grandmother’s bean soup. This is one of those recipes that speaks instant comfort to me, that tastes like winter and rain and the holidays. I can picture my grandmother standing at the stove, with a stained apron tied over her lavender sweat suit, wearing a pair of bedroom slippers that might be as old as I am, stirring an enormous pot of beans and tomatoes. This was a staple every Thanksgiving, and often on Christmas Eve (my aunt’s birthday) as well. It’s simple, nutritious, and freezes like a dream. It felt like the perfect thing to make to turn our new apartment into a home.
This is one of those soups that’s so much more than the sum of its parts: dried white beans, soaked and simmered until they’re starchy and tender, mixed with a sauteed mirepoix and some diced tomatoes. Using dried beans makes the broth fragrant and thick, and cooking the vegetables down into a sauce before adding them to the pot makes the whole thing deep and resonant. Then there are the finishing touches: a spoonful of cooked orzo and a drizzle of olive oil to top off each bowl. The orzo must be cooked separately, rather than boiled it into the soup itself, so that it stays firm and toothsome rather than relaxing into the broth. And the olive oil adds fruitiness and gloss to the bowl, making it vivid and hearty all at the same time. This is how I ate soup as a child, and how I ate it that night in our new home, staring down the barrel of a new stage of adulthood and willing myself to be ready.
This was the kind of meal I wish I made more often.
My friend Kate joined me at Sam’s apartment on Saturday night. Our dinner was grounded in the remnants of other meals: a pair of sturdy goat bones left over from a roast at Marin Sun Farms, and a few wedges of week-old cornbread. We had a pound of red beans and a bunch of kale, a can of tomatoes and a bottle of good wine. From there it was a long and loving spin into soup: the bones became a stock, rich and animal-smelling, and the stock became the cooking liquid for the beans. We went grabbing through the kitchen for odds and ends to nestle into the soup pot–fresh thyme, whole allspice, the rind from a gargantuan wedge of Parmesan–and then set the whole thing simmering.
Sam pointed out that the soup smelled an awful lot like pizza. He wasn’t wrong.
When the beans were half-done, we nestled in an impossible quantity of kale shards and let them wilt and turn silky in the soup. Then we cut the Styrofoam-cornbread into cubes, tossed them with olive oil, and baked them until they turned into the world’s most divine croutons: golden-crisp on the outside, buttery and soft on the inside.
This was the kind of meal I wish I made more often. While the soup simmered and the croutons baked, the three of us drank wine a little too quickly and had long-ranging conversations about ethical theory and science fiction and the bizarre historical artifact that is the Gold Standard. Then we ate soup, thick warm-blanket soup with pillowy croutons on top, and for a while all the conversation was tucked off to the side in favor of “mmms” and “ahhhhs” and sighs of contentment. Because that’s what a good soup does: it gets you talking while it’s cooking, and shuts you up while you’re eating.
This is the kind of cooking that keeps me going. Cooking with people, with wine, with bits and drabs of other delicious meals, is quite possibly the best thing there is.
Well. Seems I’m making a habit of being late to things. Here’s a post about five-layer dip, two weeks after the Super Bowl.
Layer dip is a bit of a Pavlovian thing for me. When I was in high school, a theater geek among theater geeks, every cast party we threw had multiple tubs of the stuff: a Meximurrican mishmash of refried beans, guacamole, salsa, sour cream and shredded cheese. To this day, digging straight down with a tortilla chip brings me right back to those parties, when we were young and loud and silly and weird.
Well, the weird part hasn’t changed. But the point is, I love layer dip.
When I went to St. Petersburg for a summer abroad during college, I was fully expecting to love it–the canals, the palaces, the riotiously colored onion-domed cathedrals, the museums, the music, the cafes with storied literary names, the languid blue dusk of the White Nights.
What I didn’t expect to fall in love with was the food.
Russian food, at least as my friends made it out, was bland. Heavy. Unimaginative. Potatoes, sour cream and beets for weeks on end. I don’t know why I was surprised when my friends turned out to be wrong.
Let’s get one thing clear, right off the bat. This is the best dish I’ve made in a while.
It’s cavatappi pasta with cannellini beans, garlic and sun-dried tomatoes. A bare-bones spin on pasta e fagioli. Ludicrously inexpensive, and nearly idiot-proof to make. Easy enough for a weeknight, fancy and plentiful enough to serve to guests.
Have I mentioned how fabulous this is?
So I was going to get all ranty on here about an ad I saw the other day, and medicine and concern-trolling and the “headless fatty” phenomenon. Maybe someday soon, I will.
But you know what? It’s been a gorgeous sun-drenched week in San Francisco, and I made some damn delicious beans the other night. I’m not going to let The Advertising Man get me down.
Let’s face it: cooking is work. It means picking ingredients, figuring out how to put them together in ways that taste good, keeping everything as warm or cool as it needs to be, and then washing up the mess you’ve just made. If you’re a working stiff, and you’re coming home exhausted, that’s sometimes the last thing you want to do.
When I went to my parents’ house on a recent Monday to do laundry (shut up, I’m totally a grown-up), my mom was in just such a state. She’s a self-employed consultant, working insane hours, and on that particular day she was having technology issues that had her nearly yanking her hair straight from her scalp. She was even more exhausted than I was after a full workday. But, of course, in long-ingrained Mom mode, she dragged herself to the kitchen to look for dinner ingredients. So I stepped in.
“Mom, I’ll make dinner. Don’t worry about it.”