Eat with Pleasure

Stories and Recipes by Jenny Holm

Posts from the ‘food writing’ category

It’s a rare cookbook that inspires not only several new recipes, but also a whole new way to think about cooking. Then again, Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal is no ordinary cookbook. It is based on MFK Fisher’s 1942 book How to Cook a Wolf, which, in sparkling prose, taught home cooks to produce simple, elegant meals cheaply in spite of wartime privations.  Like Fisher’s, Adler’s is the kind of book you’ll want both to spill sauce on at the stove and curl up with in bed.

“Cooking is both simpler and more necessary than we imagine,” she writes. “It has in recent years come to seem a complication to juggle against other complications, instead of what it can be—a clear path through them.” I’ve ruminated on this theme in a previous post, at the time when I was first coming to understand cooking as a source of deep relaxation rather just another item on my to-do list.

Adler’s work inspired another turning point for me, though, in her guidance on “picking up loose ends” in the kitchen and letting the ingredients of one meal lead naturally into the next. “Continuity is the heart and soul of cooking,” she reminds us. “If we decide our meals will be good, remanded kale stems, quickly pickled or cooked in olive oil and garlic, will be taken advantage of to garnish eggs, or tossed with pasta. Beet and turnip greens, so often discarded, will be washed well and sautéed in olive oil and filled into an omelet, or served on warm, garlicky crostini.” You can relish her words with your tastebuds as well as your mind.

After reading An Everlasting Meal, I started grinding chunks of stale baguette in the food processor to make breadcrumbs, which I toast in the oven and sprinkle atop quiche for a bit of crunch, or use to form a crust on pan-fried fish. I began taking note if fresh herbs were going to waste in the fridge, chopping them up finely and freezing them in ice cube trays to add later to soups, curries, or pots of beans. I realized that roasting seven sweet potatoes on Sunday need not mean I eat the same thing every day: one can be turned into crisp little fries to dip into garlic-yogurt sauce, another sliced thin and layered on salad with beets and feta cheese, a third simmered in coconut milk with green beans, basil and mint and served over rice.

If you are the type of cook who depends on recipes to guide your hands in the kitchen, this book will help develop your confidence to “let go of the handlebars” now and then, freeing you up to make the most of what you already have in the fridge. If you are already confident improvising in the kitchen, it will teach you to see fresh possibilities in ingredients so common we forget to notice that they, too, can be dinner on their own: eggs, onions, garlic, bread. And if you rarely venture beyond the bare minimum of cooking chicken and heating vegetables, it may at the very least inspire you to do the same thing more mindfully, noticing how oil takes on a sheen and skims faster across the bottom of a pan when it is hot, how quickly the aroma of garlic fills the kitchen when tossed into this oil, how sweet onions become as they soften and turn golden.

It is observations like these that make each meal a pleasure and bring us back to the kitchen time and again with renewed curiosity and anticipation.

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As some people connect particular events or periods in their lives with favorite songs or outfits or books, I mark time in meals. They form a series of guideposts in my memory, where flavors, aromas, and dishes stand in for events and inspirations that moved me in some way.

Often I don’t realize until after the fact that a meal has imprinted itself in my mind in connection with some larger turning point. Those where I can consciously put another “dot on the map” as I sat at the table are rare and precious things. They depend as much on the atmosphere, the company and the circumstances as on the food and drink. Recently, I found myself at just such a meal.

It was a wine tasting and birthday dinner hosted by Georgian friends of a friend in the area, including the winemaker himself. Though the food was served in the American/European style (in distinct courses rather than all at once, with wine pairings and plenty of tablecloth visible around the dinner plates and serving platters), the menu was Georgian through and through.

For starters, there was the ubiquitous khachapuri (cheese bread), fried eggplant slices rolled around garlic-walnut paste, and my favorite type of gvezeli, layers of puff pastry stuffed with sautéed mushrooms, heaps of tarragon, and hard-boiled eggs. Then our chef for the evening (the winemaker’s wife Nino) brought out a huge platter holding three whole arctic char, each easily 18 inches long and 4 inches thick, stuffed with cilantro leaves, ground walnuts, and Georgian spices. Their succulent flesh melted on my tongue: it was among the best fish I’ve ever tasted. Next, a meat course: chunks of beef, cooked long and slow to tenderize them and served simply au jus with potatoes. Finally, a decadent chocolate mousse cake, rich enough to put a point on the meal in just a few bites.

The wines were made from native Georgian grape varieties: mtsvane, rkatsiteli, kikhvi, and saperavi. Most had been fermented in the classic Georgian style: inside huge clay amphora lined with beeswax and buried in the ground, the grape juice macerated together with the skins, stems, and pits. In European tradition, the skins are left in only when making red wines, tinting grape juice that would otherwise be transparent. Because Georgians leave the skins on white grapes as well, the resulting wines turn out amber or honey-colored rather than clear. The presence of the skins and stems during fermentation also lends a tannic pucker to both reds and whites, and almost vegetal, barklike notes to some.

Soliko, who made the wine, adds few sulfites (used as preservatives) to his wines, both because organic standards don’t allow him to and because Georgia has never had such a tradition. I’ve heard that sulfites are often the culprit behind the wine-induced headaches many of us suffer from, myself included. While I can’t be sure that’s the case, I thankfully woke up headache-free the next morning.

At one point during the meal, I stepped out onto the back porch for some fresh air. (This is typical at Georgian meals, which spread leisurely over a period of hours and look kindly on the fact that diners’ stomachs (and buttocks and livers) may need periodic rests.) I hadn’t realized that the backyard opened directly onto the Chesapeake Bay. It was too dark to see much except the stars, which shined starkly against the sky, brighter than they’ll ever appear in the city. Inside the house, someone was playing a flamenco riff on the guitar he’d been handed across the table. The voices were a mix of Georgian, Russian, and English, flowing in and out of one another without concern for politics or nationalism. Laughter resonated. People were toasting.

I thought about how this dinner represented a coming-together of so many threads in my life: Georgia, Russia, my involvement with the Slow Food movement (the winemaker is a founding member of Slow Food Georgia), and my slow transition from a Midwesterner (which I will always remain at heart) into an East Coaster.

Hearing Georgian again for the first time since I had left the country–kitchen Georgian, which is the only Georgian I know anything about—I felt something settle, as if an experience that seemed to have no mirror in the States had suddenly come full circle. It felt like the culmination of one chapter and the opening of a new one: perhaps one of the many turning points that will inspire a book, or at least a few of the recipes in it. If nothing else, this meal will symbolize the beginning of what I hope will become a lifelong love affair with arctic char.

We closed the meal with tiny glasses of Soliko’s chacha (Georgian grappa, liquor distilled from the solids left in the fermentation vessel after the wine has been poured off), which is a transparent pink from the hawthorn berries (kuneli, in Georgian) he adds to it. It tasted caramely and cut through the intense sweetness of the cake, burning pleasantly down my throat.

There is a wonderful line from MFK Fisher’s 1943 essay collection The Gastronomical Me. She writes: “It seems to me that our three most basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot rightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it…and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied…and it is all one.”

I arrived home after two in the morning, stuffed and happy and still a little tipsy, and I knew exactly what she meant.

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My bedtime reading lately has been a beautifully written book called An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler. In it, she describes how to cook intuitively and well using the leftovers and tail ends of one meal to make the next, so ingredients “topple into one another like dominoes.” Conceiving of meals in this way turns what once were discards into opportunities: the bones of a roasted chicken, stems from a bunch of parsley, and discarded ends of celery and onion and carrot make a flavorful stock, and the butt end of a stale loaf of bread adds satisfying heft to the French onion soup you will make with it.

I haven’t even finished the book yet, but it has already changed the way I work in my own kitchen. Rather than cooking something with only one purpose in mind for it, I have started looking at each component of a meal as a building block in many potential dishes, one morphing into another over the course of the week. I spend less, waste less, and savor more variety.

One of my favorite Georgian finger foods is badrijani nigvzit, fried eggplant slices rolled around garlicky walnut paste (see recipe below). I recently made it for a party and ended up with far more paste than I had eggplant to fill with it. Rather than buying more eggplant the next day or freezing it for next time, I roasted beets, sliced them into ½ inch-thick rounds, then slathered them with the walnut paste and ate them atop peppery arugula and feta cheese.

There was more still, so I mixed it with kale and olive oil and roasted it all until the kale was tender and redolent with nuts and garlic. I ate some of that as an accompaniment to leftover pasta, then tucked a heaping spatula of it into a miraculous omelette that simultaneously popped and melted in my mouth.

The last of the fragrant kale I layered onto one half of a crusty warm baguette, slathered its other half with mayonnaise and sandwiched a just-fried egg sprinkled with salt and pepper between the two. When I bit in, the yolk ruptured and burst forth in a sweet and satisfying flood. Not too shabby for Day 3 leftovers.

More on An Everlasting Meal in an upcoming post. Everyone should read this book.

(Note: The following recipe was modified from the original on 7/13/2012 to improve the balance of seasonings.)

Badrijani Nigvzit (Eggplant with Walnut-Garlic Paste)
Serves 6-8 as an appetizer

  • 3 medium Italian eggplants (1.5-2 inches in diameter) or 1 large globe eggplants
  • Neutral-tasting vegetable oil (canola, sunflower or grapeseed) for frying
  • 1 cup walnuts
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 6 Tbsp. water
  • 1/2 tsp. red wine vinegar
  • 1 tsp. ground coriander
  • 1/2 tsp. ground fenugreek
  • 1/2 tsp. ground marigold* (optional)
  • 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
  • Dash cayenne pepper
  • Fresh cilantro, flat-leaf parsley, and/or pomegranate seeds as garnish (optional)

*The dried and ground petals of this flower impart a little color and a subtle bittersweet flavor to a wide variety of Georgian dishes. Look for imeruli shaprani if you happen to be in Georgia. Otherwise, leave it out.

Wash and cut the tops off the eggplants. Do not peel. Cut lengthwise into ¼ in.-thick slices. If using large globe eggplants, cut slices in half lengthwise to form 2 in.-wide strips. Sprinkle the slices generously with salt and let stand at least 30 minutes, then rinse in a colander, pressing out any dark, bitter juice. Pat dry.

Heat a thin layer of oil in a skillet over medium heat. Brown eggplant slices on both sides, working in batches so as not to crowd the pan and adding oil if they start to char or stick. When both sides have turned a deep golden brown, remove fried slices to a plate lined with paper towels. Continue until all slices are fried and set them aside to cool.

In a food processor, grind walnuts to the consistency of coarse sand. Empty them into a medium bowl. Grind garlic in the food processor with 6 Tbsp. water until a white liquid forms. Add to ground walnuts and stir to combine. Add red wine vinegar, coriander, fenugreek, cayenne, and salt to garlic-walnut paste, stir to combine. Adjust seasoning to taste. (The walnut-garlic paste will keep in the refrigerator for 3-4 days or in the freezer for up to a year.)

Spread a generous layer of paste on one side of each eggplant strip. For longer strips (from the center of the eggplant), fold in half crosswise (enclosing the paste) and then in half again to form a square pocket. For shorter strips, fold the top and bottom ends in toward the middle, layering one end on top of the other. Arrange the pockets on a platter and sprinkle them with fresh cilantro, flat-leaf parsley or pomegranate seeds (if desired) to serve.

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Along with M.F.K. Fisher’s The Art of Eating, the other literary inspiration for this blog came out of Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking. Colwin may not enjoy the name recognition of food writers like Ruth Reichl, Elizabeth David, or Calvin Trillin, but her book contains all the makings of a classic: a distinctive voice (wry, opinionated, and unfussy), relatable themes (cooking for one, making do with a less-than-perfect kitchen, what to cook when you don’t want to, hosting low-budget dinner parties), and, most importantly, a clear and exuberant love for simple, flavorful food. (A dead author doesn’t hurt, either: sadly, Colwin passed away in 1992 at the age of 48 due to heart problems. Her second book of food essays, More Home Cooking, was published posthumously.) 

This collection of 33 short essays is a little bit memoir, a little bit cookbook, and a lot of inspiration. It is the kind of cooking storybook that inspires confidence in novice cooks and reinvigorates passion in more seasoned ones. Reading it reminded me that meaningful meals don’t require tiny vegetables or a goat roast in Burkina Faso or even a kitchen sink (which Colwin’s closet-sized New York apartment lacked: she washed dishes in the bathtub and drained them in a rack over the toilet.) Care and thought (for your guests, for your own enjoyment, for the food itself) are enough.

Colwin’s essay titles mirror her writing style in their brevity and wit, and her favorite dishes in their simplicty and straightforwardness. A few of my favorites include “Feeding the Fussy,” “Fish,” and “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant.” Her recipes, when they have names, are for things like “Jeanette Kossuth’s Green Sauce,” “Chicken with Chicken Glaze,” and “Black Cake”: in other words, for food that doesn’t pretend to be something it isn’t. These are the kinds of recipes you can memorize without trying to, easily adapted to what you have in the fridge and more concerned with flavor than appearance.

Most chapters contain a recipe or two, but preparations are as likely to be revealed within the narrative as called out under a heading with ingredients and a series of steps to follow. This free-form structure creates the sense that Colwin’s life was lived in and through these recipes, and they capture the spirit of an evening or the memory of a particular moment as poignantly as any photograph.

“As I watch my daughter taste her first this and that,” Colwin writes, “which, in New York City, means her first shiitake mushroom, falafel, plate of hummus, tree ear, bamboo shoot or chocolate mousse–I remember back to that time when my palate was clear and unsophisticated, everything was an adventure and the world was as fresh as a fish.”

May we all live and eat this way, too.

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I was squinting up at the top shelf of the food section in my favorite used book store when I saw it: a hefty tome entitled The Art of Eating, notable among its sleeker cookbook neighbors for its unrepentant devotion to the delights of consumption rather than preparation. Being a much better eater than I am a cook, I made a running leap to seize the book from its high perch and carried it home clutched to my chest like a kitten.

Published in 1954, The Art of Eating is a compilation of five earlier essay collections by M.F.K. Fisher, the doyenne of American literary food writing until her death in 1992, at the age of 83. I brought the book to bed with me the evening I bought it. The first essay begins like this:

When a man is small, [...] some foods are utterly delicious, and he thinks of them and tastes them with a sensuous passion which too often disappears completely with the years.

Perhaps there are little chocolate cookies as a special treat, two apiece. He eats his, all two, with an intense but delicate avidity. His small sister Judy puts one of hers in her pocket, the smug thing. But Aunt Gwen takes a bite from each of her cookies and gives what is left of one to Judy, what is left of the other to him. She is quite calm about it.

He looks at her with dreadful wonder. How can she bear to do it? He could not, could not have given more than a crumb of his cooky to anyone. Perhaps even a crumb would be too big. Aunt Gwen is wonderful; she is brave and superhuman. He feels a little dizzy as he looks at the bitten cooky in his hand. How could she do it?

How might our world change if we all approached our meals with this same reverence (and a bit more generosity)? What would our grocery stores and kitchen cupboards look like, and our waistlines and school cafeterias and dinner tables? What happens to that “delicate avidity” as we grow, and how might we go about maintaining it into our adult lives? These are some of the basic questions I seek to explore in this blog. I hope you’ll share your own thoughts, comments, and ideas here, as well.

May the feast begin!

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