Category Archives: staples

A simple pot of lentils

lentils

I found some pretty deep peace in a simple pot of lentils this week. It happened like this:

We’ve been hunkering down and making do/merry pretty well, all things considered – imagined Autobot space voyages to Pluto for magical ice, daytime baths, long read-alouds on the couch, good coffee and mugs of bone broth with ginger and cayenne – but it is also true that we’re still coming down from the joyous mayhem of presents and travel, that the weather outside is very grey and very wet, and that all four of us have massive, dizzying, ugly colds. To say I look forward to the moment when my husband walks in the door at the end of the day is a study in understatement.

Tuesday around 4pm: I get a text that a meeting is running long and he’ll be at least an hour late. I’m not mad, of course, but that doesn’t stop a knee jerk inner growl. I yawn and rub my temples, my daughter whimpers on my hip and wipes her snotty nose against my shoulder, and my son leaps off the table and lands with a ruthless thud. “Mom? What’s for dinner?”

Running on empty and knowing I’ve been by neither farm nor store since our return from the North Carolina mountains, I look in the fridge. Hmm. Lots of cheese. Very old milk. Three kinds of mustard. Pickle relish, yeast, simple syrup, tomato paste, miso, wrinkled grapes. Leftovers of indeterminate origin. It’s not looking good.

Popcorn and smoothies is not a terrible dinn– I begin to tell myself.

But I don’t want popcorn and smoothies I interrupt. I want something substantial and healing. I want protein. I want plants. Yes, you’re really tired. No, smoothies for dinner don’t make you a bad mom. Cook anyway.

I close the fridge. I think suddenly of the More-with-Less Cookbook, written by Doris Janzen Longacre and published by the Mennonite Central Committee in 1976 as an appeal to thrift in the kitchen and a call to arms against the global hunger crisis. I haven’t reached for it in a long time, but it is homely and modest and practical and that’s what I need tonight. I pull it down, find a recipe for Basic Cooked Lentils, and get to work.

Both kids are playing with the dog’s bowls under the kitchen table. I smile, put a couple cups of rice in the rice cooker, and slip out the back door, rummaging through our upright freezer out in the shed for some frozen chicken broth. I wrestle it out of its Ziploc armor, drop it into a big pot on the stove, and set the burner to high. I rinse a cup of lentils and as I agitate them in the sieve under running water I feel my mental fog lifting. The kids laugh and I hear dog food scatter and all I think is it feels good to feed my family. I add the lentils to the broth along with a bay leaf and a pinch of salt and turn everything down to a simmer. I look in the fridge again and surface with three leeks, shriveled and pretty gnarly but not rotten. Perfect. I put our big skillet on another burner and set half a stick of butter to melt in it. I peel away the (many) dried outer layers of the leeks and chop off their roots, slice them, rinse them well, and drop them in the skillet. My daughter clings to my leg with another soft whimper.

“Hello, sweet girl,” I say, hoisting her to my hip and kissing her forehead. “I know you want snuggles now. But I need to get dinner ready.” Like magic her brother appears with a big ball and a grin, and she turns to him with twinkling eyes, already wriggling free.

I step onto the back porch, where we often keep a crate or two of farm vegetables. I’m not hopeful because I know we haven’t filled the crates since our Christmas travels, but lo, there beneath a handful of wilted lettuce leaves sits one plump carrot – it looks a little tired, sure, but not so bad. I bring it inside, give it a quick scrub in the sink, dice it, and add it to the leeks along with another small knob of butter and some curry powder.

Miraculously – or perhaps because I am ignoring them – the kids don’t need anything. All the base components of the meal are cooking now, and I can turn to the tinier tasks of stirring, tasting, adjusting spices. My mind meanders pleasantly. I think of curries, of how little I know about authentic ones, of how much I love them anyway, of the lunchtime curries I ate at any of the half dozen little restaurants along East Sixth Street in the East Village and of the many approximations I’ve cobbled together at home. Almost seventeen years ago I bought two books from a man sitting on a quilt outside a train station in Chennai. One was Gandhi’s autobiography and the other was called Indian Cookery: for use in all countries, by E.P. Veerasawmy. For no good reason I haven’t cooked from it much (despite the back cover’s admonition that it “should be part of any cook-proud housewife’s library”!). But one big lesson from its first chapter has lingered with me for years: you must cook your curry powder or curry spices in the fat with your onions and garlic for several minutes, before adding any coconut milk or other liquids, to cook off their raw flavor. I’d like to learn more someday, I think, about how to really build layers of flavor in a curry. I think of the pact my husband and I make (and break) every year, to each pick a cuisine and cook from it once a week. Maybe this will be the year.

I think of my enormous cookbook collection. I think of what a thrilling time this seems for cookbooks in general: vibrant, clever flavor combinations; deep explorations of single ingredients or techniques; endless options for all kinds of eaters; and of course the beauty of the books themselves. I don’t get to do it much these days, but I love to sit with a stack of cookbooks and a cup of tea.

There’s a clear trend right now toward clean, wholesome cooking, whether you tend toward marrow bones and raw milk and home cured bacon or collard wraps and almond milk and meal-sized salads (or all of it, like me!). But there’s also a clear trend toward luxury in book design: heavy matte paper, breathtaking full bleed photographs, obvious care and cleverness in layout. It’s an interesting juxtaposition.

I think suddenly, absent any guilt or shame: what if I only had three or four cookbooks? I don’t mean what if I had to pick my three or four favorites from this crazy collection. I mean: what if, by choice or circumstance or culture, I just wasn’t into cookbooks? What if I was just a confident and unfussy home cook with a few worn references tucked on the counter between the coffee pot and the fridge? More-with-Less, maybe. The 1979 Fannie Farmer? A cookie book? What would that be like?

Our own little family straddles these questions of abundance and scarcity every day really: work that means access to the highest possible quality of produce and eggs and meat, smashed up against a pretty spartan budget everywhere else. Hmm. It’s a lot to think about, and tonight I am grateful to be muting the chatter and making some simple food with what I could rustle up.

I check the vegetables. The carrots aren’t quite done, and over in the pot, neither are the lentils. I scrape the curry mixture into the lentils and pour in another cup of broth. My phone buzzes again: another hour late. I put a lid on the pot, turn the heat to low, and gather my children into my arms.

Wishing you and yours a joyous new year. May your bellies and hearts be as full as mine.

* * *

A Simple Pot of Lentils
adapted from More-with-Less Cookbook, by Doris Janzen Longacre

I like this over rice or another grain. If you do too, get that started first. Then combine 2 1/2 cups broth or water and 1 cup rinsed lentils in a pot and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and add a bay leaf and a pinch of salt.

In a large skillet, melt several tablespoons butter or warm several tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add an onion (chopped) or a large leek (sliced and very well rinsed) and anything else that sounds good or is lying around threatening to go to waste (chopped small) – a stalk of celery, a carrot, a red pepper, a few turnips maybe. Sauté until the vegetables begin to soften. Add some chopped garlic and continue to cook for another minute. Now add some spices or herbs. A tablespoon or two of curry powder is nice. Or try some thyme or rosemary and some black pepper. Italian flavors work great. Don’t skimp. Saute for a few minutes more and then scrape the vegetables into the pot of lentils. Add more broth or water if things seem dry. Taste the lentils. If they’re done, simmer everything for a few minutes more. If they’re not, bring everything back to a simmer, put a lid on the pot, and go read with your kids.

Adjust seasonings and serve over grains. Top with a dollop of yogurt or a squeeze of lemon juice and some chopped parsley, if you like.

(seven posts in seven forty-two days)

Of late (in our kitchen)

Finally joining in with Heather for her This Week In My Kitchen blog hop. These are, as Heather says, simple everyday photos of what’s happening in our kitchen – a record of what we’ve been cooking and eating, and inspiration for times when we have no idea what to cook. Details are below the photos.

rice

broccoli, i adore you

his idea

granola prep

bread prep

daily bread

cubed sweets

paprika and eggs

always coffee

eggs, hard boiled, plus lemony tahini sauce

blasted broccoli

beans

From top to bottom:

Brown rice, always a staple. This week we had it under a chickpea stew with sausage and pesto (one of the last from the stock of freezer meals my parents made for us when our daughter was born) and alongside salmon and broccoli.

Speaking of broccoli … I love it anyway, but it seems I am especially mad for it postpartum. Both times. I could eat it every day. I’m not kidding when I say I buy eight or ten heads at once at the grocery store.

Next up? Hard boiled eggs fore, raw eggs aft. Oh, and my son, who decided with zero prompting from his mother that he wanted to clean both the kitchen island and the fridge that day. Have at it, sweet child!

I cheated on my normal granola this week with Molly’s Granola No. 5. A splurge, with all that maple syrup, but wonderful. That’s what you see in the Pyrex measuring cup, and don’t think for a second I didn’t scrape the dregs out with my finger to slurp down.

Then there’s my steady baking companion, helping me measure out flour for our nearly no-knead bread. I used to make this loaf several times a week but for no good reason I’ve been on a long hiatus. No longer! I’ll try to write up our recipe soon.

Frittatas are absolutely a go-to dinner for us around here. They’re not exactly the non-supper I referenced in my last post – there is chopping and grating and whisking, and we use both the stovetop and the oven. But I make them so often I can nearly do it with my eyes closed, and we use whatever we have on hand, so it is seriously low stress. This week I made one with cubed sweet potatoes, a mess of onions and garlic, a bit of smoked paprika, and whatever cheese we had in the fridge – supermarket mozzarella and some nice Parmesan, I think.

Coffee, everyday.

Usually we eat our broccoli plain (olive oil, salt, garlic) and pretty much always straight from the roasting pan. But this week I made some lemony tahini sauce, from The Oh She Glows Cookbook but via Shutterbean. Had it on top of broccoli a couple times and also on salmon. Very good.

We “blast” our broccoli à la Molly Stevens, which is to say: we toss it with olive oil and salt and roast it at 450°F for about 15 minutes, then throw two or three minced garlic cloves on top and let it go for another three or four minutes. It gets caramelized at the edges but is still tender and sweet inside. It’s broccoli fries really.

Lastly: my kid planted beans because you are not allowed to be 4 without doing that. They’re looking healthy and I hope we’ll be munching on them in a couple months!

Fridge pickles!

Fridge pickles!

Tara mentioned making fridge pickles from a recipe I posted on our farm blog a couple summers ago, and that got me to thinking it makes sense to migrate some of those recipes over here, to this blog that’s not a food blog.

I blogged for our farm, sporadically but earnestly, for four years, and there’s a lot of history there. I’m still not quite sure what to do with it all – it really doesn’t make sense to continue paying for the site. The land that we farmed is becoming something else. We’re not quite sure what, yet, but our story there is (nearly) over. On the other hand: it’s our story! I’m not sure what I want to do with all those pictures and words.

These pickles are part of that story. When it comes to putting food by, what I am is a master dabbler. Sure, I know a heck of a lot more than I did in my city days. I make jam every once in a while, but I freeze it every time. I am always happier when I can dig into lard I made from the fatback of our own pigs instead of reaching for supermarket butter. I do know how to make bacon and yogurt but I only do it sometimes. I think I am fondest of lacto-fermenting vegetables in small batches – it’s quick and easy and delicious and yay for living foods! But beyond freezing bone broth and freezer-friendly produce, none of this is an integral part of our kitchen year.

It’s not that I lack for excellent organic produce (umm…), and it’s not that I lack for inspiration. My kitchen bookshelves are really something to behold, and there are so many great online resources. There are questions of time, of priorities, of honestly assessing how much you can fit into a day, of choosing between sterilizing jars and snuggling up on the couch for another round of George and Martha. But the real stumbling block, for me? I am a big honking extrovert. I play very well with others and get pretty lonesome standing all alone at the stove. I need a class – and, dare I say, homework. I need to blanch the peaches while a mama friend gets the jars ready and our boys stir in the sugar. I need people.

I actually have a lard rendering date next Tuesday! That makes me smile so much I think I might march on down to the old milk room in the lower barn to see if there are any returned cucumbers from yesterday’s market. Cucumbers fresh off the vine are ideal, of course, but the point here is to make something delicious instead of letting something waste. And these fridge pickles? They do the trick.

As I said in the original post on our farm blog, these are a great beginner pickle for the curious-but-intimidated, but they’re also a really tasty way to work through a glut of cucumbers when you don’t have the time or the inclination to can. They are always good.

chooks in the cukes

Fridge Pickles
adapted from Donalyn Ketchum

Crunchy, garlicky, and just sour enough, we can’t stop reaching for these. Pour a simple brine of water, vinegar, and salt over cucumbers, garlic, and herbs. Leave the jars alone for a few days … and voila! Pickles! They aren’t canned, so they need to be stored in the fridge. They’ll keep at least a couple months in there – if they last that long. Makes 6 pints or 3 quarts.

For the brine:
2 quarts water
1 cup white vinegar or apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup canning or pickling salt (kosher salt is also fine, but may result in cloudier pickle brine)

For the pickles:
Cucumbers, enough to fit snugly into your jars, washed well and sliced into spears
Garlic, 1-2 cloves per pint jar or 2-3 cloves per quart jar, smashed and peeled
Herbs (dill is classic; we also love thyme), 1-2 sprigs per pint jar or 2-4 sprigs per quart jar, rinsed well

Clean your jars thoroughly with soap and water. They do not need to be sterilized.

Combine all brine ingredients in a large pot and bring to a boil. Stir occasionally to be sure the salt dissolves completely. While the mixture is coming to a boil, prepare the rest of the ingredients.

Place a smashed garlic clove or two in the bottom of each jar. Add the sprigs of your chosen herb.

Fill the jar the rest of the way with cucumber spears. Really cram them in there – otherwise some spears will float above the brine when you add it, and this can lead to premature spoilage.

Add another smashed garlic clove to each jar – wedge it down between some cucumber spears so it won’t float when you add the brine.

Pour the simmering brine over the vegetables, being sure they are completely submerged. If your brine isn’t simmering, bring it back to a simmer before pouring it over the vegetables.

Put a lid on each jar.

Leave at room temperature for 2-3 days (less time when the weather is very hot, more when it’s cold) and then, if you can stand it, put them in the fridge for an additional 1-2 weeks.

We usually break into the first jar right away but give the rest of the jars the additional slow fridge fermentation before eating them.

Buttery Spudlets!

The following post first appeared over at Southside Kitchen Collective, a collaborative (and fairly sporadic) project on families and food that I ran for a little while. As we prepare for our move away from Southside Virginia, I’ve imported a few SKC posts into Coffee in the Woodshed — the more personal ones I wrote, about our experiences cooking and eating with our young son. I think they belong here as well.

Doesn’t that sound like something quaint to say when you’ve knocked over a bag of flour or grazed your knuckle because you were daydreaming about pie instead of paying attention to the cheese grater?

But for real: this is just some easy delicious food, and you should make some.

I suppose they look rather unassuming up there, piled on the plate next to a green salad. The list of ingredients is equally humble: potatoes, butter, salt, pepper, herbs-if-you-have-them-but-don’t-let-not-having-them-stop-you-from-making-these-for-dinner-tonight.

Don’t be fooled: underneath their plain Jane exterior, these potatoes are very exciting indeed. We’ve been making them for years, and we think the trick is in the dual cooking method: you start them in some sizzling butter on the stovetop and then slide them into the oven for a spell, where the skins get gorgeously browned and the insides go all light and fluffy and perfect. It’s really something.

Buttery Spudlets
adapted only slightly from The Passionate Vegetarian by Crescent Dragonwagon

A few quick notes … the original recipe calls for tiny new potatoes, and while the pictures in this post might look like new potatoes, in truth they are it’s-the-very-end-of-the-farm-season-and-this-is-what-we-could-scrape-up-from-the-bottom-of-the-potato-bin potatoes. But you can use plain old baking potatoes as well; just cut them into rough 1-inch chunks. This is what we usually do and I think we even prefer them that way! You can also substitute sweet potatoes for some of the regular potatoes – delicious. These potatoes seem to be the perfect side dish to just about everything. But they are also divine on their own with a fried egg on top and that is a perfectly respectable supper. We’re just sayin’.

2 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 lbs or so potatoes cut into 1-inch chunks (or small new potatoes)
1 teaspoon fresh herbs, chopped fine, if you have them (rosemary is really really good, and thyme is nice too)
salt and black pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 400°F.

Melt the butter in an oven-safe skillet (you’ll need a lid too in a sec) over medium heat. Add the potatoes and cook for about 5 minutes, shaking the skillet once or twice.

Cover the skillet and slide it into the oven. Bake for 20 minutes.

Carefully remove the lid. Add the salt and pepper and herbs if you’re using them. Shake the skillet to mix everything up. Cook uncovered for 15 more minutes, giving the skillet a good shake every 5 minutes.

Eat up!

Simplest Applesauce

The following post first appeared over at Southside Kitchen Collective, a collaborative (and fairly sporadic) project on families and food that I ran for a little while. As we prepare for our move away from Southside Virginia, I’ve imported a few SKC posts into Coffee in the Woodshed — the more personal ones I wrote, about our experiences cooking and eating with our young son. I think they belong here as well.

I am of two minds about cookbooks.  If you’ve ever sat in the comfy chair in my kitchen with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, you’re probably laughing out loud right now, because you’re remembering my enormous cookbook collection, the one that doesn’t even fit on one six-foot bookshelf.

I’ll post a picture sometime.  I’m not kidding.  ENORMOUS.

I adore cookbooks.  That shelf overfloweth but I still got a new cookbook last week and, umm, another one is on its way in the mail.  It’s probably all to do with what they represent to me, which food writer Laurie Colwin summed up very nicely in her book More Home Cooking:

Cookbooks hit you where you live. You want comfort; you want security; you want food; and you want to not be hungry; and not only do you want these basic things fixed, you want it done in a really nice, gentle way that makes you feel loved. That’s the big desire, and cookbooks say to the person reading them, ‘If you read me, you will be able to do this for yourself and for others. You will make everybody feel better.’

Right?

Only, sometimes I think we have forgotten how to feed ourselves – that we have lost our confidence and intuition in the kitchen, that we are at least sometimes overwhelmed by the task of planning a week’s worth of square meals for our family, that the idea of cooking from scratch without a recipe can feel as impossible as driving blindfolded.

The reasons for all this are probably pretty complicated, and I don’t mean to attempt a tidy explanation here in this post.  But I think the answer is just to cook.  To cook more.  To cook often.  To cook alone and with our partners and with our kids and with our friends and with our neighbors.

And there are times when I think my beloved cookbooks get in the way. I know that sometimes I’m paralyzed by choice – at any given moment I might have four cookbooks piled atop one another on the kitchen island, each with nine recipes bookmarked. Other times I pass a recipe by because I don’t have dried rosemary or I’m out of lemons or I don’t have the right kind of mushrooms or I only have chicken stock and not beef stock.

But I’ve been rereading all the Little House books over the last couple years and there’s never once mention of a cookbook.  I’m going to talk about Ma Ingalls for a minute here – cautiously. I don’t think we need to work like she did to feed our families well. She spent almost every waking hour of every day of every week of every month, all year long, keeping her family fed, and that’s not what I’m urging. I also don’t mean to romanticize the adversity or the loneliness or the dangers of frontier living. But gosh … Ma worked up a blackbird pot pie when the blackbirds were eating all their corn, and she made her own sourdough when blizzards kept the supply train from bringing essential pantry items like yeast, and there was (almost) always fresh homemade butter on the table. Caroline Ingalls did not have a giant cookbook shelf, and she did not have food blogs, and she did not have Facebook. She didn’t have measuring spoons or an oven thermometer either – or even an oven at all, for many years.

So how did she do it?

Well, first off, she managed it all because she had to, because if she didn’t figure it out her family would starve.  That’ll motivate you.

But that’s not the whole story, of course.  We know she cooked with her sisters and her sisters-in-law and her neighbors and women at church.  We know her daughters cooked alongside her from the time they were very young and so I think it’s fair to assume she did the same as a little girl.

And I think that when you do something your whole life, you’re not scared of it – it’s just something you do. Maybe it starts as something someone teaches you but then it becomes second nature. I want to give that to my son.

When I am feeling like I do not know what to feed my kid – when he has refused everything except bread and yogurt and pretzels for four days – when we’re out of baking powder and the milk has gone sour – when what with putting in another load of laundry and stubbing my toe on a Matchbox car and changing diapers and writing a new post for our farm blog and trying to figure out how many CSA shares to offer next year and going on a long meandering walk in the woods with my son and looking at mushrooms and wading in the creek and forgetting about my to do list for a while – when what with all that it’s all of a sudden 6:30pm and I have not even thought about what to cook for dinner —

— well, sometimes, when all that is going on, I make applesauce.

It’s not dinner.  But I swear to Pete it’s food.  Good food.  Easy food.  Real food.  And I can do it without a long list of ingredients, without three burners and five bowls, without stress. Without a cookbook.

Simplest Applesauce

Use whatever kind of apples you have on hand, and as many of them as you want. I used three Honeycrisps for the pot above.  Apples you’ve neglected for weeks in the crisper drawer or apples that are bruised from when your toddler threw them at the dog work great here.  I’ve listed some optional ingredients, but I recommend making this applesauce with just apples and water the first time.  Apples are naturally sweet and flavorful and become even more so after the gentle heat of cooking. It’s seems almost a miracle to make something so good out of almost nothing.

apples
water
optional: one cinnamon stick or a good shaking of ground cinnamon, a little honey or maple syrup

Quarter and core your apples. I never peel mine.  Cut the apple quarters into chunks – a young child can even do this step with a plastic knife – and put them in a saucepan or Dutch oven.  Add just enough water to come about an inch up the sides of the pot, maybe a little less.  Add any optional ingredients now too.

Cover your pot, turn the burner on medium-low, and cook until the apple chunks are tender, about 15 minutes.

Remove the cinnamon stick if you used it. Purée with an immersion blender (the easiest way, if you have one), or purée in batches in a food processor, or mash with a potato masher.

Lasts maybe a couple weeks in the fridge and for a long long time in the freezer!