A soup is a soup is a soup

Last week, my clients had twins. In effort to offer them a modicum of comfort amidst the intensity that is parenting newborns, I made them minestra di verdure.

Or was it minestrone? I was trying to mimic a soup we made often during the winter in Rome. I was almost certain we called it minestra. Then I started rooting around my Italian cookbooks.

My first stop was Italy: The Beautiful Cookbook, Lorenza de’Medici’s magnum opus about traditional regional Italian cooking published in 1996. The book is the size of a small poster, utterly impractical for the kitchen where most cooks read recipes. Even still, I love it, especially the detailed glossary that buttresses the recipes.

Lorenza writes: Minestra is a thin soup with chopped vegetables, often with rice or the special small pasta made for soups. It may also be chicken or vegetable broth in which these small pasta shapes (pastina) are cooked. Minestrone is a vegetable soup with rice or pasta, in which the vegetables are cut into larger pieces than those for minestra. The soup usually contains dried legumes.

Then I messaged my friend, Alessio, a sommelier who runs the wine program at Montenidoli outside of San Gimignano in Tuscany. Alessio was born in Florence and speaks the crystal-clear Italian for which Florentines are famous. He wrote back: In Tuscan vocabulary for minestra, we mean something coming from a reduction of meat and later cooked with pasta. Minestrina is what nonna eats at evening during wintertime. Minestrone is a mix of vegetable and meat/bread, seasonal vegetables like cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, mixed with old bread and beans. This response is typical of a Tuscan gastronome. They put bread in everything. The nod to nonna threw me for a loop; I never knew either of my grandmothers well and haven’t the slightest idea what they ate on cold, snowy winter evenings.

Then I asked Capo, my Italian chef-mentor who’s from Calabria and runs a restaurant in Rome. Minestrone is thin, he says, and the veggies are always cubed. In a minestra, the veggies could be cubed or blended, but it’s always denser than minestrone.

Every language has its particularities. In English we say broth, soup, stew, chowder, bisque, potage, porridge, or cream of fill-in-the-blank depending on the contents of your soup pot. Apparently, mulligatawny is a word in English that means a rich soup usually of chicken stock flavored with curry.

But, my God, do the Italians love to go granular with it.

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My final stop in effort to divine a clear difference between minestra and minestrone was Italy: Dish by Dish by Monica Sartoni Cesari. Here’s where the wheels fell off the cart.

Minestra maritata is a Puglian soup of sorts. Thinly sliced fennel, wild escarole, celery and mixed chicories are layered with lardo or pancetta, topped with Pecorino cheese, covered with a rich broth, and baked briefly. The good people of Campania have their own version of this dish, which they make with a wide array of vegetables and meats (usually pork) cooked in a very rich broth and finished with spices and grated, aged caciocavollo cheese.

Minestrone ‘ncapriata, said to be one of the oldest dishes in Mediterranean area dating back to pre-dynastic Egypt, is an even further departure from my vision of a brothy vegetable soup. In central Puglia and Basilicata, they make a puree of dried fava beans – a hallmark of la cucina povera – and then pile on boiled turnip greens or wild chicories. In Lazio, we ate this all the time; the Romans simply called it fave e cicoria. It bore no resemblance to soup, as I knew it; more like a thick, bean-forward porridge.

In Emilia-Romagna, where the cooking is always rich and complex, they make minestra nel sacchetto by first mixing a dough made with flour, eggs, Parmesan cheese and nutmeg, then wrapping it in cloth and boiling it in a rich beef broth. Once the dough is cooked, they remove it from the broth, slice it in small cubes, and serve it in the broth. Not exactly a 30-minute-meal situation.

Language is a funny thing. Turns out what we mean when we call something una minestra tells a story unto itself.

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Here is my version of minestra. My mother would say you don’t need to bother sautéing the vegetables before adding the liquid. She makes a perfectly good soup by throwing all the ingredients in the pot and letting it rip. I think that skipping the soffritto step is a mistake. That’s where you develop the foundation of flavor for your soup, slowly coaxing the sugars from the vegetables. But if you’re on a time crunch, or just don’t feel like soffritto-ing, then rough chop it all, throw it in the pot with a good glug of olive oil, cover with water and let it cook for 20 to 30 minutes.

Like most recipes, this one is a template, a suggestion, a foundation off which you should feel free to improvise with whatever vegetables you have on hand. You could also add thickening agents like a handful of rice or a diced potato. Pretty much anything goes, but steer clear of purple cabbage or purple potatoes as they can turn your soup an off-putting blue color.

Minestra di Verdure

  • Servings: 4-6
  • Difficulty: easy
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  • 3T olive oil
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 carrot, diced
  • 1 celery root, diced
  • ½ head green cabbage, diced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • ½ t chili flake
  • Bouquet garni of 3 thyme sprigs, 1 rosemary branch, and 2 bay leaves
  • Water to cover
  • Kosher salt
  • ½ lemon, juiced

Add oil to the bottom of a heavy soup pot. Add the onion to the oil, turn on the heat and cook gently until the onions have softened and begun to sweat. Add the rest of your vegetables and cook over medium-low heat until all the vegetables have softened, about 10-15 mins.

Add the garlic and cook for 2 minutes. Add the chili flake and cook 30 seconds.

Cover with cold water, add the bouquet garni and cook for 15-20 minutes to let the flavors develop. Finish with a big squeeze of fresh lemon juice.

Serve with a swirl of pesto or a generous glug of olive oil on top.

 

Slow work

It’s the Slow Work that I find most enticing. Not quick fixes or last-minute meals, but the long slogs, the upward hauls, the one-step-forward-two-steps-back, the tales of suffering and redemption.

Slow Work is time-consuming, often enervating, sometimes boring. The rewards are not immediate. It takes faith and discipline to stick to the plan, regardless of how long it takes, or how many set backs we encounter. It is the warrior’s path.

You cannot rush Slow work. It’s all in the name. I learned that the hard way when many years ago I tried to hurry some lamb shanks through their cooking, pulling them out of the liquid long before they were ready. They tasted like chewing on a shoe. It reminds me of Mary Oliver’s poem, Patience:

I used to hurry everywhere and leaped over the running creaks. There wasn’t time enough for all the wonderful things I could think of to do in a single day. Patience comes to the bones before it takes root in the heart.

Slow Cooking calls to me, especially braising, which follows a similar pattern regardless of what you’re cooking. Take a tough cut of meat or a meaty vegetable, add some aromatics and flavorful liquid, cover and cook over a low flame or in gently heated oven until tender. Time and moisture can transform even the toughest piece of shin meat into something imminently edible. I love things that are roasted slowly over hot coals or marinated for days until they are silken and tender. I suspect that’s all any of us really want, a little more Tenderness.

This recipe has a number of steps and requires some patience. Like any good ragú, this sauce gets most of its flavor and personality from a long, slow cook, at least an hour if you can swing it. Do not be deterred. The sauce will pay it forward in spades with deep layers of flavor. It’s perfectly suitable for a quiet Sunday afternoon amidst a mountain of laundry waiting to be folded and a pile of e-mails waiting for responses.

Mushroom Ragu

  • Servings: 5 cups, serves roughly 10-12
  • Difficulty: medium
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  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
  • 1 ounce dried mushrooms, preferably porcini, soaked in 1 cup boiling water
  • 2 pounds cremini or baby bella mushrooms, rinsed, 1 pound quartered, ½ pound minced in the Cuisinart
  • 1 large or 2 small shallots, minced (you can use a food processor for the shallots, carrots and celery if you prefer)
  • 1 large carrot, minced
  • 2 stalks celery, minced
  • ¼ cup dry white wine
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1 14-ounce can tomatoes
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 2 Parmesan rinds
  • Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste
  • Bouquet garni of 2 sprigs rosemary, 4 sprigs thyme and 2 bay leaves

Using a food processor or Cuisinart, pulse the shallots, carrot, and celery to fine pieces. Set aside. Add ½ pound of rinsed mushrooms and soaked porcinis and pulse to fine pieces. Set aside.

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a medium-size rondeau over medium-high heat. Once the oil is shimmering, add half the quartered mushrooms. Let the mushrooms sear for several minutes before jostling them gently and adding a big pinch of salt and a couple grinds of black pepper. Stir gently to evenly sear, adjusting the heat as needed so the bottom of the pan doesn’t scorch. Once the mushrooms are almost evenly seared, add a tablespoon of butter and stir to evenly coat. Remove the mushrooms from the pan and set aside. Add another tablespoon of olive oil to the same pot and repeat with the rest of the quartered mushrooms.

Once all the quartered mushrooms are seared, add another tablespoon of olive oil to the pan and sear the minced mushrooms. Sear until evenly browned, then scoop out of the pan and set aside with the seared quartered mushrooms.

Add another tablespoon of olive oil to the over medium-low heat along with the vegetables. Sweat the vegetables until softened, about 10 minutes, scraping up the mushroom fond with a wooden spoon. After 3 or 4 minutes, season the vegetables with salt and pepper.

Turn the heat to medium and add the wine, scraping the bottom of the pan to deglaze any lingering bits of fond. Add the tomato paste and cook 1-2 minutes. Add the canned tomatoes and mix well. Add mushroom tea and enough water so that the vegetables are nearly entirely submerged in liquid.

Simmer over medium heat until the liquid is reduced by half, about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the milk, bouquet garni, and Parmesan rinds. Reduce again by half until the sauce is nicely thickened.

Once the ragu is the right consistency, finish by stirring in one tablespoon of butter.

This ragu freezes beautifully. If you are freezing it, thaw it in the fridge overnight before you need to use it, then reheat slowly and mount in another pad of butter before serving.

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A chilled delight

It’s January, not exactly granita season in the northern hemisphere. In Chicago, the snow is falling faster than anyone can shovel it. But I served granita last Saturday at a catering event and it was a hit.

Perhaps the guests were buoyed by the experience of eating with others. There is a warming quality that comes when a group of people gathers around a table to share a meal. As I circulated around the room to clear peoples’ dessert bowls, several people grabbed my arm to get my attention:

That was amazing. A real showstopper. What the hell did I just eat?

I gobbled up the praise. When it comes to praise, I am an unabashed hedonist. There’s no such thing as too many compliments, especially about the food I make. That makes me sound like an egomaniac. The truth is I am dreadfully hard on myself. A perfectionist in recovery, I’ve had to teach myself how to receive compliments and praise. It is one of the most effective antidotes to the scourge of negative self-talk.

If I’m being honest, I was largely motivated to pursue a career in professional cooking because I wanted to learn the art of pleasing other people with a tactile skill. Nothing is more intimate than feeding another human being. I suppose it’s a vaguely egocentric urge that compels me to chase the rush I get when placing a plate of food in front of someone that elicits spontaneous oohing.

There are always misses. I remember one dinner in particular that still makes me cringe; I forgot to taste a radicchio salad before serving it and realized once it was too late that it was horribly bitter, almost inedible. But that flop was a distant memory when my host grabbed my shoulders and said: That dessert goes down in the record books. I felt a jolt of delight rush through my body.

The chilliness of granita, a frozen dessert from Sicily, may not be well suited for winter, but it is a deliciously simple and pleasant way to end a meal. The grandfather of Italian ice and slushies, granita is about as simple as it gets when it comes to dessert: sugar, water and whatever flavoring(s) you like to jazz it up (Yotam Ottolenghi has a delicious granita recipe with pomegranate and rose water).

In Palermo, they make granita smooth as butter by freezing it in a gelato machine. On the east side of the island, they freeze it and scrape it with the back of a fork at various intervals to create a chunky, crystalline texture. The pastry chef at the Italian restaurant where I used to work made granita using the freezing and scraping method, so that’s how I do it. The sound of the fork scraping against the back of the ice crystals is not the most pleasant, but the resulting texture is worth it.

I found a recipe for this coffee granita in Cooking from an Italian Vegetable Garden by Paola Scaravelli and Jon Cohen. I added the marscapone cream and shaved chocolate with tiramisu in mind. The result is something ethereal, transcendent, other-worldly. In other words: one for the record books.

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Coffee Granita with Marscapone Cream

  • Servings: 6-8
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Granita:

  • ¾ C sugar
  • 2 C water
  • ½ C espresso

Marscapone cream:

  • 2 C heavy whipping cream
  • ½ C marscapone
  • 1T powdered sugar, sifted
  • 1 large piece of excellent dark chocolate

To make the granita: Combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer to dissolve the sugar. Remove from the heat and add the espresso. Cool to room temperature. Pour into a steel container and leave in the freezer, uncovered, for 4 hours to set. Using a fork, scrap the granita to create fine ice shavings. Scrap and chill every 45 mins-1 hour for several hours. Meanwhile, put the bowls you’ll use to serve the granita in the freezer.

To make the marscapone cream: Whip the cream with a balloon whisk. Alternatively, you can use the stand mixer, but keep an eye on it because it will whip very quickly in the stand mixer. Add the sifted powdered sugar and marscapone once the cream has soft peaks. Whip the cream to medium-stiff peaks. Chill the marscapone cream until you’re ready to serve.

To assemble the dessert: Scrap the granita once more with a fork, then scoop a large serving into a chilled bowl. Scoop the marscapone cream on top. Grate the chocolate over the granita and cream. Serve immediately.

 

 

Cleaning out the spice drawer

You can tell a lot about a person by how they keep their kitchen. I used to cook for a family whose dry spice collection consisted of a massive pile of outdated plastic McCormick spice jars abandoned in a long, thin drawer next to the stove. Most of the spices were so old they clumped together and refused to sprinkle out of their plastic tops when jostled. That family had a lot of kitchen drawers filled with piles of crusted things. Just opening their spice drawer made me want to breakout in hives. I ended up throwing most of them away, which is what you should do if you have spices that are clumped and crusted together. No judgment there. We all have things that are crusted and clumped and no longer serving us the way they used to. Sometimes it’s best to make space.

I once cooked for a woman who lived alone, worked as a pediatric surgeon and kept an absolutely immaculate pantry. Her freezer consisted of vodka, ice packs and the occasional peppermint patty. We never met; I only ever dealt with her assistant. I always wondered what she was like in person. I imagined she was the type of person who sipped martinis and listened to jazz music.

My best friend from Peace Corps lives in El Salvador in a large, single-story white stucco house. Her home is open to the elements and smells like freshly cut grass and gardenias. She stores all her dry goods – beans, grains, rice, pasta – in large mason jars. They are neatly displayed like little soldiers on open shelves above the stove. It’s the first thing you notice when you walk into her kitchen. It makes you want to cook something.

My own spice drawer is fairly organized. I found one of those spice jar organizers as The Container Store and like to keep things in vaguely alphabetical order because that’s comforting. The nutmeg is almost always where I expect it to be.

Food has always been a great comfort to me. I suppose that’s what propelled me to pursue a career in food. I wanted to learn how to get good at it so that I could comfort others. I didn’t realize at the onset that I, too, would need comforting along the way, and that cooking, like a security blanket, would become the tool I’d reach for when I needed soothing.

*

I’m recovering from a very bad cold that had me on the couch for four days. I never get sick like that and am happy to be ambulatory again.

In light of a spout of newfound energy, I cooked up a storm the other night with the odd bits I had floating around. I roasted broccoli florets hot and fast and tossed them with chopped herbs and grated garlic. I roasted a sweet potato and cooked the last of the beans I was gifted last September in Puglia by a warm, older Italian man whom I met when I wandered into his restaurant and ordered a beguiling plate of whole-wheat pasta with chilled tomato and burrata.

I also made this butternut squash soup, a must-have for anyone battling cold and flu season. When blended at high speed, butternut squash takes on a luscious, creamy quality. It tastes so rich, you’d be sure there’s heaps of butter and cream in it.

I used boxed chicken stock because I am trying to clean out the pantry, but the soup is just as good with water. It can be adjusted to fit any flavor profile. I especially like it with tons of garlic, thyme and chili flake. Or make it Thai-inspired with coconut milk, lime and fish sauce and simmer the soup with a handful of Thai basil and mint. Because I’m recovering from a cold, I used lots of ginger and added some Gochujang, a delicious Korean chili paste, for some extra oomph.

Another benefit – because you’re blending the soup, you don’t need to worry about cutting the vegetables in uniform shape and size. Plus it freezes beautifully so you can save some for the next time cold season strikes your household.

Butternut Squash Soup with Ginger and Gochujang

  • Servings: 2 quarts
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

  • 2T extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2T butter
  • 1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
  • 3 garlic cloves, sliced
  • 1 2-inch piece of ginger, sliced
  • 1 butternut squash, roughly 2 pounds, peeled, deseeded and diced
  • 1 box chicken stock (optional), plus enough water to cover
  • ¼ C white rice (whatever you have on hand will work to thicken the soup, but I especially like the starchy quality of Arborio rice)
  • 1 spoonful red gochujang paste
  • Juice from 1 lemon
  • Kosher salt

In a medium-sized soup pot, melt the butter and olive oil. Add the onions and a large pinch of salt and cook over medium-low heat to softened and lightly colored, about 10 minutes. Add the sliced garlic and ginger and cook until softened, another 2-3 minutes. Add the gochujang paste and stir well to evenly incorporate.

Add the squash and white rice. Cover with the chicken stock, if using, and water. Add a couple large pinches of salt and cook until the squash is completely tender, about 20 minutes.

Blend the soup in batches using a Vitamix. Alternatively, you could use an immersion blender but you won’t achieve the same luscious, smooth consistency. Season with lemon juice and more salt.

A salad for winter + an Italian getaway

Here’s a recipe for a winter citrus salad that I learned while working as a cook in Rome. It’s easily adaptable and chock full of delicious flavors.

Thanks to Fox32 for hosting me this past week to demonstrate it + discuss the food tour I’ll be leading this May through Rome and southern Tuscany. Check out the video clip here. There are still a few spots left on the tour. Follow this link for more info + registration.

Winter Citrus Salad

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print
  • 1 blood orange, thinly slice
  • 1 grapefruit, thinly sliced
  • 1 navel orange, thinly slice
  • 1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced on the mandoline
  • 1 lemon, halved
  • 1/4 C pitted Castelvetrano olives, torn
  • 2T parsley leaves
  • 2T fennel fronds
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

Arrange the sliced citrus in an attractive shingled pattern on a serving plate. Sprinkle with salt and drizzle olive oill

In a medium mixing bowl, thinly slice the fennel bulb using a mandolin. Season with salt, olive oil and squeeze of lemon juice,

Arrange the fennel over the citrus slices in a bountiful way. Sprinle herbs and torn olives over the citrus and fennel. Drizzle with a bit more olive oil and serve.

winter_citrus_salad

 

 

A new you

I’ve been reading a lot of newsletters and social media posts from people who are flipping the proverbial bird to 2019. These pronouncements flow in tandem with marketing malarkey promising to deliver The New You, prompting me to wonder: What was wrong with The Old Me?

I understand the impulse to flip the bird to the bad stuff and hope for better, and I’m sympathetic. It’s been a grim year: A protracted humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border; conflicts raged on in Syria, Iraq, Kashmir, Venezuela, Yemen; mass shootings in New Zealand and El Paso, TX; violent crackdowns on protestors in Hong Kong; Donald Trump is, amazingly, still President of the United States; the Amazon is on fire.

I remember hearing a neuroscientist say that, for the brain, negativity is Velcro and positivity to Teflon. Our brains evolved to be on alert for what’s about to go wrong; it’s how we survived. Yet we no longer have to scan the bushes for the tiger waiting to leap out and eat us for lunch. Maybe it’s natural that the negative commands our attention, but at what cost? A writer I admire told me that he doesn’t read Amazon reviews anymore because, when he did, he would read 90 positive reviews and 1 negative review, and then would walk around with the negative review stuck in his head for days.

Lately I’ve been working on relinquishing the death grip I have on scanning for what’s about to go wrong, releasing into the reality that Shit Will Go Wrong, and asking myself: How would you like to respond?

*

In his annual newsletter, my meditation teacher, who runs a retreat center in rural Wisconsin with his wife, wrote about the grief he’s experiencing as his community suffers through the eco-destruction wrought by the climate crisis, serious illnesses and death, and political discord. He wrote about the fear, anger and shame he experiences witnesses these crises, the doubt about how to respond, and the greed for comfort and security. Then he mentioned some of the reasons he feels hopeful: a blooming prairie plot that’s home to increasing biodiversity, a increasingly engaged meditation community poised and ready to take mindful action, standing witness to nature passing through her cycles with unspeakable grace and poise.

He wrote: Not beyond, but between these opposites we track the heart of non-clinging that rests at ease with all things, able and willing to wait or take action, as appropriate in each moment. It is the work of a lifetime.

I would love to read more social media posts about this, naming the hurt and staying with it. It is, indeed, the work a lifetime. Anne Lamont said that all truth is paradox, which sums up my experience living in a human body quite nicely. There is light and dark. Joy comes with sorrow. Yes, better things are yet to come, but it’s also going to get worse. How would you like to respond?

*

This year I achieved a major professional milestone and led my first culinary tour through Rome and Tuscany. I ran a 50K. I fell in love, again. I watched the sunrise in L.A. I also lost my job, fumbled my way through situational depression, grieved the death of important relationships, and cared for my sister’s dog, who was diagnosed with cancer.

While I’m sympathetic to these annual late-December postings about flipping off suffering, I take umbrage with them. Meditation has taught me that suffering is baked into the human experience. You will never outrun your shadow, but you sure will tire yourself out trying. The way out is always through. The question is not: How to avoid getting hurt, but rather, how to hold that paradox, both for ourselves and our communities, with kindness and grace?

If underemployment has taught me anything, it’s that humans are extraordinarily adaptable creatures, mostly unaware of our capacity to survive difficult, distressing circumstances until we are placed square in these distressing, difficult circumstances. So far, my life has proved to be one giant exercise in coaxing myself to rest in the mud and watch the lotus flowers grow. There’s plenty of room in that mud pit we call life. As 2019 draws to a close, consider putting down your armor and finding a comfortable spot to rest and receive the glory and the heartbreak that 2020, and all the years to follow, will surely bring.

 

Whatever it takes

This recipe is for the days when pulling out more than one pan feels like a tall order. I will always advocate for a home-cooked meal over take-out or Triscuit sandwiches (although I’m partial to Triscuit sammies every once in a while). If you can muster the energy to pull out the pan, you won’t be sorry.

It’s from my sister. She’s self-taught; a skilled, albeit occasionally apprehensive, home cook. We’ve lived together for five years now. I’d like to think I’ve helped expand her cooking repertoire by virtue of narrating what I’m doing as I stand at the stove. This recipe is based off a recipe I taught her, and it’s infinitely better and more delicious than mine. The key: a copious amount of olive oil.

Having done the formative part of my culinary training in Italy, I revere olive oil and consider it its own food group. I use it liberally and believe it belongs in almost everything else. I even fry with it. In this recipe, it coats the kale and tenderizes it as it steams with the lid on. The result: silky smooth kale that goes on just about everything: quesadillas, tuna melts, grain bowls, fried rice, tacos salads, braised white beans. You get the idea. And it only requires one pot.

The Best Kale

  • Servings: 3-4
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

  • 3/4 pound kale, rinsed and roughly chopped (see note)
  • 5 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
  • 1 large pinch pepperoncino
  • ½- ¾ C extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • Kosher salt, to taste

In a medium saucepan, gently heat the garlic cloves and 3 tablespoons olive oil until soft and lightly golden, about 5 minutes. Turn the heat up to medium high, add the pepperoncino, sizzle 30 seconds, then add the first handful of kale along with a generous pinch of salt. Stir, then cover and cook until kale is wilted and depressed, about 5 minutes.

Continue adding kale in handfuls, seasoning each handful with a pinch of salt and a generous glug of oil, until all the kale is incorporated. This will take about 10 minutes. Once all the kale is in the pot, cook covered until its completely silky and tender, about 15-20 minutes.

Note: Whole Foods sells bags of prewashed kale that make this recipe a cinch. Trader Joe’s also sells bags of prewashed chopped kale. Use one bag of Whole Foods kale (3/4 pound) for the recipe, or two bags of TJ kale.

 

A fleeting beauty

I am not much of a planner. I tend to do things at last minute. I write these blog posts the day before they’re due. I cook dinner based off whatever I can find in the fridge and pantry. When I travel, although I will do some research ahead of time, I prefer to ask the baristas, cheese mongers and fruit vendors I meet along the way where they like to eat lunch, and then I ask them for directions.

My natural tendency is to procrastinate, and then wing it. Many people find this annoying, and understandably so. My lack of planning leads to unanswered emails, a to-do list that never seems to get shorter, neglected friends in faraway place to whom I owe phone calls. It can also foster within me a vague sense of not measuring up.

I’m trying to be better. To help myself get on a regular writing schedule, I printed a content calendar that I filled out for the month of December. True to form, I’ve filled out the first two weeks of December, one of which has already passed.

Although I might be predisposed to chaos, cooking has taught me to be more organized. When I first started, I learned the hard way the merits of organization, burning countless heaps of minced shallots as I scrambled to find the white wine I needed to deglaze the pan. In cooking, being organized and having a plan is an insurance policy. It doesn’t mean you have to stick to the plan, but it sure as hell comes in handy when the wheels start coming off the cart. Once I started cooking professionally, I delighted at the vision of a line of deli containers with all my mise en place measured, cut, and ready to cook. It is such a satisfying sight.

Turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks. Now if only I could apply this sense of reverence for organization to the rest of my life …

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This week I made soufflé in preparation for a class I’m teaching on the subject. The word itself comes from the French word, souffler, which means to blow or to puff, which is what the whipped, aerated egg whites do to the base once the soufflé hits the hot oven.

Soufflé can be either sweet or savory. Essentially any soufflé has two parts: a stable base (usually made with egg yolks and another sturdy element, such as béchamel) and whipped egg whites. They are carefully folded together and cooked in a straight-sided, well-greased earthenware dish. Together these two elements rise to create a dramatic, fluffy egg dish worth celebrating.

Soufflés have a mythic quality to it, which, in my opinion, is not merited. If you are organized, they are not that difficult.

Here are a few keys points to consider before getting started:

  • Egg whites whip better at room temperature. If you can remember, leave the eggs out for an hour or two before you plan to make it. Alternatively, dunk the whole eggs in a bowl of warm water while you organize the rest of your ingredients.
  • Egg whites whip best in a stainless steel or copper bowl. Whether you’re beating the egg whites by hand or using an electric mixer, make sure the bowl is completely clean with no lingering fat films (fat inhibits the egg whites from whipping properly).
  • Acid helps stabilize egg whites as they whip, which is why some recipes have you add cream of tartar. It’s not imperative, but it does help.
  • All soufflés will collapse after they come out of the oven as the hot bubbles meet the cold air molecules, which is why recipes counsel the cook to “serve immediately.” I think this is the origin of some of the mythic difficulty the surrounds the soufflé. The cook assumes she’s failed as she watches her beautifully browned masterpiece heave a heavy sigh and collapse into itself. But this is to be expected. To my mind, it’s a beautiful synthesis of the ephemeral nature of human existence. At some point, we, too, will heave one last heavy sigh and collapse into ourselves. I can only hope I look as gorgeously tanned and ebullient as a cheese soufflé straight out of the oven.

Chive and Gruyere Soufflé

  • Servings: 6
  • Difficulty: medium
  • Print

Courtesy of Melissa Clark/The New York Times

Some soufflés are cooked in a water bath while others are simply baked in a hot, preheated oven. A water bath helps ensure even cooking, but it can be challenge to wrangle the water bath in and out of a hot oven. The preheated oven is essential to catalyzing the rise and expansion of the egg whites.

  • 3 T unsalted butter, plus more (softened) for coating soufflé dish
  • 5 T Parmesan, finely grated
  • 3 T AP flour
  • 1 C whole milk
  • ½ t kosher salt
  • Couple grates of fresh nutmeg
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 5 egg whites
  • ½ t cream of tartar
  • 1 C Gruyere, finely grated
  • 2 T chives, minced

Remove all the wire racks from the oven. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place a sheet tray on the floor of the oven.

Coat a 1 ½ quart soufflé dish with softened butter. Be sure to get in the corners of the dish so the soufflé doesn’t stick. Sprinkle an even film of Parmesan over the butter. Jostle the soufflé dish around to make sure the dish is evenly coated with cheese.

In a small pot, heat the milk to steaming then turn off the heat. In another small sauce pot, melt the butter, and then add the flour. Whisk the roux and cook over medium heat until the flour just begins to turn beige, a minute or two. Whisk in the hot milk. Cook until thickened, whisking constantly, about 5 minutes. Whisk in the salt and nutmeg. Set aside.

In a stand mixer, add the egg whites and cream of tartar. Whip on medium speed to firm peaks. Don’t over mix!

Transfer the béchamel into a medium-sized mixing bowl. Fold in the egg yolks. Add one third of the whipped egg whites and whisk in until incorporated. Then using a spatula and moving in a C-shape, gently fold in the rest of the egg whites in two additions. Sprinkle in the Gruyere and chives as you go. Take care not to over mix or knock the side of your bowl with the spatula, as this will unnecessarily deflate the egg whites you’ve just worked so hard to whip.

Pour the batter into the soufflé dish. Then run your thumb around the edge of the batter creating a small well between the batter and the dish (this helps the soufflé rise).

Place the soufflé dish on the preheated sheet tray. Reduce the temperature to 375 degrees and bake until nicely browned with a slight jiggle in the center. Do not open the oven door for the first 20 minutes! Total cook time will be around 25 to 30 minutes, depending on the oven.

Serve immediately.

souffle

The Holidays

The Holidays. The words hang heavy around my neck, like a noose. As I kid, I remember the thrill that coursed through my body during the month of December. The idea that someone was tiptoeing around the house leaving me a trail of gifts was more than my tiny little heart could bear. One Christmas eve, as I tried to fall asleep in my third-floor bedroom, I heard what sounded like a sleigh scraping across the roof. I imagined a very fat man wrangling a massive sack of presents out of his wooden sleigh, wiping the snow off his eyeglasses before sliding down our chimney to arrange the gifts in a tableau fit for the cover of a Williams-Sonoma catalogue.

As an adult, this has become the most difficult time of year for me. The weather is changing. The days are shortening; darkness outweighs daylight. I’m bombarded with commercials for sales on crap I don’t need while struggling to navigate the politics of separated families plus heightened financial anxieties. Over-committed. Over-caffeinated. Sleep-deprived.

What brings me the most comfort during this emotionally grueling time is year is rest. Rest and cooking for myself. Last week, I made a huge pot of red lentil daal with steamed brown rice that I ate throughout the week. No matter how small or seemingly insignificant that meal may seem, the ennobling act of cooking it may very well be what saves me from myself.

*

I took the dog for his first radiation treatment yesterday. The cancer center stands on an otherwise sparse block, a royal blue façade with the words “Cancer Center” painted in giant white letters across the front. You can spot it from several blocks away. I navigated around the valet and parked near a spot of tall grass so he could weave his face through it and investigate all those who came before him. He pranced into the waiting room like a show dog flaunting a freshly groomed tail. He hardly ever enters a room that way.

As I filled out the paperwork giving them permission to resuscitate him in case of emergency, I thought: Who else is getting their first cancer treatment today? Are they afraid? Who is getting their last? Who found out they were in remission today? Who is being sent home to get as comfortable as possible while they wait for the end?

On the way home, I stopped at the bank, the dry cleaners, the UPS store. Then I made myself a sandwich and waited for the call. Seemingly insignificant details, tiny little plots on a map that make up a day, reminding me of an Annie Dillard quote: How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.

*

At the jail the other week, I was working with Eric on a dessert. I always tell my students to carefully read the recipe before they begin cooking. Inevitably, they plow full-steam ahead without reading the instructions. This usually means I come across them just after they’ve dumped all the ingredients into the mixing bowl, which is rarely what the recipe calls for.

On this day, we were making a ricotta tart. I came over to find Eric having dumped all the ingredients into the mixing bowl.

Is that what the recipe says to do? I asked, already knowing the answer.

Eric blotted away the sweat collecting on his forehead with a paper towel. Off the record, he is one of my favorite students. He’s punctual, pays attention, and is highly motivated to learn. I also sense he’s had a tough go of it, growing up as an overweight, transgender Hispanic kid.

I started reading the recipe aloud to him.

In a separate bowl, add the flour, salt and nutmeg —

Aww, shit, Miss Brianna. I’m sorry. I fucked up.

Be gentle with yourself, I told him. It’s just cooking.  

Most of my students are overly critical of their mistakes, which is interesting because in cooking, the mistakes are the most valuable, informative part of the process. When I’m soothing them, I’m also soothing the part of me who’s overly critical and gets wound up in a tizzy over a sunken soufflé or overcooked pasta.

I put my hands on Eric’s shoulders.

Instead of getting upset with yourself, try saying Yes to whatever happens. Yes to the fucked-up tart dough. Yes to the frustration that you have to start over. Yes to the instructor who didn’t give you clear instructions.

OK, he said, nodding along with me. I guess that means saying Yes to 35 years. My face froze.

I’m so sorry, Eric. I didn’t know.

Don’t worry, Miss Brianna, he said, laughing congenially as he continued wiping sweat from his brow. I was just giving you a hard time.

I don’t know Eric’s history or why he’s incarcerated, but given his sentence, I’m sure his crime involved a violent act, which is antithetical to the friendly, engaging kid who’s endeared himself to me in class. Jail is the perfect place to observe the paradox of human existence. Good and bad stand side-by-side at the stove.

35 years is a different story, Eric. I didn’t mean to be so blithe.

It’s OK, Chef Brianna, Eric said before he began measuring the ingredients to make the tart dough again. I was only kidding. Now can you please pass me the sugar?

And just like that, we began again.

Riso bollito

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: easy
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This is my favorite way to cook rice. It’s fast, easy and foolproof. If you use brown rice, add another 15 to 20 minutes to the cook time. Make sure you cook the rice in plenty of water, like you would for pasta.

Soaking any grain for 12-24 hours prior to cooking helps reduce phytic acid, enlivening the grain, activating the nutrients and making the grain easier to digest. If you have the foresight, go ahead and soak the rice, but it will still turn out fine with a quick rinse.

  • 1 C long-grain rice (I usually option for jasmine or basmati)
  • Kosher salt

Fill a 1-quart saucepan with water and set it on the stove to boil. Rinse the rice thoroughly under cool running water.

Once the water is boiling, add a large pinch of salt, then the rice. Cook at a slow boil for ten minutes, stirring occasionally to be sure no grains are sticking to the bottom of the pot.

Strain the rice through a fine-mesh strainer, gently tapping the basket against the side of the sink to remove as much water as possible. Set the strainer over the now-empty pot, cover lightly with a tea towel and steam for 5 minutes.

To make a rice salad: Skip the steaming step. Instead run the strained, cooked rice under cold water to rinse off any extra starch. Strain the rice well before seasoning it and building the salad.

 

 

The humble (Tuscan) bean

Living in Florence for a year, I eventually learned that all things interesting happen in the Oltrarno neighborhood, also known as the Other Side of the (Arno) River. My favorite piazza, Piazza della Passera, is in the Oltrarno. There I spent countless hours sipping cappuccinos with my photographer friend Jen trying to tease out what we were supposed to do with our lives. The Boboli Gardens, the Medici’s bucolic dreamscape that extends out from their palatial estate, is there. It’s also home to Brunelleschi’s Santo Spirito, a church whose unassuming blank façade betrays its rich, textured history. Rumor is that Michelangelo as a young sculptor snuck into the basement to conduct anatomical studies on the corpses coming in from the convent’s hospital in effort to better understand the way muscles moved.

This cluster of narrow streets littered with old Communists posters and buzzing Vespas is where I learned to love Italian culture. Across from the Oltrarno, the centro is chock-full of tourists, two-story H&M stores, and the least enticing restaurants in the city whose menus are thick as novels. Stepping off the Ponte Vecchio into the Oltrarno is like moving through a portal that transports you to a city with quiet side streets that inexplicably dead-end but charm you nonetheless with flower boxes lined with bright pink begonias. You hear Verdi on the radio as you amble along without an agenda, peaking into the multitude of artisan shops: Antique refurbishers, millners, shoe cobblers, stationers. This is where my favorite gelateria is, along with many of my favorite cafes whose names I can’t remember but whose locations I’ll never forget, the very best places to linger with a notebook and a doppio espresso. I spent many Sunday afternoons wandering the streets of San Niccoló and Borgo San Frediano with my camera trying to capture the way the late afternoon sunlight cast strange, long shadows against the yellow stucco’ed façades of old apartment buildings and flower shops.

There is something ineffable about this culture that beckons me in further still. I cannot get close enough to it, like a child whose face is glued to a television screen. It mesmerizes. It entices. It calls forth the dreamer in me who dares to wonder: What is this? It is the flame and I am the pan, and together we ignite. I long to recreate this feeling standing behind my stove at home. Somehow it manages to evade me as I daydream about fluffy cappuccinos, Verdi, and well-groomed terriers strolling in the mid-afternoon sun with their equally well-groomed owners.

*

For as long as I can remember, I have loved eating beans. Panera’s black bean soup was a favorite as a kid. In Peace Corps, most of the other volunteers complained about the ubiquity of beans, but I never tired of them. On occasion my host mother, Mina, would serve a humble bowl of steaming black beans in their cooking liquid for dinner. She’d set down next to my bowl a hunk of cheese and two tortillas that she’d crisped over glowing coals – she knew I liked them extra crispy. Then she’d sit down next to me on the bench in her kitchen, smiling. “Come, nena,” she’s say, her gold front tooth gleaming in the light from the window above me. I don’t recall any other meal in Mina’s kitchen that made me feel more contented or nourished.

When I got to Florence, I knew I was home . Florentines are lovingly referred to as mangia fagioli, beans eaters. Beans are a cornerstone of Tuscan cuisine and feature prominently in various forms. Once again I met the humble bowl of stewed beans, this time served with a basket of unsalted bread, which admittedly didn’t incite as much excitement in me as crisped tortillas. Perhaps my favorite Tuscan dish with beans is ribollita, a wintery minestrone with extra heft and body thanks to the addition of chunks of stale bread and thick, hearty ribbons of Tuscan kale.

My cooking education in Italy continued to unveil the many wondrous things a cook can do with a humble pot of beans. One day in Rome, I watched my chef, Domenico, make a huge pot of chickpeas for lunch. He stewed them for a long time over very low heat.

“Just beans and water?” I asked.

“Sì. Non c’è bisogno di più,” he responded plainly. There’s no need for anything else.

Once the beans were close to tender, he added big petals of onion, large chunks of celery and carrot, and a very generous glug of olive oil. They finished cooking alongside the beans, like a generous friend who volunteers to run the last couple miles of a marathon with you, their excitement and energy propelling you through the finish even though your spirit is wary and your legs can’t fathom another step.

Here there was also courage, courage to serve something some bare and unadorned. Oftentimes when I cater a dinner, I get nervous sending out plates that look too simple. Add some fried sage, or a sprinkle of parsley, I think to myself, nervously drizzling a little of this or that for fear that I won’t be taken seriously sending out such simple food. This is a grave mistake and runs counter to my favorite kitchen aphorism: The dish is done when there’s nothing left to take away.

*

Here’s another favorite bean recipe. The deceptively simple recipe title, Pasta and Chickpeas, is much like the façade of Santo Spirito. They both contain a world of intrigue and delight just below the surface.

The success of this recipe hinges on properly cooking fresh chickpeas. The biggest mistake people make is not giving the beans enough time to cook. Here, like in some aspects of life, Patience is essential. When you think the beans are done, taste one. Then taste another. Do this five times. If each bean is tender, then you’re ready to proceed.

If you cook the beans on the stove top, it’s best to pre-soak them overnight. I usually forget to this, or decide spur-of-the-moment to make this dish, so I turn to pressure cooker.

How much tomato to add? To add tomato at all? That’s up to the discretion of each cook. Personally, I like a subtle stain of tomato to lend both acidity and a hint of blushed red tones to the dish.

One of the great quibbles is whether to cook the pasta in the soup or apart. If you’re using fresh pasta like maltagliati, it’s best to cook it in the soup, taking care to be judicious with the stirring so nothing sticks to the bottom as the pasta cooks. But if you’re using dry pasta like I do here, it’s easiest to cook the pasta separately and remove it a few minutes early so it can finish cooking in the soup. When pasta is warm, it’s more liable to soak up the flavors of whatever cooking medium it’s swimming in. That’s why you always season pasta water with salt and why you finish cooking spaghetti for pasta al pomodoro in the tomato sauce. You’re giving the pasta time to first absorb the seasoning in the pasta water, then soak the tomato into its pores, much like the skin on your face during a facial.

Pasta e Ceci

  • Servings: 6-8
  • Difficulty: easy
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There are as many recipes for Pasta e Ceci as there are cooks. I like to use this an opportunity to use whatever pasta I have on hand. It’s an especially nice, and economical, way to use up leftover pasta scraps. Cut the extra sheets in odd shapes and use the maltagliati in the soup.

This version is vaguely Roman with the addition of anchovies for extra oomph. Normally I add a bit of diced pancetta to the soffritto. I wouldn’t add both. I’ve read other recipes that suggest adding clams to this dish, in which case anchovy or pancetta would pair quite nicely. You can easily make this vegetarian by skipping them altogether.

Perhaps it goes without saying, but use the best quality ingredients you can find. Because it is so simple, there is nowhere to hide. But take courage: good-quality beans cooking with patience will never let you down.

Chickpeas:

  • 1 C dry chickpeas
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 stalk celery
  • ½ onion
  • 1 ½ t salt
  • 1 qt filtered water

Soup:

  • 2 T extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 garlic cloves, sliced
  • Pinch of pepperoncino
  • 5 anchovy fillets
  • 2 sprigs rosemary, minced
  • 1 T tomato paste
  • ¼ C tomato passata
  • 1 Parmesan rind
  • 1 C short dry pasta, such as ditalini

To cook the chickpeas: rinse well in cold water. Add all the ingredients to the pressure cooker. Cook on high pressure for 30 minutes with a 20-minute slow release. Taste the beans to make sure they are tender. If not, return to high pressure for another 5 minutes. Taste and repeat as necessary. Discard the bay leaves and cooked vegetables in the compost.

For the soup: Fill a 2-quart saucepan with water and set on the stove to boil (this is for cooking the pasta). Meanwhile, cook the sliced garlic gently in the olive oil in a 2-quart soup pot until softened, not browned. Add the anchovy, rosemary and pepperoncino and cook for another 2 minutes. Add the tomato paste and sizzle in the oil. Repeat with the passata. Now add the chickpeas with their water and the Parmesan rind. Cook over medium heat for 15 to 20 minutes to let the flavors to commingle harmoniously.

Once the chickpea base is ready, add the pasta to the boiling, salted water and cook for half the amount of time listed on the package. Scoop the pasta directly into the soup using a spider strainer. Alternatively, strain the pasta in a colander but take care to conserve some of the pasta water on the side. Turn the heat on the soup to medium and cook for another 5 to 6 minutes, until the pasta is al dente, adding pasta water as needed to achieve a thick, soupy texture.

Serve in wide bowls with a generous sprinkling of Parmesan and a liberal drizzle of the best olive oil you can afford.

pasta-ceci-soffritto
Soffritto of garlic, rosemary, anchovy and pepperoncino
pasta-ceci
Pasta e Ceci with cavatelli