Comfort in the Classics

Sometimes, you’ve gotta go back to the basics.

A classic done well is an immensely satisfying experience in any field- food, film, fashion….

This month has been cold, windy, dark, and wet.  All of us have been recovering from the month before which felt like a mild, modern day urban plague situation- fever, flu, colds, infections…

So I was not surprised to find myself turning to soup and salad over the past few weeks.

Carrot-Ginger-Cashew Soup to be specific. CarrotSoup

And not just any salad- I went as classic as you can get- spinach, roasted beet, feta salad with balsamic vinaigrette. (And toasted pepitas and avocado of course).

I had been taking a break from beets- they can get overwhelming and boring.  And I usually don’t enjoy raw spinach as much as other greens because it can be so minerally and chalky in your mouth.

But I was ready for those color-popping root vegetables again and the acid from the vinaigrette and mixing the salad while the beets and pepitas were still a bit warm softened the spinach just enough to change the mouth feel for me.

Some people can’t get motivated to cook creatively if they are eating by themselves. I used to be like that  too. Other people were the inspiration for my effort- myself alone could not have been enough of an occasion. I think there are some broader social issues playing out here.  While our society encourages us to behave in an intensely individualistic manner, we are simultaneously trained to be more externally focused in our energy when it comes to love, enjoyment, self-image, etc.  We end up not valuing and loving ourselves consistently, not being more grounded in ourselves as sources of wisdom and pleasure.  And even though I am unquestionably committed to communal meals as fundamental to the good life, I am committed to good food on the daily, no matter what.. I thus have learned to value myself as a perfectly worthy diner to cook for.

I have the privilege of working from home several days a week. There can be times when I’m sitting with my breakfast or lunch creation, thoroughly enjoying it all by myself, when I get so excited that I need to document it and share it with someone. These moments are no longer about feeling regretful that others aren’t here to acknowledge/enjoy the masterpiece. It’s more that I just get excited about beautiful things and want to share.

My culinary comrade Sonny, a Big Ceci contributor, has often served as an enthusiastic receiver of such random outbursts of Wednesday afternoon food photography. My partner tolerates my enthusiastic texts with some amusement- I know he’s laughing at me as he looks at my latest bowl of ramen or slice of frittata. It’s always satisfying to share with Boris, my friend who has his own creations he proudly documents at his new cafe The Pantry– being the love bug and Parisian chef trained from childhood that he is, he always responds with encouragement.  It would never occur to him to do anything other than unabashedly and constantly celebrate one’s meals.

It occurred to me today that this is partly what our blog is for! SpinachBeetSalad

I am very wary of the boring food photography and general self-obsessed over-sharing that social media facilitate so I tend to be a more reluctant, self-doubting blogger. But this soup and salad have made many delicious, easy meals for me these past couple of weeks and the colors are so inviting against the backdrop of a grey city right now. Also, my friend Jackie, a brilliant film-maker who usually can’t be bothered with complicated culinary labor, is finally turning her attention to cooking soup and I promised her a recipe.

So I’ve decided to share. Buon appetito!

Carrot Cashew Ginger Soup

Sauté one large yellow or sweet onion in about 2.5 tablespoons coconut oil for 1 minute.

Stir in about 1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger. (A bit more if you want more of that kick).

Add about 1 teaspoon of curry powder and a couple of dashes of sweet paprika.

Sauté for a couple of minutes- just until the onions soften and start looking translucent.

Then add about 3/4 cup of raw cahsews and stir them in so they get all coated in the goodness. After 1 minute, add about 3 or 4 cups of carrots, peeled and chopped into small chunks. Add 1 cup of  peeled and chopped up butternut squash (this adds to the sweet orangeness of it all). Then I sprinkle 1 or 2 teaspoons of thyme and 1 teaspoon of salt on the veggies and stir it in.

Sauté with the lid on, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes. You want the veggies to start getting soft but not too soft.

Then add several cups of vegetable broth.  I usually make sure that the vegetables are covered by about 2 inches of liquid. You can add more later if it’s not enough. You want the final product to be creamy so don’t add a huge amount of stock at first.  After I bring the soup to a boil, I turn it down to simmer.

Brief tangent: I make my own stock because it’s so easy, saves money, and repurposes what would otherwise be waste! (Also, when I use stock prepared by someone else, I feel like I can’t claim full credit for the flavors of my dish. So a little ego is involved here too).

I just save the peels, stems, and ends of garlic, onions, carrots, radishes, herbs, kale, herbs, and other veggies in a container in the freezer for a few weeks. When I have enough, I put it all together in a big pot and fill it three quarters of the way with water.  I bring it to a boil and add about 3 tablespoons of salt (I use a huge pot- put a bit less if your pot isn’t a cauldron like mine). I also add a big handful of parsley (if you have a bunch of the stems in there already you’re fine) and some thyme (dry or fresh) and simmer it until it’s nice and dark and fragrant. Then I pour it through a strainer and store it in jars, jugs, and tupperware, making a huge mess along the way. 

Back to the soup. When the veggies are soft enough to easily stick a fork in them, I turn off the soup and let it cool for about 5 minutes. Just so it’s not scalding. You should probably wait longer but I never have time for that. Then I ladle the soup into a strong blender, working in batches and making sure each batch has a good balance of liquid and veggies. After combining all of the pureed soup into a new pot, I taste it to determine how much more salt it needs (it will need more or less depending on how salty your broth was). I also add the juice of half a (juicy) lemon and a few dashes of black pepper.

Spinach Beet Salad

As for the salad, y’all can easily figure that one out for yourselves. I prepare my beets the way my father does. I wash them and cut the stems off and place them whole in a piece of tinfoil in a roasting pan. I pour ample amounts of olive oil over them, throw in a few cloves of peeled garlic, and sprinkle salt and pepper over them. Then I wrap them up in the tinfoil and roast them on 385 for about an hour. I check them at about 45 minutes to see if I can easily stick a fork into them and pull it out. When I cut them up, I leave the yummy, oily and salty skins on them. Others might choose to peel them for a smoother texture. I cut them up and mix them with spinach, sliced radishes, crumbled feta, toasted pepitas (or pine nuts), and diced avocado. Cucumbers are good too but I’m not feeling them in these wintery months- they’re too cool.  The vinaigrette I toss it with is one that my wifey and I make in large batches and just keep around the house for all kinds of purposes (including marinading).  It’s just olive oil, balsamic vinegar,  dijon mustard, lemon juice, a few dashes of hot sauce, salt, and pepper. While doctoring it up, I sometimes I add a few dashes of tamari sauce instead of more salt.

I love food. So what?

As a Jew raised vegetarian, with a sprinkling of Italian heritage, I learned life through food.  The kitchen has always been my comfort zone.  For my sisters and I, food was never something that appeared out of nowhere ready to eat.  We were our parents’ kitchen staff- garden assistants and prep cooks- peeling whole heads of garlic, picking green beans, serving soup, stirring the polenta, slicing the pickles for the requisite first course of the epic feasts for Shabbat and every one of the dozens of annual Jewish holidays for which the framework is primarily “they tried to kill us, they didn’t… lets eat!”

I am not a fancy chef. However,I have a passionate relationship with food- a deep reverence for the processes and people that make it happen.  (My partner laughs at me because I am often deeply moved by a recipe or a description of a meal and I can get the chills while reading an article about a chef). I was so emotional this summer when I harvested baskets of tomatoes that I grew from seed for the first time that I had to laugh at myself.

Although I have no professional cooking training, I do have to say that my forced conscription into the Sabbath feast preparations every single week until I left home, instilled in me a useful solid understanding of how to host- how to bring people together with artfully prepared delicious food, how to ritualize a meal, how to set a table with seasonal, conceptual unity between garden flower arrangements and colorful dishware, how to serve and clean up after large numbers of (often demanding) people.

Shabbat Dinner during a parental visit to BK

Brooklyn Shabbat dinner during a parental visit

My brain tends to work like a switchboard. In this way I am an apple that hasn’t fallen far from the tree; being the daughter of a rabbi and an artist-educator, I grew up directly witnessing my parents’ community organizing skills in action.  I think I just absorbed the understanding that what one does in life is build things- relationships, projects, communities, spaces. In a society where people do not often learn how to effectively communicate, get organized, solve their own problems, express love, connect with others…I was taught that those were the most important parts of being alive. And for me, food is a central part of that- a simultaneously creative and mundane act, an opportunity for gathering and for individual expression and experience.  Cooking is a collaboration with nature- it’s about drawing out the essence of the ingredients you’re working with, capturing them at the right moment, combining ingredients thoughtfully, understanding their needs, powers, and particularities, paying close attention, being humble yet confident, balancing age-old wisdom with innovation and discovery…just like effective cooperation amongst people.

There was a period of time during which I was in graduate school, helping produce the film Slingshot Hip Hop, running an after-school program, coordinating a collective of activists & artists doing workshops internationally about the struggle for self-determination in Palestine. I was so busy and so exhausted (while also, for the record, feeling excited and inspired) that the only time I ever felt ok stepping away from working was when I was cooking for the crew. I was never able to justify reading  a book or watching a film- I couldn’t escape the never-ending to-do list running through my mind. But cooking was a creative act and a form of decompression that I didnt feel guilty about because it was necessary in order to live.  I was able to relax into it. To this day, even though I’ve managed to balance out my schedule a bit more, one of the only times I feel completely present and never doubt my choice of place and activity is when Im cooking.

Birthday Brunch Tacos for Olivia- our New Years baby

Birthday Brunch Tacos for Olivia- our New Years baby

Along with my gratitude for my food-loving family and the wisdom it has provided me with, I have questions at times about the potential lack of healthy balance in my family’s relationship to food and drink.  Sometimes it seems that we could benefit physically and energetically from letting go and taking a more casual approach every once in a while.  There is a fine line, as it turns out, between intentionality and obsession. Boundaries and balance in terms of food and alcohol can be tricky for us as individuals and collectively. There are times when we need to challenge ourselves to focus on other elements of culture, other ways of being together.

I am trying to learn how to let go sometimes- knowing that my culinary ideas and organizational skills are valuable during my crew’s myriad celebrations but that even benign bossiness ain’t cute for too long 😉 Plus I want to be able to enjoy receiving as much as giving and to trust others to make things happen and teach me things.

Surprise Feast for Giovanna's Bday

Cava & Oysters feast in honor of our dear Giovanna’s birthday

I am currently in a period of transition in my life. I am considering shifting away from the community education work I’ve been doing within the Jewish community for a decade.  Although I have always bounced between worlds and woven together interests and communities, I am committing now to focusing in on culinary art/culture/community. BUT WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?!! In the current context, in which white 20 & 30-something-year-olds throughout urban centers of the U.S. are r(e)discovering food like Columbus discovered America, what is useful? What is necessary? It is not enough for me to say food makes me happy. I try not to consider my life choices in a void, ignoring the big picture of the country and world I live within.  Happiness is of course a goal (and one we all need to embrace more) but also purposefulness. While brooding over this recently, I found Patti Smith‘s questions in Just Kids resonant. She was speaking of art, I am thinking of the world of food:

“Once again I found myself contemplating what I should be doing to do something of worth. Everything I came up with seemed irreverent or irrelevant.”

“Why commit to art? For self-realization, or for itself? It seemed indulgent to add to the glut unless one offered illumination.”

As someone exploring possibilities of jumping more fully into the word of making and serving food and the culture that surrounds it, I too should certainly feel concerned about not just participating in the gluttony that Patti Smith refers to. Otherwise I am just aligning myself with the wealthiest people on the planet- those with the resources and time to indulge in such things while the rest of the population is being pushed off their farmlands, picking fruit covered in poison, losing their olive trees to bulldozers, struggling to hold on to their food traditions, grocery shopping at Walmart, being served processed animal garbage in their schools….

Patti Smith created her boundary-crossing collaborative poetry-music-art as a heartfelt rebellion against the social and economic systems the music of her day was being shaped  by.  Her words, although originally written about rock n roll, provide us with perfect metaphors as we reflect on the “new food movement” we are a part of, wary of, reliant upon, and hopefully making an intervention into:

“We feared that the music which had given us sustenance was in danger of spiritual starvation. We feared it losing its sense of purpose, we feared it falling into fattened hands, we feared it floundering in a mire of spectacle, finance, and vapid technical complexity.”

So where to from here?