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grilled fennel flatbread with olives and sultanas

When it comes to cooking, simplicity seems to translate roughly to time is of the essence.  Each food magazine has its “meals in 30 minutes” section, and frankly, there are nights (specifically nights involving a glass of wine, the couch, and saved episodes of Downton Abbey) when egg on toast can be transcendent. One of the key aspects of my college education was developing an entire repertoire of meals that were quick, simple and cheap, from arugula tossed with balsamic and brown rice to peanut butter and fig jam Paninis.

Funnily enough, it was also in college that I discovered the joy of cooking. With my limited budget I quickly found it most rewarding to cook an elaborate meal for six, then guiltily store it in the back of the communal fridge (away from prying eyes and forks) to eat for six meals running. Friday nights I would arrive home from my eight-hour internship and one-hour Trader Joe’s expedition just in time to wish my housemates well on their way out for the night. For the next delicious hours I had the place entirely to myself, and it was then and there that I discovered the pleasures of the unhurried meal.

The things I made were simple—there were no emulsions, no expensive cuts of meat, no kitchen tools fancier than the celebrated Panini press. It was a college kitchen, after all, and in New York to boot: small, grimy, and cheaply installed. After unpacking my groceries I did a thorough clean of the counters and sink, dumping plates in the dishwasher and sweeping up the crumbs that kept the mice our loyal companions. I laid out all of my ingredients and happily set to work with my knife, chopping along to the tinny speakers of my laptop and trying not to splatter the screen with lemon juice.

Surrendering to the sheer time it took for beans to soften or meatballs to simmer became the most comforting experience of my week. Chopping carrots and turnips was methodical and reassuring; peeling butternut squash was a practice in patience. I developed an affectionate reliance on simple recipes with multiple stages, like a warm potatoes gribiche flecked with roasted broccoli and hardboiled egg, or a fragrant African curry with spices packaged for separate additions over the course of two hours.

This flatbread recipe (an instant favorite I’ve made three times this week) is wonderful in its simplicity, easy to prepare but perfect for leisurely cooking. I mix the dough at some point in the afternoon, then make the spread and topping after turning out the dough for a second rise and heating the oven. It’s an old saying, the one about the journey and the destination, but I somehow keep discovering it anew.

Grilled Fennel Flatbread with Olives and Sultanas

The dough for this recipe is adapted from Jim Lahey’s wonderful book My Bread, which has been out on the kitchen counter from the day I got it. I love the aroma of fennel and the salty-sweet combination of olives, feta, and golden raisins, but this dough is a true blank canvas–experiment away!

For the dough:

1 3/4 cup bread flour (I have also been successful with a mix of white and whole wheat)

1 1/4 tsp. active dry yeast

1/2 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. sugar

2/3 cups water

In a large bowl, combine dry ingredients and then mix in water with your hands to form a moist dough (add a bit more water or flour if dough is too dry or sticky). Cover and let sit at room temp for 2 hours (longer is alright too).

For the second rise, loosely shape dough into a ball (it will have increased in size) and set on a well-floured plate. Cover with a damp towel and let sit at least half an hour.

For the topping:

2/3 cup Kalamata olives

1 small handful fresh thyme

olive oil

2/3 cup Sultana raisins (golden raisins)

2 medium fennel bulbs

red pepper flakes

juice of 1 lemon

1 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

1 large cube feta cheese, crumbled

honey, for drizzling

To make the olive spread, add the first three ingredients to a blender with 1/3 cup of the sultanas and pulse until roughly blended. Set aside. Slice the fennel into thin slivers and toss with red pepper flakes, lemon juice, half the parmesan, the other 1/3 cup sultanas and a glug of olive oil.

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Spread out the dough on a well-oiled cookie sheet by stretching it first the full length of the pan and then the width, gently nudging it outwards until the whole sheet is covered. Cover the dough evenly with the olive spread, then arrange the sliced fennel mixture on top. Sprinkle with the crumbled feta and other half parmesan and drizzle with honey, then bake at 500 degrees until crust is crispy and toppings are browned, about 15-20 minutes.

kale slaw with avocado and almonds

The battle with our raccoons rages on.

I call them “our raccoons” because while I rarely see them staging their attacks, I know their faces from the grainy images my grandparents captured a few months ago with a borrowed night vision camera. There they sat on the back porch, happily munching pellets of dog food after dipping them to soften in Bella the Great Dane’s water bowl. Their most recent offense hit closer to home: having discovered our vegetable garden, they quickly made their mark with paw prints trampling through the onions and mounds of freshly dug earth burying the baby chard I planted just last week. Complaining of their furry wiles to friends from the East Coast, I quickly discovered that my relationship with raccoons was analogous to theirs with deer: one girl’s cuddly critter is another girl’s nemesis.

I’d been warned about their cleverness, but our resident bandits are far craftier than I imagined. The most memorable transgression took place years ago, when my parents purchased a dozen goldfish for a shallow stone pond in the garden. Our vision of a serene little ecosystem complete with lilies was thwarted a few mornings after, when we discovered all the fish had mysteriously disappeared. Not to be deterred, my grandfather constructed a preventative mesh covering, screwing it into the sides of the pond just beneath the water to protect our fish from prying paws. I’d like to end the story there, but several mornings later we surveyed the wreckage of our new system, the mesh skillfully pushed to the bottom of the pond in an attempt to squeeze the fish through. A few days later the lilies were gone.

Since I left the farm in December I haven’t been the most consistent gardener, but I like to consider myself a stalwart defender of the kale. Up to now all this has entailed is rubbing aphids off leaves and harvesting responsibly, but should it be called for I’ll be out there in the dead of night, clanging my pots at raccoons on the rampage and hoping for that one elusive victory.

Kale Slaw with Avocado and Almonds

1 bunch kale (Toscano kale or the young, tender leaves of almost any variety work best)

half a green cabbage

2 Tbsp. lemon juice

1 Tbsp. honey

1 tsp. mustard

2 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar

olive oil

1 avocado

handful roasted almonds, roughly chopped

Stack the kale leaves in a tight bunch and slice into thin shreds, starting with the tops. Slice the half cabbage into shreds and toss bit by bit with the kale, adding until the amounts of kale and cabbage are roughly equal.

To make the dressing, whisk together the lemon juice, honey, mustard and balsamic vinegar. Taste and adjust to your preference, adding more honey for sweetness or more mustard for increased zing. Add oil bit by bit as you whisk until the dressing thickens. Pour dressing over salad and toss to combine.

Pit and cut the avocado into quarters, then slice into small pieces and toss with the salad (the avocado should blend with the dressing, making the slaw creamy). Top salad with chopped almonds and serve.

flat-roasted chicken with caramelized oranges and truffled polenta with parmesan

I don’t use the word feast lightly.

My family has always been a feasting one, and if images of Arthurian banquets pop to mind you’re not terribly off the mark. Reunions are planned with no thought for where cousins will sleep or what outings will be had, but everyone knows precisely what and who will be cooking each night for months in advance. Christmas Eve is marked by a giant, flaming pudding (soaked in brandy and ignited with a match); “Birthday Eves” are occasions for multiple courses and—alas no more—once featured homemade cakes fashioned into corrals for model horses or voluminous skirts for Barbie. It’s no surprise that the most-requested Christmas carol in our home is “Good King Wenceslas,” which features the good king’s spirited declaration, Bring me flesh and bring me wine!

Wine is all-important when it comes to the family feast. Bottles are purchased with care and hoarded with zeal until the appropriate occasion, which is, if not Saturday dinner, then certainly Sunday supper. The wine is swirled, inhaled, tasted, exclaimed over and discussed, each step partaken of with great earnestness and animation. “There are no great wines, only great bottles of wine,” my grandfather likes to say, hinting that a golden evening of fellowship infuses the chosen bottle with an added glow. That being said, I have had some truly wonderful wines in my life, and last night’s was memorable indeed.

The evening began, as it often does, in the early afternoon. I had selected the 2009 Cilla’s Blend from local winery Cimarone (a Syrah and Bordeaux blend from their Three Creek Vineyard estate collection) and planned a menu to match. Now, at 2 p.m., I was out in the garden picking kale and fresh herbs, which I rinsed and laid to dry before pulling a chicken from the fridge to prepare for flat-roasting.

Studying wine pairings recently I was interested to read that when it comes to Syrah, it’s often not so much the type of food you choose as how you prepare it. Grilled foods (preferably with a bit of char) pair particularly well, and strong herb flavors like rosemary and thyme play up complimentary flavor elements in the wine. Texture is also important, and grains like polenta make for friendly sides.

When I put our meal on the table at 8 p.m. (never fear—I took my time but the cooking could easily have been done start-to-finish in two hours) it was greeted with enthusiasm by family and wine-loving friends. We poured the blend and savored it with each dish: flat-roasted chicken with caramelized, charred oranges, creamy polenta with parmesan and a hint of truffle, kale and cabbage salad tossed with lemon and avocado and a platter of crispy grilled turnips and broccoli. We sighed deeply over the delicious complexity and peppery finish of the wine, which our friend Ken declared was like a “balanced portfolio.”

“It doesn’t just have one strong note,” he mused as I reached again for the bottle, “It’s like a major 7th chord.”

Flat-Roasted Chicken with Caramelized Oranges and Truffled Polenta with Parmesan

This wonderfully simple and delicious recipe for flat-roasted chicken is adapted from one of my favorite cookbooks, David Tanis’ Heart of the Artichoke. The truffle-infused oil I used for the polenta was from La Tourangelle and relatively inexpensive, and a pinch of truffle salt would likely do the trick as well. The chicken and polenta went well with a creamy kale slaw and simple grilled turnips and broccoli.

For the chicken:

1 whole chicken

1 large handful fresh rosemary sprigs, plus 1 Tbsp. rosemary, chopped

2 Tbsp. fresh thyme, minced

1 Tbsp. fresh sage, minced

1 orange, sliced into rounds

olive oil

salt & pepper

Rinse the chicken and remove the innards. Pat dry and lay the bird on a cutting board with the breasts facing down, then use large kitchen shears (or powerful scissors) to remove the backbone, cutting along one side and then the other. Spread the chicken out until it is lying completely flat, cutting the collarbone if necessary. Rub the bird with olive oil, salt, and pepper and lay breasts-up on top of rosemary sprigs, then rub the breasts, thighs, and legs with the chopped rosemary, thyme, and sage. Arrange the orange slices on top of the bird, then cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Remove the chicken from the refrigerator, discard plastic, and slide into heated oven, roasting until juices run clear (about one hour, or until your meat thermometer registers 160 degrees). If orange slices start to burn you can cover the chicken loosely with foil, but some char on the fruit is good. Remove from oven, let rest 10 minutes, and serve.

For the polenta:

1 1/2 cups course-ground polenta

6 cups water

olive oil

2 Tbsp. salted butter

1 cup grated parmesan cheese

1 tsp. truffle-infused oil

salt & pepper

In a medium saucepan, salt the water and bring to a boil. Add the polenta and a glug of olive oil and whisk quickly and thoroughly to prevent lumps, then turn the heat to medium low and simmer uncovered until the polenta is cooked to your liking, 10-20 minutes. Turn heat to low and stir in the butter until melted, then add the parmesan a bit at a time, whisking after each addition. Add the teaspoon of truffle oil and taste: the truffle flavor should add depth, but not be too obvious or overpowering. Season with salt and pepper, then remove from heat and keep warm until serving.

avocado bruschetta with smoked salmon (san francisco part 2)

Saturday

5:20 p.m.

We arrive at Bar Bambino early—very early—because I haven’t made reservations. The host gives our six-person group the once-over and decides we are one of those overly-confident foodie families, but after a quick consultation with my father he seats us three and three along the corner of the bar. An elderly man and woman sharing olives and wine are our only dining companions, but by six o’clock the place is packed.

I have chestnut soup with celeriac (feeling very self-satisfied that I know this gnarled root after my time at Love Apple) and we all vie for crispy florets of cauliflower that have been battered and lightly fried. We finish dessert just before seven and my thoughts turn shamefully (and longingly) to my inflatable mattress at our friend’s home in San Rafael, but Stas the music maven has another suggestion: the SF Bluegrass and Old Time Festival. After settling snugly in a basement bar to wait for Hang Jones and the Jugtown Pirates, she and I venture upstairs where a friendly festival-worker lets us in to go square dancing. Immediately I love it—over 30 couples assembled in plaids and dresses, with a live string band and dance moves like “three little ladies” and “let the dove pass through.” At one point a very tall man whisks me two feet off the ground, and moments later Stas and I burst out giggling in the giant circle of dancers, clasping hands for minutes before realizing none of the actual romantic couples are doing so. I laugh a lot. “You look so happy!” My sister cries reproachfully when we pass her in the do-si-dos, with a look halfway between envy and I’m trying not to be embarrassed for you.

Sunday

9:30 a.m.

Sunday morning is farmer’s market round two in Marin, and this time I’m ravenous. A five minutes on the premises I’m sinking my teeth into an Indian spinach flatbread at a stand where we somehow spend $25 (“But he gave us a free samosa!”). From there I buy and devour an extremely large Asian pear, then go for a handful of caramel dates, then finally settle on a pretzel-croissant (let it be known: Germany and France have produced a perfect love-child). It’s a good thing we get lost on the hike that follows because two-hours of walking is exactly what I need.

Sunday night I have made a reservation: a restaurant called Picco that I imagine is “amiable Italian.” One glance at the menu proves me utterly (and delightfully) wrong. There are grilled baby artichokes with smoked ham and tarragon aioli, lamb chops with rapini pesto and cumin yogurt, and a risotto made from scratch “on the half hour.” Each plate arrives to be shared by the whole table, and as we wait to be delighted yet again (nothing disappoints) I’m hard-pressed to think of a meal with my family that I’ve enjoyed more. An avocado bruschetta scores big, and we finish with miniature alcoholic shakes and warm chocolate madeleines.

Sitting at Café Fanny in Berkeley early the next morning, I’m rejuvenated and thankful and full as I nevertheless contemplate a second hot chocolate. Oh to live a life of travel and eating with family and friends—but then I suppose that’s why we work, isn’t it?

Avocado Bruschetta with Smoked Salmon

This recipe–inspired by a similar dish with chorizo at Picco–resulted in one the simplest and most delicious lunches I’ve had in ages.

4 thin slices of good-quality bread (whole wheat levain works well)

1 garlic clove, peeled and cut in half

2 ripe avocados

1 small packet of smoked salmon

red pepper flakes

olive oil

sea salt

Cut the slices of bread in half diagonally and toast until lightly browned. Rub each half-slice with the raw garlic and drizzle with olive oil. Place a thin piece of smoked salmon on each toast.

Cut your avocados into quarters and peel. Slice each quarter thinly lengthwise before fanning it out gently on top of the salmon. Sprinkle completed toast with sea salt and red pepper flakes.

soba noodles with garlicky greens and toasted walnuts (san francisco part 1)

Friday

5:20 p.m.

We pull up to the MacArthur BART station in Oakland just as the sun begins to set. My parents and I have driven up to visit my sister in Berkeley for the weekend, but this first evening I’m headed into the city to stay with my best friend Anastasia in her Bernal Heights apartment. The station is under a freeway overpass and crowded with commuters; drums echo angrily from an invisible street performer. My parents eye the scene warily and my mother leans over to zip up my coat—I remind them pointedly that I lived in New York for four years but still feel like a scolded teenager.

Half an hour later I step off the train onto 24th street in the Mission district. There are murals and a McDonalds, the air alive with machismo and more drums (this time upended plastic buckets). I cross the street to avoid lingering hesitantly on the corner and feel the primal thrill of a city after months on the farm and quiet Shepard Mesa.

Stas shares an apartment with an artist in her fifties, and immediately I love it: colorful canvases lounge against walls, books cascade over chairs and shelves, glass jars of beans and grains line the kitchen counters. I examine a beautiful Picasso sketch that hangs over a cluttered shelf. Es maravilloso, Stas whispers, reverting to the fluent Spanish she retained from our high school years.

I start chopping cabbage while she prepares a dinner of sautéed greens, walnuts, and soba noodles, along with a salad seasoned with rice vinegar and sesame seeds. At 8:30 her housemate Annice picks us up for a nearby concert, and we drive down dark, industrial streets that would be hard-pressed to look less inhabited. Suddenly, there it is—a glowing slice of a building with scruffy-haired hipsters and a woman holding a french horn huddled round an outdoor fire pit. A mosaic of art covers the walls inside and soon after we arrive a thin, older man picks up a guitar and starts to sing. His plaintive voice moves between song and spoken word and we sit mermaid-style on the carpet, listening as girls (and boys) in a variety of leggings and artfully sagging boots traipse over us back and forth to the bathroom.

Saturday

11:00 a.m.

After a long walk and a longer wait we are seated at Plow, a popular brunch joint in Potrero Hill frequented by an embracing pair of muscled Abercrombie models and three separate tables of women in yoga attire indulging in their post-workout gorge. I nibble a bit of everyone’s meal before turning to my own, dipping bites of almond and lemon-ricotta pancakes into runny egg yolk. The pancakes are so tasty I end the meal with only slight menu-envy for the smoky sauce and cilantro kick of Stas’ breakfast choice.

It is both torture and a blessing in disguise that we arrive at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market unable to stomach another bite. The day is bright and breezy with a definite nip in the air—apart from that, it could be the middle of summer. People walk by with bags of oranges and plates of chilaquiles, and grannies of the traditional and tattooed variety root through baskets of radishes and boxes of loose greens. Inside the Ferry Building a barrage of wonderful smells warns you of approaching products before you see them: coffee from Blue Bottle, cheese from Cowgirl Creamery, bread from Acme Bakery. We buy South African Pinotage from one vendor and I stand in line for apple cider sorbet made bitingly spicy with cloves.  Don’t get me wrong, I love a good museum or a nice hike. But if you’re starting to suspect that 90% of my travel plans revolve around food, well… stay tuned.

 

Soba Noodles with Garlic, Walnuts and Sauteed greens

My best friend Stas is a musician, soon-to-be yoga teacher and creator of such delights as chocolate beet cake and avocado pudding–in other words, she is California incarnate. She is also an admirable enemy of food waste: I once watched her eat a bottom-of-the-backpack banana bruised beyond recognition (a tale my entire family enjoys telling with gusto). My version of the lovely dinner she made for us is so simple that I’ve eaten it with relish every day for lunch this week.

1 package buckwheat soba noodles

two cloves garlic, sliced

several handfuls dark greens–kale (Toscano and Red Russian work well), rapini, chard or spinach

liberal splash rice vinegar

walnuts

sunflower seeds

red pepper flakes

olive oil and salt

Salt a pot of water and set it on the stove to boil. Heat oil in a saucepan and add sliced garlic, stirring for a minute or so until fragrant but not brown. Roughly chop greens and add to the pan with the rice vinegar, cooking until slightly wilted but still green and robust.

Drop a serving or two of soba noodles into the boiling water. Cook until chewy (overcooking results in a gluey mass), drain, and rinse immediately under cold water. Toast walnuts in a small pan until warm and crunchy (add sunflower seeds as well if you desire). Serve noodles in a bowl with greens spooned on top, and garnish with nuts, red pepper flakes, and a splash of olive oil and additional rice vinegar to taste.

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