God, what a year. I wish I could share some neat, precisely turned summary of everything that’s happened since I last blogged here in April. My head is a stew pot these days, full to the brim with this and that, and I’ve been trying to simmer it all together into a coherent something for months now.
On a personal scale, things have taken a happy turn towards domesticity. Sam and I got engaged in March and courthouse-married in September. We’re planning a big family-and-friends wedding for next summer (don’t ask how that’s going). We bought a townhouse–I still can’t quite believe we bought a townhouse–and moved in at the beginning of November. And we adopted a cat, who as I type this is draped full-length across my lap, purring his glossy black head off.
Meanwhile, of course, the world around us swerved in a scary direction. Our personal happiness has been complicated by fear, anger, frustration, and sadness. I was mostly holding it together until the night of the US elections, but the result of the presidential race cracked me wide open. I’ve made my political opinions clear on this blog before, and what happened on November 8th was the worst of a worst-case scenario. It also exposed some fraying ends in my mental health that I’d been trying to ignore for a while. Like many people, I suspect, I’ve spent the past month and a half relying on a mix of therapy and home-grown self-care to keep afloat.
As usual for me, the home-grown self-care includes lots of cooking in our new kitchen. The weekend after the election, we invited friends over and fed them lasagna. I’ve been batch cooking and freezing lots of kitchen-sink stuff–soups, stews, and casseroles. And I got fancy one night and baked some chili in a pumpkin, a warming seasonal treat for Sam and me. This isn’t going to resolve the topsy-turviness of the world, but it’s nourishing, absorbing, and even kind of fun–just what I need these days.
I killed a lobster for this stew. It’s actually not the first time I’ve cooked living seafood in my kitchen–if you count clams and mussels–but it was definitely the first time I’ve looked my dinner in the eye while it was still moving. Was it worth it? Absolutely. Will I be doing it again? Not for a while.
The challenge started when I got the lobster home. It was fairly docile when the fishmonger pulled it from its tank, but by the time I pulled it from the bag it was fully awake and kicking like crazy. I ended up sticking the lobster in the freezer while I boiled the water, since I don’t have enough counter space to temporarily house a live, disgruntled crustacean. Supposedly, freezing renders the lobster unconscious and is thus more humane; I suspect it’s more for the cook’s comfort than the lobster’s, but in any case it worked. I boiled my now-dormant lobster, harvested the meat (covering myself and the countertop in lobster juice in the process), then added the shell and body back to the pot with fresh water and simmered it into a rich lobster stock.
Then I got on with preparing the other ingredients for the New York Times’s Catalan lobster stew. It calls for toasting nuts, soaking chiles, and frying bread, then combining them all in a food processor with lots of other ingredients to make a powerful chile paste. That paste, along with some sauteed onions, became the base of a rich red liquid in which to poach the lobster meat and some bivalves. The result was phenomenally delicious: intensely lobstery, luxurious but not fatty, with a slight spicy heat and lots of nuttiness from the hazelnuts and bread.
But it turns out that lobster murder isn’t necessary for this stew to turn out great. I made the it again a few weeks later with frozen fish stock, shrimp, and clams, and it turned out half as complicated and just as delicious as before. The brawny lobster flavor was missing, but in its place was a broth that felt like a warm, briny hug, with some lovely mix-and-match textures from the seafood. I’d happily make this streamlined version again–not for an everyday meal, but certainly for a special occasion. And maybe, someday, in a bigger kitchen and with plenty of time to spare, I’ll tackle the lobster once again.
When life hands you lemons, make preserved lemons. And then put some in this stew.
This came about as a happy accident. I found a very old bag of cranberry beans in my cupboard, and was feeling in the mood for a one-pot meal. I had my trusty jar of preserved lemons, and a strong craving for something with greens. We’d gone to a local meat market and deli earlier in the day for lunch, and they had a terrific price on chicken legs. And so dinner took shape: a bubbling braise of beans, chicken, and chard, flavored like a classic north African tagine.
The result was a little more brothy than a tagine, and so I’m calling it a stew. But whatever you call it, it’s a wonderful winter meal: warm and soothing, rich with spices and starch. The preserved lemon adds a pop of brightness and a salty depth, and the beans thickened the broth to a lightly saucy consistency. As Audrey said, it felt like the perfect meal to eat if you were feeling under the weather; it tasted like it could cure a lot of ills.
Another reason I love this meal is because it uses meat as a flavoring, rather than the main attraction. For six people, I could have easily bought three pounds of meat; but I decided to go with just a pound of bone-in, skin-on legs, and stretch them a bit. I browned the pieces in oil, then simmered them in the pot along with the beans; then, when the flesh was lush and tender, I pulled the chicken from the pan and shredded the meat to be stirred in at the end. The bones and browned skin contributed flavor to the braising liquid, as if it were a stock; the meat provided little pockets of chew in between the creamy beans and slippery greens.
I said this was a one-pot meal, and it easily could be. But there’s a fair amount of rich liquid involved, and for my money you really need something to soak it up. I made a quick whole-wheat flatbread to dunk in the bowls, which was a real treat. But I could also imagine putting a heap of warm couscous in the bottom of each bowl and ladling the stew over that. Either way, you’ll be looking at dreamy faces and full bellies by the time this meal’s over.
I feel like I’m running out of words.
Normally when I get home, when I have some flavorful kitchen experiment in my recent past, it’s all I can do to keep my fingers from dancing over the keys to tell the blog world about it. But over the past couple of weeks, I’ve noticed myself using more and more of my words during the workday, on projects and in messages, and I seem to be running out of extras to lay down here. It’s as if I have a finite well of language, and most days I’ve pumped it dry by the time I shut my apartment door behind me.
I don’t like it. It makes me feel older, somehow, more subdued and sedate, knowing that I don’t have words upon words bubbling behind my forehead. And it does a disservice to this blog, my one consistent place to spill creative thoughts. I’ve been wanting to write for the better part of two weeks about the Spanish squash-and-vegetable soup I made, to soothe myself after another stressful workday, but instead it’s sat in my brain and its weight has made me feel guilty. So here it is, creativity be damned.
Olla gitana–literally, “gypsy pot” in Spanish–is one of those things I would never have known about, had it not been for the internet rambling I’ve been doing to distract myself from my empty well. Near as I can tell, this recipe comes from the Murcia region of Spain, where it’s said to have arisen among the Iberian offshoots of the Romani people. In reality, I think it’s a spun fantasy of what those people might eat, with extravagant Spanish inflections–saffron, mint, almonds, garlic. It tastes like a familiar, homey vegetable soup, but with a shiver of unfamiliarity from the saffron and the rich browned garlic and a chopped-up pear, which turns musky and darkly sweet in the broth. I quite liked it; it gave me comfort and a little bit of satisfaction, making something just this side of ordinary on a weeknight at home.
I’m still not sure I have all the words to do it justice right now. But at least it’s a start.
Hello, blog. I’ve missed you.
The past few weeks have been…strange, to say the least. My father was diagnosed with cancer, and suddenly our family had to learn a whole new vocabulary.
Tumor. Malignant. Carcinoma. Radiation. It’s amazing how a few singular words can suddenly taste so different rolling off your tongue.
Thankfully, the only words in our mouths right now are ones of relief and gratitude. Dad is healing at warp-speed, and (fingers crossed) on the way to being certified tumor-free. We’ve moved on from swarming and fussing and waiting with fingernails in our mouths, and settled back down somewhere near normal. It’s been a wild ride.
Time for some comfort food.
So let’s get this out of the way, right here, right now. This is a post about chili. But not the old-school kind of chili. Not the kind of chili you put on a chili dog. Not the kind of chili that, when I was in college, I used to slop over fries and drench with nacho sauce and call it dinner. (I am shamed.) Oh, no, this is not your generic tomato-red, capsaicin-swimming, orange-grease-slicked Amurrican chili. If I ever enter this chili in a cookoff, they’ll almost certainly ride me out of town on a rail.
There are about a million and one traditional chili recipes out there in the ether, all more or less the same. What I’m after is none of them. I want chili that demands nothing but a bowl and a spoon and a sprinkle of cheese, that fills to the ribs without coalescing into a belly-brick. I want incongruous meats and funky textures, toothsome chunks of vegetation, beans of all different sizes. And I want something so far beyond the pale that it hardly qualifies as chili at all. My signature chili is absolutely killer, but it’s also miles away from tradition. It’s almost–dare I say it–un-American.
So here’s the proof. I’m done. Haul me away and lock me up. I surrender.
So…once upon a time, a whole week went by without a post. Sorry about that. Back on the horse.
First things first: I want to introduce my new favorite toy.
I call it the Lean Green Delicious Machine. My friend Izzy calls it Kermit. My parents call it a belated birthday present. It is my new 6-quart dutch oven, and I absolutely love it.
How do I love it? Let me count the ways. It’s shiny, and heavy, and my favorite color. But most important of all, it makes a mean mushroom stew.