Sometimes, when I'm cooking, I can taste the food through my fingertips. I know precisely how many peppercorns to add to a stock, how many pinches of dry basil to a sauce, to make it *just right. It feels like magic, these times. Kitchen magic. It is born of now 27 years in a kitchen, 16 years of cooking meals. I was eleven when I made my first multi-dish dinner that was timed right, with each dish's different cooking times juggled against one another. I remember how proud I was. I still take great joy (and pride, it must be admitted) in cooking elegant, multi-course, multi-dish meals; the sort you have to have a dinner party for, just to ensure the food all gets eaten. But most nights, we eat what I've come to call peasant food.
Simple meals, made from the food on hand. Most of mine are inspired by traditional peasant foods from different regions. Meals made by hard working people out of the food they have on hand.
Summertime, and the CSA share, is perfect for peasant food. Whatever comes home in that canvas bag from the market pick-up is what will make its way into our bellies that week. Along with whole grains and organic or wild protein, from pantry and from freezer. When we get home at 9 or 10 at night, hungry after teaching class or after the darlin'man's band practice, these simple, wholesome, quick meals are what I go to.
I'd like to share three recent meals with you.
Regular readers will recognize this meal. It is nothing more, nor less, than a variation on the tried and true – pasta + veggie + egg. Put an egg on it. It makes everything so much better.
The other night, I started with the beginning of any self-respecting Italianate meal: garlic and onion sautéed in olive oil. I chopped up the rest of the carrots and added them to the pan. I pulled out the kale and a zucchini. Halfway through chopping the zucchini, I realized that kale was not the way to go. It joined the bok choy back in the crisper. Carrots, zucchini, salt, pepper, basil, thyme. It was cooking slowly, so I added a bit of stock from the fridge. Braising vegetables is frequently faster than a sauté if you're going for tender over crunchy. Something was still missing, and as I pulled out a the bag of snap peas to make the next day's lunch salad, I realized what it was. In went a dozen or two peapods.
I pulled the pasta out of the pan with a pasta spoon (you know the ones that are like an upside down claw? Yeah those ones.) and then poached two eggs in the stil simmering pasta water. I just learned to poach eggs and its lovely. I'll have to look up the research again, to regale your oh-so-fascinated ears with; but apparently, when one fries an egg, the heating process and the way the oil interacts with the cooking destroys some of the really beneficial amino-acids found in eggs. Whereas, soft boiling or poaching keeps these perfectly balanced omega-3's and omega-6's intact and ready to nourish your body. Poaching. Super cool and super easy.
And the yolk stays nice and gooey so that when you break it with your fork it mixes with the stock residue and the parmesean cheese you've grated over your plate for a delicious, nutritious, and protein rich sauce for your garden veggies.
This meal, admittedly took a little more time. And was actually served when friends came over for dinner. But the beauty of soups is that after that initial investment of time, they stay good and feed you for two or three or four (depending on the size of your soup pot and your spouse's belly) meals. Borscht (whether from beets or sorrel) is a traditional Russian peasant food. When I was a wee little one, my parents were friends with a jewish lady whose grandmother who had been born and raised in Russia. She shared her family borscht recipe with my mother. And now, whenever I make borscht, I say a little prayer of thanks to this Jewish Russian grandmother I never met. I won't share her recipe per se. But I will say this. The beauty of borscht comes from the stock. And from the beet greens.
Now usually, when I make a pot of borscht, I'm lazy. I rely on my frozen chicken stock, I throw everything into a pot, and let it boil or slow cook. This time was a little different. I had friends to feed, and one of them was a friend of a friend I was finally meeting in person after feeling like I've known her for years. And she happened to be vegetarian. Which meant my chicken stock was out the window. I wanted this soup to shine (I'm proud my cooking, remember?). So I dusted off my vegetable stock making skills and pulled together a really nice, balanced, complex, and supportive stock. The nice thing about veggie stock is that compared to the 40 hours I might boil a chicken carcass to get all the goodness out of it, veggie stock is done in an hour or so. The other extra step I took was roasting the beets. I did this the night before, while the stock simmered, and when I turned off the oven, I just left the beets in it to be peeled when I made the soup.
It was a little extra work. It was a little extra time. Some days I have neither. But Oh! was it worth it. Roasting sweetens the beets, and deepens the flavor. Talk to chemist and you'll hear about the molecular structure of sugar and how it behaves under heat. Suffice it to say: delicious.
I chopped young onions, sautéed them golden in olive oil with some basil before adding them to the soup. I was out of potatoes. I didn’t want to go to the store. And I figured, this soup came from peasant folk: it was designed around the foods they had to hand. So I decided to go with it. I've never put turnips in borscht before. I did this time – the young turnips the size of a golf ball, chopped into bites. They're still tender and still sweet at this size. Chopped carrots. Chopped, peeled, roasted beets. And it wasn’t quite right. So I went to the garden and I gently worked my fingers under my potato plants. I pulled out a dozen or so, small new potatoes. A bunch of dried dill (I had none fresh). When the root veggies were tender, the chopped beet greens and half a bunch of chopped fresh parsley went in. The heat of the soup is enough to make them wilt, but not enough to destroy the fresh vitamin content or over cooked.
Eaten alone it is divine, and even better the next day. Eaten with whey-biscuits (because I was out of milk... but now I'm not sure I'm ever going back. Cultured buttermilk, here I come) and fresh saurkraaut, and with sour cream stirred in: it was a meal for celebrating.
Which brings me to tonight. We came home after class to giant bowl of taboulie waiting in the fridge. I made it last night. I've already blogged about this meal, the last time I made it. Chewy cooked bulgur. Lots of herbs. Scallions. Olive oil. Lemon juice. Salt and pepper. So simple. So good.
*Fun fact: Bulgur is high in protein.
It bears repeating because this is the ultimate peasant food. Cooked grain (of a variety that stores well and for a long time) with the most hardy sort of vegetable: herbs. I imagine a peasant woman in the middle east (the traditional home of this food) going out to her draught ridden garden. The only plants still green are the hardy herbs with the pungent smells and thick skins: parsley. maybe thyme. oregano. She picks them, mixes them with cooked grain and feeds her family.
There are recipes for Tabouleh. The first many times I made it, I followed them. I don't anymore. I remember my mother buying red onions and tomatoes specially for making tabouleh. And its certainly not to be denied that tomatoes in tabouleh are AMAZING. But to me the beauty of this meal is the way it uses up those bunches of herbs from the CSA (or the garden). The ones starting to wilt in the fridge because you haven't had a chance to string them up to dry, and you haven't used them yet. You won't find a recipe for tabouleh that calls for tablespoons of fresh, slightly wilted thyme. But that's precisely what I added. and oregano. Lots of parsley. and onion.
Mix into bulgur, liberally add olive oil. Some salt and pepper (always!). Add the rest of your nearly-empty bottle of lemon juice, or if you have a still-mostly full bottle – or lemons! – add enough to bring the tartness to where you like it. Its good to eat immediately. Its even better the next day. Lunch or dinner. And you're getting the benefit of all these amazing concentrated phyto-chemicals, trace nutrients, mega-packed chlorophyll, and other goodness from the herbs!