When we were kids, my brother and I loved playing word games with our parents. I always loved one called The Minister’s Cat, a Victorian parlor game we learned from the Albert Finney version of Scrooge. Everyone in the room claps rhythmically and chants, “The minister’s cat is a _______ cat.” When it was your turn, you had to quickly shout out an adjective that began with the letter of that round. A cantankerous cat! A comical cat! A caring cat! And inevitably, someone would grow flustered and tongue-tied, and end the round with “…a c… c. cat?”” There was much roaring and applause, and then we began again. I loved the idea of searching my brain for adjectives that fit, fast.
Of course, we played Mad Libs until all the spaces of every puzzle were filled with slightly naughty nouns and body parts. I think that I have never laughed harder than at certain games of MadLibs when I was eight years old. There was a towering stack of word games to play: Scrabble; Boggle; word searches; crossword puzzles; hangman; jumbled letters; anagrams. We never ran out of words.
But one of my favorites was easiest in the car. Rolling the words off our tongue in time with the scenery rushing by, we played a game that piggybacked words and led us places we never expected to go. It’s simple. Start with story. The next person must say a word that begins with the last letter of the previous person’s. Story becomes yellow. Yellow becomes waning. Waning becomes giggle. And so on, round and round. Sometimes, after the first ten rounds, we were stumped. Sometimes, I just couldn’t think of another word that began with y. (Yes, Shauna. Yes.) But inside that green VW rabbit, we were imbibing words, swallowing them whole, learning how to describe our worlds.
Cooking feels like that to me these days.
The first year I was gluten-free, I wanted to try a new recipe every day. Every afternoon felt like an Adventure. I can make jam! I can create chimichurri! Braised lamb shanks are not beyond my reach! That time dazzled me, and I recorded most of it here. Without really knowing it, I felt compelled to come home and create, knowing that I would put everything up on the blog. Quickly, I began cooking for the internet. Every day, I felt compelled to seek out new ingredients and make dishes that had nothing to do with each other. The refrigerator groaned with the weight of wasted food. I lived at home, alone, and I had friends who were happy to eat my food, but really, I was cooking for you readers.
At a certain point, however, it was like a culinary game of Minister’s Cat. “The Gluten-Free Girl is cooking… ah, uh, ahhhhh, ugh.” There was no round of applause and laughter then.
And then along came the Chef.
Food flew into the house and onto the site again. He and I made veal goulash, and I had something to photograph. Everything he taught me, the techniques and the recipes, felt like fodder for this place again. We shared our love through food on this place, and we were too excited to stop. The recipes grew much, much better. (Honestly, I’d say now that you should take every recipe before May 2006 with a big grain of salt. I didn’t really know what I was doing then, not like I do now. This is why some of the recipes in the book feel like repeats from the blog. They’re not. The Chef made every one of them better.)
But after awhile, the game comes to a halt. As you have probably noticed, I post far less often here these days than I did that first year, or even the first year of loving the Chef. But now, everything is deliberately chosen. I love the ingredient posts on Mondays, because I’m not the expert. Oh my, do I grow inspired by people’s suggestions for beets, avocadoes, and Savoy cabbage. (This week? A salad of raw, julienned golden beets and carrots, with cilantro, walnuts, golden raisins, and a brown rice vinegar vinaigrette. Oh yes.) I hope you are too.
Mostly, what I notice now is that our food life feels like that leapfrogging word game. One dish leads to another, round after round of new bites that help me learn how to describe this world.
And mostly, now, I’m cooking for the three of us: the Chef, Little Bean, and me.
Man, that’s a lot more relaxing.
We pay attention to the seasons around here. As much as I love asparagus, I’ll wait until the end of May to experience the fat, green stalks of locally grown. The anticipation makes a simple roasted stalk, drizzled with balsamic vinegar and a pinch of Parmesan, the most beautiful food in the world. If we cook in season, however, we’re going to end up using the same ingredients, over and over, in every dish. By the end of June, I’ll be exhausted with asparagus again.
This way of cooking is a cozy settling in, a chance to drop into deeper muscle memory. Those quotidian foods don’t make for a scintillating daily blog entry. But they’re much more satisfying to eat.
The other day, I was at the Market with our dear friend Nina. We both, somehow, had a couple of hours to wander and talk. (Life is moving full pace these days.) Over coffee and lentil soup, we caught up in person. And then we wandered through shops, not knowing what we needed, but knowing we’d recognize it when we glimpsed it.
We walked into a little Mexican grocery store and looked up at the neat rows of dried hominy, Jarritos sodas, dangling chiles, and coconut candies. I needed a new bag of P.A.N. flour, to make more arepas. She wanted to try some too. Nina glanced over at the bottom shelf and spied something silver. “A tortilla press!” She owned one already. Somehow, even though I have been making fresh corn tortillas since the summer of 2005, I had never bought one. Fifteen dollars. That’s all it cost. I picked it up.
If I was going to make tortillas, I needed maseca. What else? I spotted Goya black beans at the other end of the store. When I lived in New York, I lived off Goya canned beans for weeks at a time. Much juicier than other canned beans, the black ones are especially flavorful. All right, dinner that night would be black beans and tortillas.
Nina had to leave, when she realized with a jolt that the meter on her car was winding down. I wandered through the Market by myself, dawdling at Sosio’s. Hm, red peppers. Glowing yellow grape tomatoes. Cilantro. Fresh garlic. A fat yellow onion, its papery skin peeling. Cumin and ginger nudged into my head, and I walked down to World Spice.
That’s how I came up with the recipe you see below. My goodness, we ate simply and well that night.
The Chef liked it so much that we ate the leftover beans, with fresh tortillas, and scrambled eggs for breakfast. He never likes leftovers.
Left the next afternoon with the makings for more tortillas, and our mouths hungry for more, I looked around the kitchen to see what we had. A roasting chicken in the refrigerator. Some grape tomatoes still in the blue pint box. An avocado growing soft on the shelves.
Tortilla soup. I just needed to make stock, and find some lard, and we had dinner on our hands.
And next? Well, some of the stock is growing richer on the stove as I simmer it again. Red quinoa is calling my name. Simmered in stock, and topped with fresh cilantro, toasted pine nuts, leftover seared chicken breast, and local goat cheese? That’s going to be a fine meal at midnight.
Tortilla and beans to tortilla soup. Tortilla soup to red quinoa. I’m sure that the rest of the goat cheese will yield something more.
The Gluten-Free Girl is eating ___ tonight?
I don’t know yet. I’m less inclined to blurt out an answer fast, these days, in order to win that round.
SAVORY BLACK BEANS
I can hardly call this a recipe, since it came from dicing and tossing, trying and liking. Many of you already have a way with making black beans that works for you. But all I can say is the Chef sat up in bed at nearly midnight, ecstatically happy in his groans, after eating these. And this morning, he wanted the leftovers for breakfast, with scrambled eggs. That rarely happens around here.
Play with these. Make them your own. But if you hewed pretty closely to the dish these words could build, I think you’d be pretty happy too.
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 medium onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1 large red pepper, chopped
2 teaspoons fresh-ground cumin
1 teaspoon fresh-ground ginger
1 tablespoon brown rice vinegar
2 cans good-quality black beans
1/2 teaspoon each kosher salt and cracked black pepper
1/2 cup water
10 yellow grape tomatoes (or whatever you like)
1/2 cup Monterey Jack cheese
Sauteeing the vegetables. Bring a deep skillet to heat. Add the canola oil. When it swirls around the bottom of the pan like water, add in the onion pieces. Listen to them sizzle, and then give them a stir. When they have softened and become translucent (about 10 minutes), add the red pepper and garlic. Saute them all until the smells rush to your nose.
Playing with spices. Spoon in the cumin and ginger and stir. When those spices entice you with their smells, splash in the brown rice vinegar. Stir it all up.
Cooking the beans. Add the contents of the two cans of beans into the skillet. Stir it all around. Season with salt and pepper. Let it all bubble around together.
Break it down. If you want the final dish to be thick and somewhat dry, leave the beans to cook as they are. If you’d like a little more of a stew feeling, add some water to the mix at this moment. Stir it all up, occasionally.
Let the bean mixture simmer for a couple of hours, for full flavor. When they are done, serve them up in bowls.
Topping with tomatoes and cheese. In a super-hot pan (I use the one in which I grill the tortillas, and it’s smoking hot), add a bit of oil. When it is hot, toss in the tomato halves. let them bubble and sear until they have almost melted. Throw them on top of the black beans. Immediately, grate Monterey Jack cheese on top. When it has melted, serve the beans with fresh corn tortillas.