I’ve been cooking for myself, and it’s so strange.
For nine years, I had the meal delivery as the backbone of every meal—if there weren’t leftover complete meals in the fridge waiting for me, there were enough imperfect cast-offs (overcooked noodles, improperly chopped veggies, oversalted sauces) to repair and handsomely dine on. In Hawaii, where I hide out for a few weeks every year, my sweetheart Jacob and I shop at the farmer’s market and I cook quick, market vegetable-based meals in a tiny kitchenette that doesn’t invite lingering. But right now Jacob’s on tour for work and I don’t have a meal delivery service to provide me with fresh, organic, vegan deliciousnesses every night, nor do I have plentiful farmer’s markets that decide what’s for dinner.
It’s really bizarre. It’s making me think about food in all kinds of new ways—it’s really made me understand why people don’t necessarily want to cook the ludicrously labor-intensive meals I used to make for the meal delivery themselves. Five hours for dinner? Yeah, homemade pasta and long-simmered sauces made from homemade stocks are nice, but not workable for a Tuesday night.
Also? Food is really expensive! Who knew? I’m realizing that having the meal delivery groceries mixed with my personal groceries allowed me to splurge in ways that quickly came to an end when I started cooking for one or two (for example, not wholesaling mushrooms is so painful—you can’t possibly expect me to pay $16 a pound for wrinkly non-local shiitakes when my mushroom grower sells them for half that!).
Plus, I’m enjoying the challenge of avoiding the market, after almost a decade of making shopping lists as long as my arm and constantly ordering dry goods, wholesale produce, trekking to every farm within driving distance, etc etc etc. I’ve got a ton of pantry items, a lot of great local garlic, squash that is doing an amazing job staying firm and sweet in the basement, lovely potatoes…and that’s about it. At the periodic winter farmer’s markets I can snag salad greens if I manage to get up early, glorious pea and sunflower shoots, and assorted other roots and greens. Aside from that, I’m trying really hard not to buy silly organic produce trucked in from California, and I’m also trying to keep things super frugal because of Top Secret Plans I’ve Mentioned Here And There And Can You Even Believe They Still—STILL—Have Not Yet Come To Fruition. (More on that…the end of March? Who even knows anymore.)
So. Here we are. These days I’m a gleaner, foraging for treasures that exist in the walk-in (a giant vat of olives!), pantry, cellar (OK, just the basement), and skimpy farmer’s market.
Happily, my current favorite cookbook, Kansha, fits in with my new austerity perfectly.
Austerity–now there’s a word that doesn’t exactly make your mouth water. Let’s not call it austerity. How about…simplicity?
Yeah, simplicity is better. I’m trying to make a lot of my life simpler, anyway–my 2011 mission is all about doing less and appreciating more. Doing what I’m doing, instead of doing 50 things at once. So, moving from fancy-pants complicated meals for 20 families to joyfully spare yet tasty meals for one person fits right in. Kansha means “appreciation,” and I’ve been enjoying teaching myself to appreciate simpler meals.
Last night, Jacob was home for exactly one night before he ran off into the world again, so I thought about what we could eat. I didn’t want to run to the store for anything additional, so I prowled around the fridge and came up with a Kansha-inspired appetizer that was so nice, I decided to share.
For a main dish we had this Italianish thing that I find myself making once a week or so: caramelized onions in an obscene amount of olive oil, plus massive amounts of minced garlic, kale or escarole, white beans, really nice dried pasta, and some lemon juice and harissa hot sauce (I have about a gallon of homemade harissa in the freezer, so it’s making a lot of appearances lately. My recipe is loosely based on the one in the excellent Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, by Deborah Madison.). Sometimes I add water and make it a soup. It’s one of those dishes that’s easy, but really rewards care: enough olive oil, enough lemon juice, enough salt. It also improves with age, so it’s nice to make a big pot of it.
In addition to the Italianish thing, I also had exactly two turnips* grown by my friend Jessica, a chef-turned-farmer with the greenest thumbs you’ve ever seen, hanging out in the fridge.
Two turnips! I used to buy turnips by the bushel! Another weird thing about moving from commercial cooking to home cooking is that I have no clue how much food it takes to feed me. At the farmer’s market last weekend, I just stood talking to Jessica and another friend of ours, turning over two turnips and four carrots in my hands and asking them if they thought that was enough for one person.
I felt like a child, and it felt good. Zen mind, beginner’s mind, all that. I’m really enjoying looking at food in this whole new way. Shopping for the meal delivery had become so routine—I prided myself on my ability to eyeball how many potatoes I’d need for 40 cups of mashed potatoes, but I have no idea how many potatoes I should cook for a simple smashed side for myself (less than five, it turns out. Fun fact: after about three potatoes, your stomach pretty much almost spontaneously combusts.). Scaling back. Retraining my brain. Exciting.
I took Jessica’s two beautiful turnips out of the fridge. (I’d eaten the four carrots in the car on the ride home from the farmer’s market—they were small! Now I know. Buy more carrots.) What could I make with them to show my appreciation, my kansha, for this simple sweet night to ourselves, for this gift of silky pink turnips from an earth now frozen so solid?
I cut them into thick half moons, and heated my nice cast iron frying pan. One of the great things about making the slow transition to cooking all my meals at work to actually using my home kitchen is my glorious collection of secondhand cast iron pans. At work I have an induction stove that I am wildly in love with, but cast iron doesn’t work with induction technology, so my cheapo battered home electric stove actually comes in handy since it allows me to use such nice old pals.
I was thinking of making a Japanese-style dish of simmered turnips–very simple and classic and home-style. I couldn’t resist, however, first searing the turnips in a little grape seed oil in the pan. In my (limited) experience, Japanese simmered dishes don’t begin with a sear (subtle, elegant, super clean flavors are usually the goal), but I’m so addicted to the umami-richness of the nice browned edges that most vegetables get when they meet hot oil over high heat that I went for it.
After the sear I added some shoyu and a little yuzu juice I had hanging out in the fridge (a rapidly-aging leftover from the January Chocolate of the Month). I poured in just enough water to come maybe 1/3 up the side of the turnips, turned the heat to a bare simmer (just a little bubbling here and there) and put the lid on the pot. Every five minutes or so, I slid the blade of my thinnest paring knife into the thickest turnip, waiting for the moment when the turnip slid off the knife on its own—a sign that it was cooked but not mushy.
While the turnips cooked, I turned my attention to the turnip peels.
Normally I would toss them in the compost (OK, really I would just toss them outside, since the compost is all the way across the frozen tundra of the backyard), but Elizabeth Andoh had written so arrestingly about not wasting any precious part of a vegetable in Kansha that I rinsed them, finely sliced them, and decided to give them a quick deep-fry.
I felt slightly weird about it, to tell you the truth. I’m not much of a peel eater. I have not one but two friends who have independently admitted eating beet peels to me, and both mentioned it for the same reason: somehow they knew it would freak me out. And it sort of did. Beet peels! Yuck! Just take 30 seconds and peel your beets, people! So leathery!
But these turnip peels seemed nice enough. And what are peels but just slightly tougher parts of a vegetable (not beet peels though, those are just gross)? When turnips are fresh and tiny and springy and young I never peel them anyway, so these thicker peels were an edible waiting to happen, right? And making a quickie deep-fried garnish is a cheffy trick that seriously fancifies any meal. It always seems impressive, and, even though I’ve done it for Jacob a million times, with everything from carrots to leeks to sage to scallions, he still adores it.
But could I make turnip peels impressive and worthy of adoration? Let’s see.
I put my tiniest cast iron pal on the burner, poured in the grape seed oil and cranked it up. When one peel piece instantly sizzled when I tossed it in, I carefully put the rest in, gave them a quick stir, took a quick crappy phone photo, and drained them, saving the oil like my grandma saves bacon grease. I tossed them with salt, wiped out the pan (marveling at how I had also helped to season the pan with all that oil), and tried a spoonful of fried turnip peels.
Just lovely. Like a Pringle, really. (Secretly, all starchy deep-fried things taste the same, can we admit it? And that taste is the taste of awesome.) Jacob wanted to eat them all once, Pringle-style, but I restrained him.
Meanwhile, turnips were cooked. I stacked them up on the plate, added a few drops more yuzu, and garnished them with the fried peel. I wished I had a tiny, beautiful herb for the plate–one shiso leaf or even a little bit of parsley or basil for some color and brightness, but it was February and there was nothing green in or outside the house (OK except for the half-dead rosemary plant I am losing the battle to keep alive for the caramels.). Oh well. Simplicity. Four ingredients. I brought it to Jacob: first course is served!
We poured a little bit of sake and ate.
Quiet + freshness + earthiness + tanginess + umami whispers + all that simplicity I was going for, with none of the blandness I was worried about. Yum.
We ate the Italianish thing, just fine, a sturdy, comforting meal especially nice for Jacob after eight hours of flying. Then we ate some March chocolate of the Month testers, and talked about how to improve them, and we played with the cats, and washed the dishes, and my jetlagged boyfriend went right to sleep. A funny, mismatched meal, but it suited the cozy night. Nothing fancy, just you and me, appreciating everything.
*After writing this all up I just realized that pink turnip might be….a radish? I’ll have to ask Jessica. Either way, in my experience radishes and turnips are weirdly interchangeable–both roast well, simmer well, and fry well. Did the idea of roasted radishes just blow your mind? They are amazing!
Edit! My chef pal Cathy reports that she believes my turnip is a Misato Rose Radish. Thanks Cathy!!