Towards the Light

coming home

December already. I can’t believe we’re closing out another year, though for many reasons, I’ll be happy to put this one behind us. I’ve been struggling with the weather already, crawling stiff-limbed out of bed, heading out to the bus stop each morning swaddled in layers, returning home in darkness, cheeks red and fingers numb, guided by twinkling holiday lights to the warmth of our kitchen.

I’ve been cooking a lot, not that you’d know it by coming here, mostly big pots of brothy things, soups and stews to force the chill from my bones, but very little of it has been noteworthy. Most dishes have been comprised of odds and ends foraged from the freezer and pantry, from leftovers repurposed, from trying to stretch a protein over a series of meals. We’ve been tightening our belts even more than before, in anticipation of the holidays but also of necessity. We’ll scrimp more now so we can splurge a bit at Christmas.

cabbage

And with the exception of one glorious night out with dear friends recently, we’ve been staying in. I don’t mind it so much – I’m a homebody at heart – but I do find that I have really been missing the spark of inspiration I get from a good meal out, the way a chef will work with an ingredient, pair it with something unexpected, or prepare it in a new (to me) way. I feel like I’m in a rut, my taste buds in hibernation, my creativity lacking.

Dinner: December 9, 2010

I did, however, have a minor breakthrough last night with a pasta dish that I’ve been trying to recreate forever (or at least since February of 2008), a simple mix of spaghetti with savoy cabbage, pancetta, and pecorino cheese that I first tasted at A Voce in NYC. I’ve played with this preparation over the years with varying levels of success, and while I’ve come close in the past, I think I finally nailed it. The key, I think, was to really hammer the cabbage, to wilt it down to silky strands, almost caramelizing it, rendering it soft and sweet and utterly delicious. I added a tiny knob of butter too, which rounded out all of the flavors, allowing the salty pecorino and flecks of freshly cracked pepper to really dance on your tongue. This may not have been the prettiest dish, but the flavors really sang, and it was so good we had seconds.

Big, Bright and Beautiful

Dinner:  July 14, 2009

Some nights there’s nothing better than a big platter of Nicoise-style salad, served family style. Last night’s version featured my marinated grilled red peppers and pickled red onions in addition to the standard lineup of ingredients; my writeup of a previous version is here.

my plate

Summer suppers don’t get much easier, or prettier, than this.

La Vida Local

Dinner:  July 7, 2008

The weather this summer has officially crossed the line into absurd – when I’m pulling a bag of meaty pasta sauce out of the freezer to heat up for dinner instead of the big summer salad I had originally planned because it feels more like October outside than July, something is clearly amiss. It’s affecting everyone, but no one more, I’m sure, than the farmers who grow the majority of the food Mike and I buy. While I’ve all but given up on getting much yield from our sad little waterlogged container garden, I am very aware that it’s a relatively minor loss. I can’t imagine being in a position where our very livelihood is threatened by this bad weather and the resulting damage to crops.

decimated

So while I put together our very non-seasonal dinner last night, I got to thinking about how much easier, in some respects, it would be to go back to only shopping at the supermarket, with its year-round, consistent supply of whatever you want, whenever you want it, food that tastes the same in January or June. But easy doesn’t hold the same appeal for me that it used to. I get so much joy out of visiting our farmers’ markets, talking to the people who grow the food that we’re cooking and eating, that I can’t imagine going back to the way I used to shop.

frilly lettuce

The selfish part of me doesn’t want to lose out on the connection and sense of community I feel when I visit a farmers’ market. The (very, very) grateful part of me thinks that it’s more important than ever to support our local farmers during what could be a difficult season for them. I usually try not to be preachy, but I suspect I am going to have a much more difficult time holding my tongue when I hear people complaining about how much things cost at the farmers’ markets. This year has been very hard for us financially, but I think Mike and I both agree that as long as we are able to, we will still happily pay a premium for that quart of berries, head of lettuce, or juicy heirloom tomato, knowing that in doing so, we’re not just feeding ourselves something fresher and better than what the supermarket sells, but that our food dollars are going back into the local economy.

School of Fish

Dinner:  October 30, 2007

I spun out another one of our old standbys last night – crispy fillets of white fleshed fish (this time, black sea bass) over tomato-fennel broth. This is so easy to prepare, and I love how well it works in the heat of summer or on a chilly fall evening.

Wine Pairing: Our friends at Thirst recommended the 2005 Olivier Savary Chablis Vieilles Vignes to go with this dish, and we both agreed it was a really gorgeous wine – a beautiful gold color, very crisp and flinty, with an almost toasted-buttery aroma.

Recipe Redux: Linguine con Sarde

Dinner:  October 2, 2007

“Snacking on sardines.”

It was an innocent little text message, sent out over Twitter by my husband, but it got me craving those savory little fish in the worst way. Though some of you probably can’t imagine sardines being a crave-worthy food, I’ve been completely smitten with them since my first taste (Prune restaurant, birthday dinner, sardines with Triscuits, mustard and cornichons – simply perfect). I knew we had a couple of tins in the pantry at home, and we had one bunch of baby fennel lingering in the crisper, so I scrapped my previous plan for dinner and put together one of my favorite fall-back pasta dishes – linguine with sardines, fennel and tomato, also known as “Linguine con Sarde.”

The last time I made this dish I was sort of going through the motions, so I did a few things differently this time. While my pasta water came to a boil, I sautéed garlic in olive oil, then added my sliced fennel bulb and a bit of salt and let it soften and begin to caramelize. I added a pinch of red chile flakes, one tin of sardines (minus the oil they were packed in), and a pint of tiny Super Sweet 100 tomatoes, gently stirring everything together. I added a hefty splash of white vermouth, the juice of one lemon, and a handful of chopped fennel fronds and let the sauce bubble away while I cooked a pound of linguine. When it was just short of al dente, I added about 3/4 of the pasta to the sauce along with a couple of small ladles of the starchy pasta water and gently tossed everything through. When the pasta had finished cooking in the sauce, I plated it, adding a sprinkling of toasted bread crumbs, a grating of lemon zest and a few more fennel fronds to each bowl.

While I think last night’s version of this dish could have used a touch more salt, Mike and I both agreed it was really good – the lemon was a great substitute for the sherry vinegar in my original dish, and the addition of the fennel fronds and zest at the end really brought all the flavors together. Think you don’t like sardines? This simple pasta dish just might make you change your mind.