Bowls and Beans

September 28, 2014 · 3 comments



It’s been a while since I’ve posted here, but I have a reasonably good excuse: I’m (very) deep in the throes of writing my next book, which is slated for publication in the Fall of 2015. I won’t/can’t talk too much about it for reasons mired in everything from superstition to the unspoken rules of the road, but I will say this: my office presently looks like the Collyer Brothers live here. There are piles of stuff everywhere. I’ve managed to unearth pictures of my childhood home from an on-line Columbia University Real Estate Brochures collection, and I’ve taped it up next to my desk; every time I look over at it I end up feeling like I’m in the front seat of a roller coaster, climbing to the peak, itchy with that familiar combination of mild terror, who-the-hell-conned-me-into-doing-this fury, OFF OFF GET ME OFF hysteria, and weak-kneed curiosity. I can’t look away, but when I do, I get to work.

As my beloved spouse has discovered, I tend to fall into certain patterns when I’m working on a book: I’ve learned that I’m most productive in the afternoon. The morning’s phone calls have been made, emails have been sent, editing has been done, articles have been written, I’ve read the New York Times, scanned (and spent too much time on) Facebook, walked the dogs and fed them, fed the cats, gone to the gym across town, gone to the grocery store or CSA or farmer’s market, come home, and after showering, I manage to get my ass in my chair. At which point, assuming I got up early, it’s probably noonish, which means I have roughly eight hours to write until Susan comes home, exhausted and spent, after a five hour round trip commute to a job she loves in Manhattan.

It used to be that I’d get so carried away with the writing — so totally sucked in — that I’d look up and it’d be 7:30 and I could hear Susan’s car pull into the driveway. I wouldn’t have noticed it getting darker outside, I wouldn’t have looked at the clock on my computer, and then suddenly I’d have an OH SHIT moment — what had I made for dinner? (This is the way we do things here: if Susan is going to haul herself out of bed at 5 am in order to make a 6 am train in order to get to Manhattan by 8:30 am, then work all day, then race back to the station to get the 5:50 which will have her walking through the door at nearly 8 pm, it is my job and responsibility to feed her, and feed her well. It is my job and responsibility to make sure that dinner is on the stove, waiting for her, and that all that’s left for me to do while she sits in a chair in the kitchen, sipping a glass of wine, is stir the pot. And I don’t mean that metaphysically.)

All of which is to say that I’ve slipped into small-bowl-mode; when I’m writing a new book, weeknight dinners are very often anything that can served in a single, small bowl. They don’t have to be vegetarian, or vegan, or they might be. They might be something as simple as a bowl of vegetable soup, or pork-and-vegetable fried rice topped with a poached egg gifted to me from my neighbor, Melissa, who is very gifty when it comes to her chickens (we’re very lucky around here, egg-and-neighbor-wise). It could be a pile of spinach, wilted to a tangle and tossed with garlic and hot red pepper flakes, or pasta, or Hatch chile posole.


if you step into my kitchen, one of the first things you’ll see is an immense, battered glass-doored cupboard that Susan and I bought about eight years ago at a furniture consignment shop not too far from where we live; it’s vaguely white, and as the chipped milk paint shows, was once forest green. One of my cousins asked me when we were going to refinish it, but we’re not; we love its aged-ness. It took the delivery guys two trips to get it here — so huge were the two pieces that there was no way we could get it here in our car — but once set up, it became the center of our kitchen, and the repository for a ridiculous number of platters (lots of ironstone, lots of old Pillyvuyt, a beloved antique turkey platter that came down to us from Susan’s Aunt Millie). It holds the heavy result of my mortar and pestle addiction. But more than anything else, it is home to dozens of small bowls: coffee bowls, old Bennington white-on-white bowls that I bought years ago when I still lived in Manhattan, Asian bowls, cream-colored cereal bowls that we bought at a Goodwill in Middlebury, Vermont, only to discover that they were handmade by a relatively famous potter in the mountains of North Carolina. There’s Susan’s grandmother’s favorite cereal bowl, a stack of Duralex Picardie glass bowls, and footed/earred Pillyvuyt bowls that are perfect for making onion soup because you can pop them under the broiler without worrying about breakage.


I don’t recall when I became so bowl-crazed, but I think it was right after my pitcher fixation went on the wane; in my tiny, dark Manhattan apartment, I had dozens of them — some antique, some not — and it took me a while to realize that my pitcher addiction was ridiculous because, for one thing, I don’t actually ever put anything in my pitchers: while I love cheese, I don’t drink milk and never have. When I use cream in my kitchen, it goes directly into whatever dish I’m cooking that requires it, and is therefore acquired in small half-pint containers. So once I got the pitcher thing out of my system (which, to be totally transparent, came after the antique teapot problem), I turned my attention to platters and bowls. Both of them imply serving, but also, practical intimacy, and what’s more intimate than feeding people, and sitting down on an early autumn night with the person you love, and feeding them something soothing out of a vessel that, when held in your hands, forces you to cradle it as you would the face of a small child.

During a particularly long writing binge, I heard Susan’s car pull into the driveway and realized that I had made nothing — literally nothing — all day; I hadn’t thought about dinner, hadn’t gone out shopping in the morning, and now she was about to walk through the door, hungry, wanting to be asleep by ten, and all I had sitting in front of me in the kitchen were two cans of garbanzo beans and a lemon. And, as the old saying goes about necessity being the mother of invention and all that….

Toasting garbanzos_Snapseed

I adore garbanzo beans; I always have. But after years of eating them damp and slimy and bland out of some office cafeteria salad bar, I wondered what would happen if you toasted them. Not toasted them as you would to make them crunchy — I’ve made many batches of them spread out on cookie sheets, dribbled with olive oil and tossed around with pimenton and cumin and salt (totally addictive) — but toasted as you would nuts, so that they retain their tenderness, inside a small amount of delicate toothsomeness. I wondered if by toasting them they’d get aromatic, and nutty. And the answer was yes and yes. That night, that’s what I did, and the result — after I tossed the still-hot beans with diced red onion and garlic, dried lemon peel, cumin, toasted slivered almonds, and feta — was this salad-y kind of thing that’s savory, toothsome, bright, earthy, and so good that when I made a triple batch to take to an outdoor concert with some of our neighbors this summer, it was gone before the music started.

What made it so good, though, that first time I served it to Susan? It was one of those inventions that stuck, that required total focused attention in the kitchen. I couldn’t think about work, or writing, or deadlines the first time I made it. Instead, I had to focus on texture and flavor, and what would add brightness and what would be overkill. And whether I would incinerate the beans if I stepped away at the very moment they released all of their beany sugar and starch, and threatened to go black in the amount of time it takes to sneeze.FinishedSalad

I’ve made this dish at least ten times this past summer, and I think that it’ll be perfect as we head into the cooler days of autumn; on a busy weeknight, it’s been the perfect thing.

But always out of a small bowl, with a glass of wine.

Toasted Garbanzo Bean Salad with Lemon Peel, Mint, Feta, and Almonds


 Having made this salad approximately ten times in the last three months, I’ve learned the following: it takes a comparatively long time for the beans to expel their starch, sugar, and beany liquid, and to actually begin to toast (whether you use canned or dried beans apparently matters little; I’ve done it both ways), so patience is required. You’ll also want to do this in a relatively dry cast iron skillet: add olive oil — too much olive oil — and everything will fry, which is what you don’t want. The diced red onion added raw to the hot beans is not a mistake; the heat from the beans softens and slightly cooks the onions, but only slightly. Finally, the amount of parsley and mint in the dish seems ridiculous overkill: it’s not. Aromatically-speaking, the result is a bit like being in a souk (I say this never having been in a souk). Leave out the feta and the dish will be vegan; leave out the almonds and it will be nut-free. (But you know that.) I leave out salt (between the lemon, vinegar, and feta it hardly needs it) but if I did add it, it’d be coarse flakes, like Maldon.

Makes 6 servings

1 tablespoon cumin seeds

1/2 tablespoon coriander seeds

1/2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

2 14-ounce cans good quality garbanzo beans, drained, rinsed, and shaken dry in a colander

1/2 medium red onion, finely diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 cup slivered almonds

1 tablespoon dried lemon peel*

large handful mint leaves, chopped

large handful flat leaf parsley leaves, chopped

1 large lemon, zested and juiced

Extra virgin olive oil, to taste

Red wine vinegar, to taste

1/2 cup crumbled feta

In a large dry cast iron skillet set over medium heat, toast the cumin and coriander until fragrant; remove from the pan and grind in a clean coffee grinder (or smash in a mortar and pestle) and set aside.

Do not wipe out the pan; heat the half tablespoon of olive oil until it begins to ripple, and add the garbanzos to the pan. Toast them slowly, shaking the pan every few minutes: they will appear to stick to the pan, but they will ultimately release, and blister. Stir frequently with a small spatula; this should take approximately 10 minutes. If they appear to burn, lower the heat slightly.

In a small pan set over medium heat, toast the almonds until just fragrant, remove from heat, and set aside. Return the toasted cumin and coriander to the pan with the beans, and gently fold (so as to not smash the beans). Remove the pan from the heat and add the onion and garlic; stir well to combine and let rest for 5 minutes.

Fold in the toasted almonds, the lemon peel, mint and parsley. Add the lemon juice and zest, and toss well to combine. Drizzle with olive oil and red wine vinegar, and toss again.

Top with the feta, and serve warm, cold, or at room temperature.

*Find lemon peel in your local Middle Eastern grocery store.





In the forest dark.

August 18, 2014 · 20 comments

Dark Forest

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,

ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a forest dark,

For the straightforward pathway had been lost.


Lost isn’t the half of it. The last few weeks have felt like humanity’s modern-day version of The Inferno. When I say “humanity,” I mean us. Us. The lot of us. The group of us. The earth of us. All of us. Us what got brung to the dance by God or Big Bang or whatever it is that works for you, whoever you are. The news has been so bad — really mindbogglingly hideous — that it seems to be resulting in one of three things, for most people: 1) a kind of endorphin-driven media shock that renders you incapable of doing anything but staring, gape-mouthed and wide-eyed, at television/Facebook/Twitter, like you’re watching a car crash while being injected with a surgical paralytic; 2) poison-mouthed cynicism bringing out the absolute worst in everyone; and 3) collective depression that could be temporarily relieved with a national Demerol hose-down, if only the authorities would agree to it instead of shooting young black men.

Personally, I’ve been feeling a little bit like the Malcolm McDowell character during the torture scene in A Clockwork Orange. NOW your eyes are open!

There’s Hamas and Israel, and Israel and Hamas. There’s ISIS who, apparently, even worries Al Qaeda. There’s Michael Brown, six bullets, and the war zone that is now Ferguson. There are the Yazidis, the Ukrainians, the Russians, and the Kurds; there’s Putin and Malaysia Airlines, Ebola and toxic rainbow bracelets, drought and fire, early hurricanes, and now, to further ratchet up our collective despair, the death of Robin Williams at his own hand.

As Anne Lamott said recently, Kurt Vonnegut couldn’t make this up.

Greenwich from train

And then, of course, what happens at times like this?

Everyone suddenly turns into an expert, pontificating like Ted Baxter reading the evening news.

People who know less about the history of the Middle East than, say, Zippy the Chimp, are authoritatively spewing their raging ignorance all over Facebook. Your Uncle Fred announces that he knows more about African flesh-eating diseases than the head of the CDC. And now, everyone — literally, everyone — has something to say about depression, about suicide, about the violent, inevitable end to which so many other-wordly talents seem to come. They have a position on it, or a comment to make, or an aside to consider. Mostly (with the exception of morons like Rush Limbaugh and Shepard Smith) I don’t think the commentary on suicide is nefarious. But when it comes to a tragedy like the loss of Robin Williams, we literally don’t know what to do about it beyond cling to each other in ways that are a peculiar, contradictory combination of ancient and modern: through story telling that brings us together via the anonymous, faceless vantage point of social media.

If the world was at a different place right now — if we weren’t witnessing the police state that Ferguson Missouri has become; if genocide and flesh-eating disease and starvation and frolicking children suddenly dead on a beach moments later weren’t part of our daily discourse; if we weren’t on the receiving end of a minute-by-minute barrage of suffering and death — I think that our response to Williams’s suicide might not have been quite the same. There would have been sadness, certainly, and shock, but I think it might have been different. I, like you, remember him from the 70s, when he was all goodness and light, and when life (beyond Nixon and Vietnam and Patty Hearst) was just not as complicated as it is now. We knew that no matter how awful things got, you could look at him and see kindness in his lovely, sad eyes; you also knew you would laugh your ass off. And you also knew he’d always be there.

We took his being there for granted, until he wasn’t. All we can do, in the midst of the world’s utter horror, is sit with this unfathomable grief for someone most of us never knew, who we need now more than ever. But is it his greatness that we miss? Or is it all about us, and our current existential desire to simply cling to someone who always made things okay like a human security blanket, while the world around us spins out of control?


Either way, we totally suck at grief in this country — how could we not, in this land of bullying, of trolls, of biting on bullets and being-a-man and stiff upper lips and staying in control; we have yet to learn that being sorrowful over death — over anything, for that matter — is not a moral failure but a human necessity, like breathing, and eating. The fact that we make grief emblematic of failure — the way we do addiction and depression — is partially to blame for the loss of so many who struggle alone, until it’s too late and they’ve fallen into the abyss. And then we wonder why.

My story is just like yours, or your brother’s, or your mother’s, or your sister’s, or the postman’s: I lost my beloved sweet cousin — one of my dearest friends — to suicide. The older brother of one of my childhood friends killed himself at twenty, after a short life of drug addiction and depression. My late father had once considered it, when his business collapsed and he was forced to declare bankruptcy; he told me this nonchalantly, years later while we were sitting in a diner eating corned beef hash and scrambled eggs in central Maine. Not long ago, in the darkest of nights, when I started to believe that some people were right about my being the loathsome creature they said I was and I found myself in an emotional pit I couldn’t climb out of, I considered it. I don’t know what or who walked me through that night, but something did, and I got help. I was still able to see a quick streak of light in the darkness, where my cousin could not because he, like Williams, was so very tragically, profoundly ill in a way that most of us can’t even imagine.

Why is this a national scourge? Why don’t all of the PSAs and petitions in the world seem to help? Because, if we’re a people who feel ooky about helping the grief-stricken (or about grieving, ourselves) — or we’re so fucking absorbed with taking the perfect selfie or checking our Facebook feed —  how on earth can we possibly develop the compassion and empathy that it takes to reach beyond ourselves and help the mentally ill and the addicted? I don’t know the answer to this question; it might have to do with faith, or living more simply and with less noise and chatter, or making it a point to spend more time with actual people than staring at a screen, or taking a torch to cynicism. Or all of the above.

So why am I writing about this on what is supposed to be a food blog?

Table set_Snapseed

Because, in any circle of hell — or heaven, for that matter —  the sharing of food is a life preserver. Four years ago, I wrote about a piece that Amanda Hesser published in the NY Times, shortly after 9/11: sharing food, she implied, was a form of psychic, emotional nourishment. And it seems to me that we need to do this now more than ever: it’s sustaining. It’s kindness. It’s elemental. It makes us who we are, this act of sitting down quietly with people, and feeding them, and ourselves. There is grace in the act of putting a bowl of soup in front of someone who is hungry, or somehow suffering, or not. Amidst the grievous noise and the fury, the rage and the death, there has got to be something to tie us together at times like this that is more visceral than, say, Twitter. The sharing of food, while it can’t heal the tragically ill or end wars or save the Yazidis, is a form of communion, whether we’re believers or we’re not. Being together, and not isolated, right now, is key.

After all — to twist what Ram Dass once said — we’re all just walking each other home, even in the forest dark.

Sun in Forest

Winter Wilted Greens and Potato Soup

(Recipe and image excerpted from The Kinfolk Table by Nathan Williams. Copyright 2013. Photographs by Leo Patrone.)

Unless you live in the southern hemisphere, it’s not winter; it’s nearing the beginning of the end of summer, and most of us probably aren’t thinking too much about bowls of warming soup right around now. Still, I was struck by the flavorful simplicity of this dish, which jumped out at me from the wonderful Kinfolk Magazines cookbook, The Kinfolk Table Cookbook. When I first began to buy the magazine, I was, admittedly, something of a cynic: everyone in it was so fresh-faced and scrubbed and calm — really, really calm — in a sort of bucolic, white-washed Danish-farmhouse-by-the-seaside kind of way. And then I began to realize that it represented something of a metaphysical oasis of sorts, which is why I find it hard to put down; it always seems to arrive when my life has spun out of control. The cookbook is filled with lovely, simple dishes to make — and share — with others; this delectable soup, which has a fresh Scandinavian feel to it thanks to the potato and dill, makes the leap from vegan (leave out the chicken) to hearty easily. It’s perfect for a small get-together and deeply comforting.

Winter Wilted Greens and Potato Soup

  Kinfolk Cover

Winter Wilted Greens and Potato Soup

Serves 4

3 tablespoons (45 milliliters) olive oil

1 yellow onion, thinly sliced

6 cups (1.4 liters) vegetable stock

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 pound (455 grams) red potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 1/2-inch (1.28-centimeter) pieces

1 small bunch of fresh dill, chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

3 red chard leaves, torn into small pieces

3 lacinato kale leaves, torn into small pieces

2 cups (about 12 ounces/340 grams) shredded cooked chicken (optional)

Juice of 1/2 lemon

1. Heat 2 tablespoons (30 milliliters) of the olive oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onion and cook, stirring and adding small amounts of the stock to help steam the onion, for 5 minutes or until the onion is soft and translucent. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, for 1 minute or until fragrant.

2. Stir in the remaining stock, the potatoes, dill, 1 teaspoon (6 grams) salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper, and simmer over medium-low heat until just tender.

3. Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon (15 milliliters) olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add the chard and kale and cook, stirring, for about 3 minutes or until wilted. Stir them into the pot.

4. Add the chicken, if using, and heat through, then season the soup with salt and pepper to taste and add the lemon juice. Serve.




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