It says a lot about my life these days that my posts for Meatless Monday are written and published on Wednesdays. I assure you, the meals described are prepared and eaten on Mondays, in accordance with my pledge. I’m just not in a position to write anything about them until later in the week.
Inefficiency is one reason; I’ve been plagued by a rash of it lately. For instance, on Monday I forget the diaper bag somewhere and had to track it down with phone calls. Once located, I hade to find time in my work day on Tuesday to retrieve it. The temporal toll of forgetting that one small item? About 45 minutes–a fairly significant amount of time, when you consider it. Add this to the hour and a half I spent at the doctor’s office having my ear drum punctured (yippee! — seriously) and we’re talking about much time lost.
That said, Monday’s meal was a delicious model of efficiency. Ribollita is one of those wonderful Italian dishes that manages to be both thrifty and sublime at the same time. Take the remnants of day old soup — typically minestrone or the old Italian classic, beans and greens — pour it over some day old bread; douse everything with olive oil; sprinkle it with good parmesan cheese; bake at 400 degrees for about half an hour. Hey, presto — Buon appetito!
I followed a recipe from Heirloom Beans by Steve Sando and Vanessa Barrington, although this is a dish that doesn’t really need a recipe. It does require a good quantity of soup though, which I made with some of Rancho Gordo’s delicious borlotti beans.
I suppose I should just accept my addiction to Rancho Gordo beans. These beans are always in my thoughts: when did we have them last? who will notice that we just had them? is it okay to eat them for both lunch and dinner? am I talking about them too much? is it too soon to order some more?
See? These are some of the same kinds of questions addicts ask. At least I don’t have to lurk around in dark alleys to get Rancho Gordo beans, although I would if it came to that.
Fortunately, there is a much more efficient way to get Rancho Gordo beans. Just click on this link and order away. And, I promise you, I’m not on the RG payroll or anything.
Back to the ribollita: it’s a great way to use up leftover soup and bread and it takes no time at all to pile the ingredients up in a casserole dish and bake them. Jim told me that it’s the best thing he’s ever eaten. He’s generous with his praise, but I liked it a lot, too. It’s warm and filling, perfect food for a cold January evening. Sando’s recipe calls for stacking the bread in layers in the casserole dish or dutch oven and then pouring the soup over each layer. I wasn’t wild about the resulting texture though. The bottom layer was a bit mushy. Next time, I’ll make ribollita with just one layer so that all the bread winds up with a nice, crunchy topping.
Here’s a very basic recipe for Ribollita. My own version happened to be vegetarian, in honor of Meatless Monday, but there’s no reason that the soup cannot contain meat if that’s what you have on hand. Also, these measurements and pan sizes are approximate. Adapt the recipe to accommodate the amounts of leftovers that you have.
Ribollita (my riff on a recipe found in Heirloom Beans)
Around 4-6 cups of brothy soup (minestrone, vegetable, etc. Anything with beans and cabbage is nice)
6-8 slices of good day old bread, sliced about 1/2 inch thick and rubbed on both sides with a garlic clove
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
Preheat over to 400 degrees. Pour 2 inches worth of soup into a 9×12 inch baking dish with 4 inch sides or other appropriately-sized baking dish. Layer the bread on top of the soup and dunk it in to moisten the slices. Sprinkle with olive oil. Top with the cheese and bake, uncovered for 25-30 minutes (until the ribollita is bubbly and the top is nicely browned). Serves about 4.
By the way, the ribollita itself did not make great lunch leftovers. The bread became gummy and unpleasant from soaking up all of the broth. Microwaving did not help matters. It is better to make the ribollita in small batches than to make a big pan of it and reheat it.
I’ve been preoccupied lately with my health and with getting my daughter settled into preschool, but in the back of my mind has been a word — more — usually used as a modifier to a variety of nouns. Like this: more cooking, more reading, more work, more play, more travel, more music, more conversation, more entertaining, more laughter, more community, more exercise, more writing, more sex, more sleep, more fennel. It’s the time of year, I think, that and the fact that, somehow, another decade of my life has gone by in what seems to have been an instant.
It’s not like nothing happened during that decade. It was an extraordinarily busy time. I lost my father; earned a Master’s Degree and a PhD.; got married; bought a house; and had a baby. I started teaching, wrote a dissertation, and went to conferences. I spent summers in England, France, and Michigan. I made shorter trips to Spain and Italy (with an 18-month old child in tow). I have become a better cook and writer. I started running. Hell, I even read the unabridged version of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. Still, I keep thinking of all of those things that I didn’t do or didn’t do enough of, mostly the latter –things like reading, exercising, and sleeping. Unfortunately, most of the things I’d like to do are contingent upon having more time, which is, of course, notoriously hard to find more of.
Even when a bit of time opens up — as it has this week, now that Mimi has started preschool — I can’t easily decide what to do with it. I fear that my new little pocket of time will be frittered away with minutiae, those petty little tasks that are so much a part of life — with maintenance, not meaning.
My friend Amy, who is working to finish her dissertation while living in Rome this year with her husband and young son, recently wrote about the need to balance work with play. It is a hard balance to strike. I struggle with this, being more inclined to focus on things that are pressing instead of things that are important. I fritter away the hours as pathetically as the Democrats frittered away their time in control of the Senate (damn them!).
I’m not sure how to change my tendencies, but over the past few days, I have been struck by the fact that although the words “more” and “less” are typically juxtaposed, in some ways, the words “more” and “better” may be more productively opposed. Perhaps I would be well-served by doing things better as opposed to doing more of them. Better friendships, as opposed to more of them. Better cooking as opposed to more of it.
Of course, becoming better at something often means doing more of it. As the Great Houdini once claimed, magic involves practice. What to do about that?
And, what does any of this have to do with cooking?
I guess it will function as an awkward transition to a good meatless recipe. Speaking of better, the recipe comes from the Steve Sando’s cookbook, Heirloom Beans. Sando is the genius behind Rancho Gordo, an online company that sells the most incredible heirloom beans grown by Sando himself. I’m completely obsessed with these things. It’s tremendously satisfying to eat something that is not only carefully grown and romantically named but that is also food that we should all eat more of. The following recipe calls for a variety of bean called Yellow Indian Woman, which are, as these photos attest, truly lovely. They are also delicious. Jim thought they tasted a bit like pinto beans, which Sando recommends as a substitute.
Making the fritters involves several steps, none of them difficult, and the use of a food processor, but the results are magical. A bit of honest labor for a delicious and healthy vegetarian meal: what could be better than that?
Yellow Indian Woman Fritters (barely adapted from Heirloom Beans by Steve Sando & Vanessa Barrington)
2 cups drained, cooked Yellow Indian Woman Beans (or Pinto beans)
1/4 cup whole milk
1/4 cup small red onion
1 cup yellow cornmeal, more if needed
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 tbs. sugar
1/2 cup buttermilk, more if needed
1 egg, beaten
2 tbs. fresh cilantro, chopped
Grated zest of one lime
1 1/2 tsp. coarse salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground pepper
safflower oil or grapeseed oil for frying
In a food processor, purée 1 1/2 cups beans, milk, and the onion until a smooth paste forms, stopping once or twice to scrape down the sides.
In a large bowl, mash the remaining beans with a potato masher or fork. Add the beans from the processor, cornmeal, flour, sugar, buttermilk, lime zest, cilantro, egg, salt & pepper. Mix well. The mixture should look like oatmeal. Add more cornmeal or buttermilk, as necessary.
Heat 1/2 inch of oil over medium–high heat in a large frying pan. Preheat oven to 225 degrees. Line a baking sheet with paper towels. When oil is shimmering, but not smoking, add one tablespoon’s worth of batter to the pan. If the fritter smokes, turn down the heat. Fry the fritters in batches of 4-6. Do not crowd the pan. Turn the fritters over carefully when they are a nice, golden-brown color. You’ll want to cook both sides.
Drain the fritters on the baking sheet and keep them warm in the oven. You should wind up with around 12 fritters. I served these with tapenade and yogurt — Sando recommends salsa and sour cream — and my favorite fennel salad.
Wabi Sabi is a Japanese aesthetic ideal that is concerned with honoring simple, unadorned, natural objects and events in life, those things that are beautiful and beloved because of their imperfection and simplicity, not in spite of them. Mimi has a lovely storybook called Wabi Sabi, written by Mark Reibstein and illustrated by Ed Young, about a cat by that name who seeks to learn the meaning of its namesake. Everyone she asks begins by saying, “That’s hard to explain …”
Wabi Sabi is hard to explain, but I think that a good way of understanding it might be to consider the apple.
Surely, the apple is one of nature’s most exquisite achievements, yet humans have done their damnedest to ruin it. As proof, I offer the Red Delicious apple. How perfect it is~
But isn’t it a little odd looking, for all its genetically-engineered perfection?
I cannot love it.
I can, however, love this misshapen Arkansas Black. Lopsided, blemished, and bruised — this is a beautiful apple.
And, unlike the Red Delicious, this one tastes good. Like an apple, if you can imagine.
Mimi and I spent the morning marvelling at the imperfect beauty of pumpkins, quinces, satsumas, persimmons, and apples at the Market at Blooming Colors, a new fruit and vegetable stand in Auburn that carries mostly locally grown food. The apples, for instance, come from a farm in North Georgia and they’re pesticide free. The market is a valuable addition to the area.
The weather is cool (finally) and the market was the perfect place to spend a sunny Fall morning. We indulged ourselves in utterly simple ways: picking out pumpkins and snacking on apples and roasted peanuts. We brought home with us five flawed pumpkins and two bags full of misshapen apples: our beautiful treasures.
Lunch, eaten amid the new pumpkins on our very simple front porch, consisted of apples and cheddar cheese. What else did we need? The sky was blue, the air was cool, and we were happy.