Saturday, February 23, 2008

rice and smothered cabbage soup

Certain dishes are so lacking in appeal to the eye that their appeal to the belly is all the greater.  One look at this sort of food and you know it's going to be good, because it's not pretending to have any aspirations beyond being as tasty and nourishing as possible.

So ugly it's beautiful pretty well describes this soup, from Marcella Hazan via The Wednesday Chef.  It's just a beige and lumpen bowl of cabbage and rice--until you taste it.  Then it's something close to perfect: hearty without being heavy, the richness of cheese cut by the tang of cabbage, given substance by rice and all smoothed out with a little bit of butter.

An added bonus is that this is a pretty forgiving recipe.  You can use a medium-sized head of regular old green cabbage if you can't find Savoy.  Substitute vegetable bouillon for the meat broth if you like; the soup will still be plenty rich and savory.  And if, following the new-parent principle of not generating any more dishes to be washed than absolutely necessary, you skip the saute pan and go straight to the soup pot to braise the cabbage, you might even be glad you did (that's a pretty large volume of cabbage there at the start).

It's such an easy dish, and so perfect for the kind of cooking that I'm able to do these days, that I like to imagine it was invented by the mama of a young infant in some Italian hill town on a blustery late-Winter day: no time for pretty fillips, just get dinner on the table as simply as possible, and preferably with a maximum of gladness for the taste buds.

It's not quick, exactly, but don't let that scare you off--by some mysterious alchemy it pretty much makes itself.  Oh, sure, there's some chopping to do at the beginning, but that can be taken care of while the baby rolls around on her blanket (or during naptime, if you prefer--even that short last nap of the day would give you enough time to get this dish going).  Next play with the baby for about an hour while the cabbage melts down into tenderness.  Then add the broth and rice, and go put the baby to bed while your sweetie keeps an eye on the stove and throws in the butter and cheese there at the end.

Putting the baby to bed being what it is, the rice might end up cooked well beyond the suggested al dente stage, but I promise you'll still manage to empty your bowl, maybe even twice.

Mid-February cooks take note: pairs nicely with the last few swigs of champagne left over from Valentine's Day.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

baby food for mamas (and dads)

My friend s. has been sampling the banana, apple, pea, carrot, sweet potato, and avocado purees she's been preparing for her 6-month-old son.  "Making purees is fun!  Why don't adults ever eat them?" she wonders, pronouncing the carrot puree "surprisingly good."

Mashed potatoes, hummus, guacamole, applesauce--sounds like a balanced diet to me.

Actually, aren't vegetable purees The Thing at certain fancy restaurants these days?  Or is that over now?  (It's a measure of how little I get out nowadays that I'm not sure of the answer to either of those questions.)

Well, be they trendy or no, I've tasted a puree or two myself recently--I don't want to force or coax or cajole Monkey into eating, but I can't bear to waste baby food.  The last thing I ever wanted to be is a garbage-disposal parent, but I see those little dollops of leftover carrot or sweet potato or applesauce and realize that this pretty much represents the sum total of my kitchen labors for the week, and I think, I am NOT dumping that down the drain.  So into my own mouth goes the tiny, rubber-coated spoon.

And I'm struck by how rarely we adults experience the pure, unadulterated taste of a single thing.  Even those simple recipes that are supposed to celebrate high-quality, farmer's-market-fresh ingredients by doing as little as possible to them usually include a little salt, fat, and/or sugar--all verboten ingredients when you're making baby food.

The purees I'm feeding Monkey, on the other hand, contain just a single vegetable or fruit and a little bit of its cooking liquid (I'm oven-steaming, about which method I would provide more specifics if it weren't an absolutely seat-of-the-pants operation).  It's amazing how much nuanced flavor these absolutely unadorned foods have.

(And this, without even using the best possible ingredients.  Yes, yes, everything is organic--you don't have to confiscate my Mama Merit Badge after all--but bought from the supermarket; the carrots came out of a bag--a plastic bag, people!--and the apples had been hanging around in the fridge for weeks.)

I think I can taste not only what I am eating but also--unless my jaded palate is playing tricks on me, and projecting my memory of what's not there--hints of the ingredients that are often paired with those foods.  That is, I'm getting a glimpse of why those flavors go so well together.

Carrots have a bright, almost citrusy sweetness, and an undertone of earth.

Sweet potatoes are more caramel and brown sugar, with a buttery smoothness that fills my mouth.

Apples are surprisingly tart--Braeburns are, at least--but a floral taste lingers behind.

I'm not ready to give up butter and salt, dressings and sauces, altogether, but I'm glad to have had a taste--a real, though small, taste--of these things.

And for those adults inspired to eat more purees themselves, a few grownup ideas:

Delicata squash and celery root (The Wednesday Chef)
White beans (Orangette)

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

show don't tell

Last week I made chickpea and potato curry, in an effort to use up a rainy afternoon and a bag of potatoes moldering in the crisper drawer of the fridge.  

First I spread a blanket on the floor in a corner of the kitchen (away from the knives and stove), and set Monkey down with a few toys to explore.  I chopped onions and melted butter, while she gummed and babbled to her current #1 toy, which we've dubbed the Butterbee.  After reacquainting myself with the spice cabinet, I looked up to find that she had rolled onto her belly and was kicking her feet and grabbing at the blanket, deeply entranced by its texture.  

By the time the onions and spices had melted into ochre silkiness, Monkey was getting a little fussy, so I picked her up and showed her what was happening on the stove.  I told her the names of all the spices--ginger, coriander, turmeric, cumin, allspice, cayenne--and carefully, carefully raised the lid on the saucepan to reveal the clutch of round potatoes boiling away.

I set her down again and added some diced canned tomatoes to the onions; drained the potatoes, peeled them, and set them in the pan; and rinsed off a can of chickpeas in the colander.  By this time Monkey needed another little cuddle (it had taken me a long time to peel the potatoes), so I picked her up and showed her how the potatoes that we'd seen before in the saucepan were now nestled amongst the onions in the skillet, dyed yellow by the spices like Easter eggs.  

I pointed out the chickpeas in the colander, and thought to myself, "Ummmmmm, legumes are okay at this age, right?  I think so.  I think."  I mashed up a chickpea between my thumb and forefinger, worked the skin of the bean away from the flesh, and held the makeshift puree up to Monkey's lips.  I'm not sure how much she actually swallowed, but she got a taste, so I've optimistically decided that we're on our way to curry and hummus and all sorts of delights.

Chickpea and Potato Curry

3 Tbs. butter
1 medium onion, chopped
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. ground ginger
1 tsp. ground coriander
1 tsp. ground turmeric
1 tsp. ground cumin
dash allspice
1/4 tsp. cayenne (or to taste--if you're a new parent, you know how many stars you like)
Salt to taste
1 C. diced canned tomatoes (with juice)
1 C. plain yogurt (full-fat would be best)
The moldering potatoes, boiled and peeled (The original recipe calls for "12 very small new potatoes," which seems a bit precious even for a blog about baby food, don't you think?  I used about 9 average-sized ones--that's what I had on hand, but it came out about right.)
1 15-oz. can chickpeas, drained and rinsed

Heat the butter in a large skillet and saute the onions and garlic over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until they are very soft.  Add the spices and stir to combine.  Add the tomatoes and heat through.  Then, turn the heat very low and stir in the yogurt.  Simmer, uncovered, over very low heat for 5 minutes.  Add the cooked potatoes and gently coat them with the yogurt and spice mixture.  Finally, gently stir in the chickpeas and continue to simmer, covered, over very low heat for 10 more minutes, stirring occasionally.  Serve over basmati rice right away or, better yet, tomorrow night.

(Adapted from The Versatile Grain and the Elegant Bean.  The original recipe is for Mung Bean and Potato Curry--but chickpeas come in a can.)