My friend Courtney’s mama died yesterday. The news did not come as a surprise, rather more like relief, for it meant the end of a particular kind of suffering, the, tangible, physical pain that comes when a body’s systems break down, the kind of pain that doctors treat with IV opioids and pain patches. It is not pretty when a body stops working, because it usually doesn’t happen right away. There is waiting. There are uncomfortable chairs. There are people—so many people—who have no idea what to say to you or how to be with you, so they say and do profoundly unhelpful things. If you’re lucky, there are nurses (maybe a doctor, too, but it’s almost always the nurses) who do know what to say, or at least know what not to say, and they make things even just the slightest bit better. Strangers offer kindnesses that feel so extravagant you fear you might break into pieces.
Witnessing pain is its own form of suffering, and I’m glad that one is over as well; not only that Mikie doesn’t have to suffer anymore, but that Courtney doesn’t have to watch it happen anymore. Yet, death is always the start of something, too—it is the beginning of an existence that necessarily contains absence. An existence built on the ground of grief—ground that, for a fair while, feels much too shaky to support anything but despair, apathy, and rage.
Yesterday I went to the gym and took a shower and had lunch with my mom and bought my son a sugar cookie in the shape of a ladybug. I broke a head of orange cauliflower into pieces with my hands, coated those pieces with olive oil, sprinkled them with salt and two kinds of paprika, slid them into the oven under the broiler. I stood with my oil-slicked and spiced hands for a minute, watching my son out the window as he played in the backyard. Paprika made the cut on my right thumb sting. This body will not last forever. The laundry needs to be folded. It’s everything, all at once.
We do badly in this culture with death. We do not look endings in the eye. We distract and offer platitudes or turn and run out of sheer avoidance; we are too antsy to bear witness. We fill with chatter rather than sit in silence. Courtney and her mama have reminded me what a disservice we do when we walk through this life and ignore what it is we’re all inevitably walking toward. Death is not the enemy. Rather, mortality is the the reality that grounds us all, and to live estranged from or in denial of such truth only robs us of the chance to be fully present for all of what life brings.
“[T]he more you’re here and the more you’re alive, the more you realize you’re a mortal human being. And that you’ll pass from this place. And will you actually turn up? Will you actually have the conversation given that it’s so — will you become a full citizen of vulnerability, loss, and disappearance, which you have no choice about?” —David Whyte
adapted from Food52
We really loved this dish—Jill had it as a side to go along with a pork chop she’d grilled, and I, who am in the middle of a Hindu holy week and not eating meat, enjoyed it without the sausage component and with some plain yogurt on the side. Shiv ate a whole bowl full of it, too.
I’d never broiled cauliflower before, and I think it might be my new favorite way to cook it! I adapted the original recipe to suit what I had in the house, and it turned out beautifully, but no doubt the original is delicious as well.
1 head cauliflower, approx. 2 lb
5 cloves garlic, peeled & halved lengthwise
1 tsp. sea salt
1 tsp. freshly ground pepper
1 T sweet paprika
1 tsp. smoked paprika
1/4 cup olive oil
1 yellow onion, peeled & cut into wedges
2 carrots, peeled & coarsely grated
2 oz. cured chorizo or other cured/smoked sausage, cut into pieces (I used some home-smoked duck sausage that Jill had made & warmed it up in some olive oil before adding)
1/3 cup toasted nuts of your choice (original recipe calls for pine nuts; I used sliced almonds. I think walnuts would also work well here.)
1/4 cup fresh, flat-leaf parsley, chopped
dash of something acidic—fresh lemon juice, red wine vinegar, etc.
Break/cut the cauliflower florets and stems into small pieces. If the green leaves on your cauliflower look fresh, set them aside for later.
Place the cauliflower and sliced garlic into a large bowl and drizzle generously with olive oil, turning with your hands to coat. Add the spices and turn again until everything is well-combined. Turn out onto a rimmed baking sheet, then slide into the oven under the broiler. Broil for 7-10 minutes, or until you start to see some color on the cauliflower.
Pull the baking sheet out and add the cauliflower leaves and the onion. Return the sheet to the oven and broil for an additional 3-5 minutes. Slide the cooked cauliflower & onion into a large serving bowl, then add the carrot, nuts, sausage, and parsley. Toss well, then taste and add your acid accordingly, plus any additional salt & pepper you may need—I used just a dash of red wine vinegar and a little extra sea salt. Serve warm or at room temperature.
It’s that time again. The annual mid-to-late-May, scattered brain blog post.
After nearly three decades spent lived inside of school years, I feel the rhythm in my bones, in my marrow. Most people catalogue their lives by calendar years, January to December; I think about August to May. This 2014-2015 school year has seen 3 weddings attended, 2 showers thrown, a dozen writing deadlines, a record-breaking 11 sick days, 1 appearance on the NPR website, and 1 potty-trained toddler. Moving from middle to high school, teaching three new classes, creating two of those classes from scratch, relishing the tremendous opportunity to teach many of my students for the second or third time—it has all yielded more personal and professional reward than I could have imagined. I am grateful, proud to have survived, and very, very ready for June.
My juniors are ending the year with Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a short story collection that draws heavily on his experience fighting in Vietnam. Structurally, it is a brilliant piece of work, each story like a spoke of a wheel that circles around the themes of memory, ambiguity, truth, and fiction. Each piece is a masterclass in how to write about things that matter, without knowing exactly how they matter or why. About how to tell the truth without being sure that there is any objective truth to tell.
Line after line, even though I hadn’t anticipated that it would do this, this text is forming the perfect bridge between the end of one season and the start of another, allowing my students and I to reflect on what’s been and what’s to come: the seminal experiences that shape us, the ways we decide who we are, who we will be, what we will do with what life presents us.
“That’s what stories are for. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.”
Summer is coming; there are stories to tell. There is a new book to write. There are plane tickets: to the west coast for a graduation, to the east coast for (another!) wedding. There is a road trip planned, practically a summer requirement. There is a little boy who loves to swim and consume epic amounts of watermelon. There is okra coming up in the backyard.
(^tiny photo-shoot-interrupting okra thief)
PERFECT OKRA & POTATOES
Source: Tom Hirschfield via Food52
Jill and I fell in love with this dish last year, but each time I made it (and there have been many), we ate it all before we remembered to take any photographs. This dish is truly more than the sum of its parts—doesn’t sound like much when you read through the recipe, but the method transforms the ingredients, yielding perfect texture on both the okra (no slime here!) and the potatoes. The hit of garlic at the end is just right, and while the original recipe calls for a finish of fresh basil, we found that we like it better without.
Pair this dish with another sublime-and-crazy-easy seasonal dish—this blistered corn-off-the-cob—make a caprese salad with beautiful, fresh tomatoes, and call it dinner. Man I love the summer.
PS: If for some reason you end up with leftover okra-and-potatoes, it makes a wonderful bed for a fried egg breakfast.
1-2 cloves garlic, depending on your preference
salt & pepper, to taste
canola or another neutral oil, like peanut
*You want equal amounts of small-dice russet potatoes & sliced—thin but not sliver-thin—okra. Scale however you like, but it’s easiest if you have a pan big enough to cook everything in an even layer. I usually use 2 small russets & probably 20 okra pods.
Heat a large skillet, preferably cast-iron, over medium-high heat and add enough oil to generously coat the bottom. Add the okra, spreading them out evenly, and season with salt & pepper. Leave the okra alone until the undersides are brown, then add the potatoes, tossing everything around and breaking up any chunks of potato. Add a bit more oil to the pan, if needed. Season again with salt & pepper.
Keep an eye on the potatoes, turning down the heat so that they don’t burn, and turning them occasionally. Remember, they won’t brown if you mess with them too much, so keep an eye on the pan but mostly leave it alone to do its thing. (In my experience, the dish takes about 20-25 minutes on the stove from start to finish.)
Once the potatoes have browned and are tender (fork test!), add the garlic and mix it in well. Turn the heat down to medium-low and cook for just one or two more minutes, until the garlic is fragrant. Taste and add more salt/pepper if needed. Serve hot!
“It’s too good, Ms. Mehra,” they said. “This one’s just too good.”
They were talking about Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” a five-page stunner of a short story with a dystopian premise that, though it was published in 1961, still feels all-too-imaginable. Set in 2081, Vonnegut imagines an America in which all are finally “equal,” an equality achieved through whatever means necessary by the United States Handicapper General. Any citizens with above-average strength, intelligence, or talent are weighted down (in some cases, literally) by handicaps that keep them from achieving anything beyond mediocrity. It’s a brilliant piece, and my Creative Writing students—seventeen high-school seniors—balked at the notion that they were being asked to imitate it.
“Don’t worry about trying to be Vonnegut,” I told them. “What I’m interested in seeing is whatever your vision of a plausible dystopian future looks like.”
Dystopia is by no means a new genre, but it has seen a recent resurgence in popularity, particularly within the world of young adult (YA) literature. The Hunger Games series is the most well-known, with the Divergent trilogy close behind; Lois Lowry’s The Giver is older (published in 1993), but was recently made into a film. And there are plenty of others: the Legend trilogy, the Uglies series, the Delirium trilogy, Matched and its sequels, Feed, The House of the Scorpion, and The Maze Runner series are among the best.
Personally, I don’t think this popularity is an accident. Since my first year teaching Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 to eighth graders, I’ve been convinced that there’s something about our particular time period that creates the need for dystopia as a genre. All good literature is reflective of what is, of the truths of the human condition and human behavior, but good dystopia goes beyond simply holding up a mirror; it holds up the mirror and it issues a warning.
It may sound hyperbolic to say so, but I’m pretty sure the reason dystopia has become so popular is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between it and reality. A large chunk of Antarctica is melting, antibiotics are losing their effectiveness, and there are giant TV screens in Beijing that project virtual sunrises because the air is too thick with smog for residents to see the actual sun. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We could talk about the fact that, by 2016, it’s predicted that the world’s wealthiest 1% will own more than the remaining 99% .We could talk about the militarization of the police force. We could talk about the (lack of) internet neutrality and privacy. We could talk about our intense dependence on technology and pharmaceuticals. We could talk about species extinction. We could talk about human overpopulation.
I have received such wonderful feedback on “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” an essay I wrote for Guernica Magazine, which was linked to on NPR (!) over the weekend. People have written me to tell me that they saw their family in mine, their lived experience in our lived experience, and reading the piece was tremendously affirming; others have written to say that they found the piece confronting, and that reading it was uncomfortable and forced them to examine and reevaluate their own perspective. Both categories of response are gratifying, as I could not ask for anything more than for my words to both uplift and challenge. This is what I want when I read, so it is truly moving to hear that I have done this for others.
At the same time, I know there are lots of people—many of whom, I’m told, have made their opinions known in the public comments section the NPR website (I’ve followed the first rule of the internet and kept myself from reading any of them)—who want to write me off as an easily offended, holier-than-thou, fill-in-the-blank. This is the byproduct, I was reminded by a very wise friend, of “directing attention to things many, many people would just as soon ignore, and some will openly deny in spite of empirical evidence.”
My students rocked their assignment, like I knew they would. Because, contrary to popular belief, teenagers pay attention. They are keen observers—and critics—of the world around them, and the adults in it. I am heartened by their willingness to look at, and talk about, unpleasant things. I am inspired by their sharp-sightedness and ability to self-critique. Spending class time with them, reading their work—I am humbled and hopeful. Because nothing can even start to get better until we look the ugly stuff square in the eye.
I know this is ostensibly a food blog, and I still love—and love to make—food as much as I always have. But, let’s face it, NPR or no NPR, I have a very active two-and-a-half-year-old who wants to choreograph my weekend (“Dance, mama!” “Hide, mama!” “Run, mama!”) and I want to let him. I swear we could—should a windfall of extra cash magically appear—employ someone full time to do laundry and keep our house even marginally clean. There is always so much grading, and there are friends to whom I wish to give attention and none of this is a complaint, truly, rather an explanation for why you’ve got a picture for one, but not both, of the recipes mentioned here, and why I am linking to them like a lazy-bones instead of recreating them in my own words. Maybe next time?
The more important thing to know, though, is that I have made this ratatouille recipe twice and it’s brilliant. Aside from a lot of chopping, it’s very hands-off, as it cooks slowly in the oven and makes your house smell amazing. It’s dreamy with bread, of course, but also works well as a side to whatever meat you might be grilling or broiling or pan-cooking. Shiv liked it mixed in with “noo noos,” a.k.a. noodles, the beloved food of all toddlers.
Speaking of noodles, I had a half-container of mascarpone that a friend pawned off on me and wanted to use it for something savory. This baked pasta recipe proved a wonderful starting point for a few substitutions: first, I subbed in cooked broccoli for the mushrooms, and second, when making the sauce, I added a bit of flour to the pan after browning the onions but before adding the mascarpone, to thicken it and add a bit of body. Jill loves non-tomato-sauce pasta, so this was a big hit with everyone. I actually pre-made the pasta the night before we were going to eat it, let it cool, then covered it with foil and stashed it in the fridge. Heating it back up in the oven the next night made dinner very easy, and we had leftovers for a few days—always a win!
Sometimes I am not easy to live with.
I can be incredibly bossy, defensive, and quick to judge. I like to leave cabinets open and used teabags in the sink. I get really attached to my idea of how I think things should be; I over-schedule; I make big messes in the kitchen when I cook.
Somehow, Jill is tolerant of all of these things, an incredibly loving and patient spouse who good-naturedly handles all that comes with me. Recently, though, she got a little more insistent about one of my particularly frustrating habits: “Do you have to bake so much?”
This may not seem like the kind of thing a spouse would gripe about, but when you are trying to be healthy (as we are), my proclivity to bake/issue a dessert for any occasion can get in the way. Jill & I are different in almost every way, but we share at least one trait; if baked goods are present, we will eat them. So, in an attempt to support us both, I’m trying to make “good” stuff and only bake for special occasions.
Last night I even did something I did not think was possible—I made and thoroughly enjoyed a meal that contained no pasta, grain, bread, noodle, or potato. I know, right? I’m very proud of myself. Along with a stir-fry of ground pork, celery, leeks, & snow peas (served on its own), we enjoyed this Asian-style eggplant so much that Jill gamely salvaged our leftovers into the lovely photographs you see here. “I think this is my favorite way to eat eggplant ever,” she said. That good AND good for us; we had to share.
ROASTED EGGPLANT SALAD
from Melissa Clark
I’m realizing that not everyone may still have access to the wonderfully sweet, late summer/early fall cherry tomatoes that we do. If you can’t find any, I think this salad would still be delicious without them, or you might try some sweet peppers instead, tossed into the oven for the last few minutes to roast alongside the eggplant.
1 large eggplant, sliced into wedges
¼ cup peanut or canola oil
2 scallions, thinly sliced (or substitute a bit of minced white onion)
2 tsp. grated ginger
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tsp. sesame oil
1 tsp. rice wine or white wine vinegar
1 tsp. (or more) Sriracha—I used homemade
½ cup cherry tomatoes
¼ cup fresh basil leaves
On a baking sheet, toss the eggplant with generous amounts of olive oil, then sprinkle with salt. Roast until tender, approximately 25-30 minutes.
While the eggplant is in the oven, whisk together the dressing: oils, scallions, ginger, garlic, Sriracha, & vinegar.
Using tongs, transfer the roasted eggplant to a platter; sprinkle tomatoes on top. Pour the dressing on top, garnishing with torn basil leaves.
Instead of some long-winded post about Memorial Day grilling, the siren call of summer in the near-distance, the fact that I have only one week of school left, etc., I’m just going to let Jill’s photographs speak for themselves.
Steak + anchovy-garlic butter.
Grilled broccoli + lime-honey butter.
You may not know it yet, but compound butters are your friend. Mix them up, roll them in a sheet of waxed paper, and keep the log in the freezer for when you need a little hit of flavor and fancy. That simple, with practically endless permutations.
Just do it. You’ll be glad you did.
ANCHOVY GARLIC BUTTER
adapted from Epicurious
I always make a whole stick’s worth of this stuff and keep it in the freezer, because it’s fabulous on any kind of grilled meat, especially steak or salmon. If you like, though, you can easily cut this recipe in half.
1 stick good-quality unsalted butter
¼ cup flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 T anchovy paste
juice & zest of 1 lemon
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Mix all ingredients with a spoon until combined. Use to top grilled meats and vegetables or toss into pasta.
LIME HONEY BUTTER
We grilled broccoli for the first time because of this recipe in Food & Wine, and I can promise you that we will be grilling it all summer—the stems retained their snap, while the florets charred deliciously in places—even better than roasted broccoli (a previous favorite), with the bonus of not having to turn on the oven!
To grill the broccoli, just trim the stems a little and cut it into large “branches.” Drizzle with olive oil before grilling over medium-high heat for 8-10 minutes, then toss with the lime-honey butter while still warm, and top with queso fresco or feta.
This butter would also be killer with grilled corn or fajitas. Feel free to ramp up the Tabasco level as you see fit!
1 stick good-quality unsalted butter
1 T chipotle Tabasco*
1 ½ tsp. honey
juice & zest of 1 big lime
pinch of salt
Mix the ingredients together with a spoon until combined. If making ahead, store in the refrigerator or freezer before using.
*We only had regular Tabasco on hand, so I used ½ tsp. of that and added a ½ tsp. of the sauce from a can of chipotles in adobo.
Ash Wednesday marks the start of the Lenten season, which lasts until Easter Sunday. For Catholics, Episcopalians, and some other Christians (or non-Christians, as the case is with me!), Lent is a time for reflection and, traditionally, ritual fasting.
There are as many interpretations of what it means or what it should mean to “give something up” for Lent, so I can’t speak for everyone who observes the ritual. But I have been a little put off by all of the Lent-bashing I’ve seen on Twitter and Facebook today. Joking is one thing (“I’m giving up giving up things for Lent!” and the like), but why the need to disparage someone else’s tradition? Just because you have no interest in observing Lent, or don’t see the value in observing it doesn’t mean that there IS no potential value.
My Lenten observance is not an attempt to correct some kind of behavior I find fault in myself, or to punish myself. For me, Lent is an opportunity to be more thoughtful, more deliberate, and yes, a bit more disciplined. When did “discipline” get to be such a dirty word? I am lucky to have the freedom of so much choice, but I want my life to be a balance between what I feel like doing and the sometimes-tough choices that line up with my priorities. And let’s be honest; that kind of balance does not magically happen without some work.
This year, I am going without desserts and red meat for the next forty days. There is nothing inherently evil with either of these two categories, and I didn’t make this choice as part of a plan to lose weight, or because I feel there’s something wrong with the way I eat now. Mostly, I feel like Jill and I sometimes get caught in “food ruts,” falling back on familiar recipes instead of trying new things. I’m excited to have a structure that will force me to cook more fish and buy lots of different vegetables at the store. I’m also looking to break my habit of filling up on sweets, just to be hungry again a short time later I know that a few weeks without desserts will remind my palate just how sweet a handful of blueberries can be.
Re-set and recalibrate—there are lots of ways to do it, and Lent happens to be one of mine.
RAPINI WITH CHICKPEAS & RICOTTA
recipe adapted from Whole Living
Rapini, or broccoli rabe, is one of those vegetables I’d like to cook with more often. Related to kale and cauliflower, rapini is a flash to prep since all but the tough bottom stems are edible. Here it’s cooked quickly under the broiler, but you can also blanch it, roast it in the oven, steam, or sauté it. Personally, I plan to try this broccoli rabe pizza recipe next.
We served this dish as a salad course at a dinner party for four, and then made it again tonight as a main course for just the two of us. Be warned: it’s still a bit bitter and chewy after the trip under the broiler, but I happen to love the taste of slightly-bitter greens and prefer most things al dente. If you’re worried, simply employ another cooking method for the rapini, then assemble the salad as directed.
1 bunch rapini
1 can chickpeas, drained*
2-3 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1 cup fresh ricotta
juice of 1 lemon, preferably Meyer
Aleppo pepper or red pepper flakes
First, roast the chickpeas, which you can do ahead of time. For this recipe, I used Aleppo pepper to season the chickpeas, but you can also keep them plain, using salt and olive oil only.
While the chickpeas are roasting, prep the rapini, rinsing it well and trimming the stem ends. Dry the stalks well, then arrange on two cookie sheets and drizzle generously with olive oil. Use your fingers to ensure that the rapini is well-coated with oil. Spread the stalks out so they don’t crowd.
Sprinkle the chopped garlic and some salt atop the two cookie sheets. Once your chickpeas are done, turn the oven to the broiler setting and slide the rapini in (I recommend positioning your oven rack a few notches below the broiler).
Broil for two to three minutes, then flip the rapini with tongs and cook another two minutes. Remove from the oven and spread onto a large platter, dressing with the lemon juice, more olive oil, and some dashes of Aleppo pepper or red pepper flakes. Salt to taste before distributing the chickpeas on the platter, and topping everything with a generous mound of ricotta.
I know, I know—two braised vegetable dishes, two weeks in a row. What can I say? I’m on a kick of sorts.
There’s something so satisfying about cooking from the hip or on the fly. No real recipe, no measuring, just a smattering of what you have around the house (whether it be freezer, refrigerator, pantry, liquor cabinet, spice rack, and/or garden) that might taste good together.
I find that vegetables are a great place to do this. They’re a bit more forgiving than proteins, and if you’re trying to eat more of them, as we are, variety is key to staying on the wagon. Not to mention, I find that it often just takes one dish, one new preparation, that can turn a palate’s veggie-tude around: broccoli roasted instead of steamed, spinach raw instead of frozen, pickled beets, caramelized Brussels sprouts, and so on.
Carrots have always been a particular favorite of mine, a proclivity attributable to my mother’s propagation of the “they’ll improve your eyesight!” exaggeration many of us were party to as kids. I started wearing glasses when I was two-and-a-half and, as you can see here, they were of the impossibly thick plastic-frame variety. (Kids today have no idea how good they have it when it comes to glasses frame design options.)
I would have done anything to rid myself of those glasses, including eating pounds upon pounds of carrots. Which I did, causing my mom to back off of her urgings a bit when I seemed to be turning an alarming Oompa-Loompa-like orange. But the thing is, much as I loved carrots, I loved them only and always raw. Crunchy and crisp and jaw-tiringly raw. Show me a cooked carrot and I would wrinkle my nose.
Trouble is, a plate of raw carrots isn’t the most elegant dinner side dish. Great in salads and dandy in a plastic bag as a mid-day snack, but still a bit one-trick-pony-ish. Until I learned to quick pickle them, a gateway of sorts. Leading to this past weekend when I voluntarily cooked carrots for the first time. And ate them! And enjoyed them. So much that I forgot to ask Sonya to take a picture of the finished dish. Oops!
BRAISED RAINBOW CARROTS
If you can find lovely market carrots like these, I urge you to use them. Otherwise, grab the thinnest, “youngest” carrots you can find, lopping off the greens as soon as you buy them. Feel free to swap in dried thyme for the fresh; if you do this, you’ll need less.
1-2 bunch baby carrots, scrubbed but not peeled, ends cut
½ of a yellow onion, thinly sliced
4-5 springs fresh thyme
1-2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
red wine vinegar
salt & pepper
Heat the olive oil in a wide skillet over medium-low heat. Add the onions and garlic, sautéing over low heat until translucent. Toss in the carrots and push them around the pan to absorb some of the onion-garlic-olive-oil-y goodness.
After a minute or two, add a generous glug of white wine, enough to form a thin layer at the bottom of the skillet. Lay the thyme inside the skillet as well and cover with a lid, turning up the heat a bit so that the wine will just simmer.
Cook until the carrots have reached your desired state of tenderness, anywhere from 12-20 minutes, depending on the size of your carrots. Finish with a splash of red wine vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot or warm.
My palate can be something of a paradox. I love grapes, but I can’t stand raisins. I adore fennel but I will not put licorice in my mouth.
Contradiction, thy name is Nishta? True in more ways than just the culinary. Of course, I think we’re all like this in one way or another. I had a vegetarian friend in graduate school who caved every few months for an Arby’s roast beef sandwich, of all things. Jill hunts birds, bringing duck and dove home for us to eat, while at the same time obsessively filling our backyard feeders for the ducks and doves who visit. And this week I discovered that my friend Ben, who normally eschews desserts of all kinds, does have one sweet-toothed weakness: the famous and famously-difficult-to-make Dobos torte. Of course.
Fennel is not universally popular, probably because it gets lumped into the “eww gross” category by those of us who profoundly dislike anything licorice-flavored. (Just the thought of those black-paper-wrapped candies from the “bad houses” on Halloween night makes me shudder.) But I find that, when prepared deftly, fennel betrays satisfying sweetness and delivers a crunch I quite enjoy. I mostly use fennel raw, in salads, where it pairs particularly well with citrus, but this braised version is quite elegant and hearty.
We human beings may not be logically consistent in our tastes and habits, but I like to think that’s what makes us all so fascinating.
BRAISED FENNEL WITH MEYER LEMON & PARMESAN
as printed in the New York Times Magazine
It’s the right time of year for Meyer lemons, and they are so magical. Use them! If you have extra, you can make these cookies, too.
2 fennel bulbs with fronds attached
½ cup chicken broth
Grated peel and juice of 1 Meyer lemon
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Place a large, wide skillet over medium-high heat, adding just enough olive oil to coat the pan. When hot, lay half of the fennel flat in the pan and cook about three minutes, or until browned on the bottom. Don’t stir the fennel!
Flip the fennel pieces and cook another minute or two on the second side. Transfer to a bowl and cook the remaining fennel, adding more olive oil to the skillet if needed. Season the cooked fennel with salt & pepper.
Return the skillet to medium high heat, adding the fennel, broth, lemon juice, and rind. Bring the mixture to a boil, then simmer, covered, until the fennel is tender, about 10 minutes.
Remove the fennel from the liquid using a slotted spoon, then raise the heat and reduce the sauce until syrupy, 3-5 minutes. Pour the sauce over the fennel, top with the reserved fronds, and garnish with shaved Parmesan to taste.
You know what’s so excellent? The fact that Thanksgiving is two weeks from today.
In my world, Thanksgiving means: conjuring strange foods we eat only once a year, leaving the house to buy the one item I forgot despite multiple grocery store visits, unbuttoning my pants ’cause I ate too much, then sitting comatose on the couch watching football, spending the day with my mama and Jill, carving and brining and folding and napping and catching up and drinking wine and really blissful sleep. A holiday left blessedly uncommercialized, all about food and family. What’s not to love?
If you have some flexibility with your holiday menu, and/or you’re still holding auditions for possible new items, allow me to urge you to consider these sweet potatoes. A far cry from the traditional teeth-achingly candied treatment sweet potatoes normally get, this side dish pairs them with brown butter and sage, leading to a sophisticated flavor that I think would work perfectly on a Thanksgiving table (especially if you use sage in your stuffing.)
Here are a few other blog favorites that might fit well on your Thanksgiving table:
Mmmm sweet Turkey Day, come quickly. I am ready for you.
STIR-FRIED SWEET POTATOES WITH SAGE
barely adapted from Mark Bittman
4 T olive oil
2-3 lb sweet potatoes, peeled and grated, about 4-6 cups
5 T butter
4 cloves garlic, crushed with the back of a heavy knife
generous handful of fresh sage leaves
Salt and pepper
Heat olive oil in a very large skillet over medium heat. When shimmery, add sweet potatoes and season with a bit of salt & pepper. Cook, stirring rarely, until the sweet potatoes begin to brown. Stir more frequently until the potatoes are tender but not mushy. Be patient! This will take a while (15-20 minutes)
In the meantime, heat the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic and sage; shake pan occasionally. When the butter browns, turn off heat.
Carefully remove the sage & garlic from the butter, saving the former and discarding the latter. Once the potatoes are ready, drizzle them with the butter and garnish with sage leaves.
I like to play this game with my students at lunch. I roam around from table to table, peeking into their lunchboxes or checking out their cafeteria trays to see what they’re eating. My rule? Your lunch has to consist of three distinct colors or it’s not a meal.
Dessert items & drinks don’t count toward the three, and artificial coloring of any kind is also verboten. You have to consider color families when assessing—mashed potatoes and a roll are both basically beige, so they don’t count as two separate things. As I’m sure you can imagine, many of my kids fail “the lunch test” on a regular basis…but then again, sometimes, so do I!
Last year, my students began to police each other—and me—at lunch. “Ms. Mehra, lunch check!” they’d call out, peeking into the contents of my Tupperware to ensure that I wasn’t being a total hypocrite that day. (Few things make teenagers as angry as adult hypocrisy; it’s something we have in common.) This caponata, which is easy to throw together and makes a satisfying lunch or appetizer, is also terribly colorful, ensuring that you’ll have your bases well-covered when the food police come-a-callin’.
GRILLED VEGETABLE CAPONATA
adapted from Steven Raichlen’s The Barbecue! Bible
1 large or 2 medium-sized eggplant, cut into ½-inch rounds
4 medium tomatoes, diced or a good handful of cherry tomatoes, halved
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 green bell peppers, seeded & cut into flat strips
2 yellow onions, quartered
1 red bell pepper, seeded & cut into flat strips
1 fennel bulb, sliced thin (save a few fronds!)
¼ cup pine nuts, toasted
¼ flat-leaf parsley, chopped
3 T balsamic vinegar
2 T green or black olives, pitted & chopped
1 T capers
1 tsp. unsweetened cocoa (yes, really)
salt & pepper
Toss the eggplant, bell peppers, & onions with olive oil, then cook on an outdoor grill or indoor grill pan. Set aside to cool a bit while you combine the rest of the ingredients in a large bowl.
When the grilled vegetables are cool enough to handle, chop roughly and add to the bowl. Drizzle in olive oil generously & season with salt and pepper. The caponata is best if it sits for at least an hour before serving and will keep in a covered container in the refrigerator for a week.
I like to serve the caponata with thick slices of crusty Italian bread, but it also tastes delicious tossed with pasta.