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Your work is done

I’ve been a little wishy-washy, I know, about the coming of fall this year. One minute, I’m moaning about wool scarves and rain and the end of the world, and the next minute, I’m chirping giddily about kale and apples and flannel sheets. It must be hard to keep up, and I’m sorry about that. If it’s any consolation, know that I too have a hard time keeping up, and I’m the one doing the moaning and chirping. Fall makes my head feel spinny.

Fall also, incidentally, makes me absolutely crazy for soup. C-R-A-Z-Y. Does anyone else experience this phenomenon, or is it my own peculiar seasonal pathology? I mean, is it weird to set the table with only napkins and spoons for weeks on end? Is it sad to eat a diet composed entirely of soft foods if you are under the age of ninety and still have a full set of teeth? Because there is a lot of soup in my life right now, and I intend to keep it that way until sometime in early to mid-2009. No matter how I feel about other aspects of fall, I am consistent, at least, about soup, and I hope that counts for something.

I’ve written about a decent number of soups here in the past few years, but there is one that I seem to have, until now, completely forgotten to mention. It’s a tomato soup with red onion and cilantro stems, and it is the most effortless, biggest-bang-for-your-buck soup in my repertoire. There are, of course, a million recipes out there for tomato soup, but this one, I think, is worthy of note, both for its utter simplicity and its unusual seasoning. It’s bright and warming, and though it is nothing but good for you, it feels surprisingly hearty, which makes it perfect fall fare. It is also one of my mother’s favorite soups, and that’s a solid endorsement, because the lady is a very fine cook. She’s the one who found the recipe, actually, in the April 1995 issue of Martha Stewart Living, in that “What’s for Dinner?” section with the perforated, tear-out recipe cards. (I love that section.) I was in my sophomore year of high school at the time, and though I can’t entirely endorse my taste in that era - my wardrobe back then consisted largely of mouse-brown oversize men’s pants that I bought for 11 cents each at a thrift store in Edmond - I did know a good soup when I tasted it. In the years that followed my mother’s discovery of this recipe, we ate it on a regular basis, usually with a dab of sour cream on top. Even my father liked it, which says a lot, since I remember him mainly as a cream-soups-and-
clam-chowder kind of guy.

But recipes come and recipes go, and for a while, I kind of forgot about that old tomato soup. I am often distracted, I should admit, by the shiny lure of a new recipe, and sometimes, against my will, the older ones wind up ignored. I can’t help it. But this past weekend, my mother happened to mention the tomato soup, and I thought, Oh, right! That soup with the cilantro stems! No matter the time of year, tomato soup always sounds good, doesn’t it? Fresh tomato season may be over, but canned ones don’t care about the calendar. So I went to the store, and today, in a grand total of 40 minutes - 30 of which I spent sitting at the kitchen table, writing this - I made a potful. Basically, you start by warming some olive oil in a large saucepan, and then you dump in a diced red onion and one clove of garlic, minced. While they cook, you mince half of a jalapeño and chop up the stems from one bunch of cilantro. That’s my favorite part of the whole recipe, those cilantro stems. I don’t know about you, but ordinarily, when I buy cilantro, I use only the leaves. Until this recipe came along, I didn’t know that the stems could be used at all. But the truth is, they have loads of flavor, fresh and sprightly and clean, and their delicately crunchy texture is perfectly suited to a rustic, chunky soup like this one. So you add them, along with the jalapeño, to the softened onion and garlic, and then you pour in the juice from a can of tomatoes, the tomatoes themselves, and some water. Bring it to a simmer, and ba-ding! Your work is done. Now, go sit down with a glass of wine. Dinner will be ready in half an hour.

Thank you, Mom.

Tomato Soup with Red Onion and Cilantro Stems
Adapted from Martha Stewart Living, April 1995

For this recipe, I like Muir Glen canned tomatoes.

1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 medium red onion, diced
1 medium garlic clove, minced
½ tsp. kosher salt, or to taste
1/8 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup cilantro stems, cut into ½-inch lengths
½ of a jalapeño pepper, seeded and minced
1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
1 Tbsp. fresh lime juice
Sour cream, for serving

Warm the oil in a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the onions and garlic, and cook until the onions are soft and translucent, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add the salt, pepper, cilantro stems, and jalapeño, and stir well. Strain the tomatoes, and add the juice to the saucepan. Then seed the tomatoes, chop them coarsely, and add them to the pan as well. Add 2 cups water, and stir to combine. Simmer for 30 minutes. Add the lime juice. Then taste, and adjust the seasoning, if needed.

Serve hot, with a dollop of sour cream.

Yield: 4 servings


This old thing

So, have you eaten your boiled kale yet? Because dessert is ready, but you have to finish your vegetables before you can have any. That’s how it works.

I would like to introduce my new favorite dessert. Which, conveniently, is also the most ridiculously easy apple tart I have ever made. Isn’t it charming? In a rustic, “oh, this old thing?” sort of way? It’s the edible equivalent of a dog-eared book: a little rough around the edges, rumpled here and there, but 100 percent lovable on the inside. It’s the kind of dessert that wants to be eaten in a red barn with a loft full of hay bales, or in a bed with flannel sheets, while the wind whistles outside. Unfortunately, I have neither a barn nor any flannel, but I’m working on it.

I came to this recipe in a roundabout way. Namely, via a desire to learn to cook to rabbit. I don’t quite know where I got the idea, but a few weeks ago, it took hold of me. Rabbit is not exactly a popular meat choice, I know, but I had eaten it once before, in a restaurant, and though I had to struggle to keep my thoughts from drifting toward Beatrix Potter, Peter Rabbit, and Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail, it was very, very delicious. I had been wanting to try it at home, but I was a little afraid. I needed a partner in crime, or in whatever sort of deviant activity rabbit cookery constitutes. I happened to mention this to my friend Carla, and much to my delight, her eyes lit up immediately. The wheels were officially in motion! Then, not long after, this beauty happened to glue itself to my hands at the bookstore - books can be so needy, especially the pretty ones - and lo and behold, it offered an entire menu built around roasted rabbit. Clearly, it was fate. The menu began with a spinach cake, a savory sort of custard-meets-frittata, and then moved on to rabbit rubbed with crème fraîche and mustard, parsnips roasted in olive oil, and, finally, a free-form apple tart. Hubba hubba.

So last Wednesday night, we gathered around Carla’s stove and put it all together, and it certainly looked promising. I was planning, actually, to tell you today about the spinach cake recipe, or maybe even the rabbit. But to be perfectly honest, neither turned out particularly well. The rabbit was just okay - a little dry, and with strangely curdled pan juices. I hate to admit this, but we gave most of the leftover meat to Jack. He was the only one who really liked it. And the spinach cake, too, wasn’t quite right. It was oddly watery, and I could hardly muster half a slice. The parsnips, however, were delicious. You can never go wrong with high heat, olive oil, and root vegetables. But the apple tart, the afterthought of the evening, wound up stealing the entire show. In fact, Carla’s son Lluc proclaimed it the best tart he’s ever had. He ought to know, too: he doesn’t like cake, but he loves tarts and pies, so he’s eaten plenty of them.

Anyway, it’s all just as well, right? In a contest between spinach cake, roasted rabbit, and apple tart, I think we all know who the winner would be.

I like my fruit tarts simple, as you know, and this one is just that. You begin by rolling a batch of buttery dough into a large rectangle. (I used my usual recipe, not the one Tanis proposes; I am becoming such a rebel.) It doesn’t matter if the rectangle is a little irregular. In fact, it probably will be. That’s what it’s all about. It’s rustic, bless it, and that word excuses all flaws. Anyway, yes, so you roll it out, and then you slide it onto a rimmed baking sheet. Then you peel some apples and slice them thinly. Don’t throw out the cores, though. Instead, chuck them into a saucepan, add some sugar and water, and boil the mixture down until to a thick syrup: later, once strained, this is going to be your glaze. (Smart, isn’t it? It’s reason enough, really, to love David Tanis, notwithstanding our disappointment with the iffy rabbit and wonky spinach cake.) You fan the sliced apples atop the dough like cards in a game of Solitaire, and then you dust them with sugar. Then you bake the tart until the crust is golden brown, at which point the apples should be tender and fragrant. Let it cool a little bit, brush it with warm glaze, and that’s it. Dessert is done: a little sweet, a little tart, perfectly understated, buttery to just the right degree. We served it that night with honey-sweetened whipped cream, which I strongly suggest. I might also suggest, while we’re at it, that you play a game of Ticket to Ride afterward. Do not, however, play against our friend Sam, because he will beat you every time. He will be nice about it, but he will beat you. Every. Time.

And should you have any of the tart left over at the end of the night, know that it’s just as good on its own - the next day, maybe, as an after-lunch sweet. So long, of course, as you eat your kale. Don’t forget that part.

Apple Tart
Adapted from A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes, by David Tanis

This is especially delicious with a little bit of honey-sweetened whipped cream.

For crust:
4 Tbsp. ice water, plus more as needed
3⁄4 tsp. apple cider vinegar
1 1⁄2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp. sugar
3⁄4 tsp. salt
9 Tbsp. (4 1⁄2 oz.) cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes

For filling:
6 to 7 medium Granny Smith apples (about 2 1⁄2 pounds)
1 cup sugar, plus more for sprinkling
1 cup water

To prepare the crust:
In a small bowl or measuring cup, combine 4 Tbsp. ice water and the cider vinegar.

In the bowl of a food processor, combine the flour, sugar, and salt. Pulse to blend. Add the butter, and pulse until the mixture resembles a coarse meal; there should be no pieces of butter bigger than a large pea. With the motor running, slowly add the water-vinegar mixture, processing just until moist clumps form. If you pick up a handful of the dough and squeeze it in your fist, it should hold together. If the dough seems a bit dry, add more ice water by the teaspoon, pulsing to incorporate. I sometimes find that 1 additional teaspoon is perfect.

Turn the dough out onto a wooden board or clean countertop, and gather it, massaging and pressing, until it just holds together. Shape it into a ball, and press it into a disk about 1 1⁄2 inches thick. If the disk cracks a bit at the edges, don’t worry; just pinch the cracks together as well as you can. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, and then press it a bit more, massaging away any cracks around the edges, allowing the constraint of the plastic wrap to help you form it into a smooth disk. Refrigerate the wrapped dough for at least 2 hours. (Dough can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 4 days or frozen for up to 1 month. Thaw it in refrigerator overnight before using.) Before rolling it out, allow the dough to soften slightly at room temperature.

To assemble:
Set an oven rack to the middle position, and preheat the oven to 375°F.

On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough into a rectangle measuring approximately 11 by 16 inches. Transfer the dough to a rimmed baking sheet. Cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate while you prepare the filling.

Peel the apples, and cut them into quarters. Cut out the cores, and toss them into a medium saucepan. To the cores, add 1 cup sugar and 1 cup water. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Simmer until the mixture has reduced to a thick syrup. Strain out and discard the solids, and set the syrup aside. Meanwhile, cut the apples into thin – roughly 1/8- to ¼-inch-thick – slices. Arrange the apple slices over the pastry in 5 rows, overlapping them like cards in solitaire. Sprinkle sugar generously over the apples. [I used a tablespoon – the eating kind, not the measuring kind – to do this, and I used about 1 slightly heaping spoonful for every 1 to 1 ½ rows of apple slices.] If you want to, fold up the edges of the dough a little bit, to form a small rim.

Bake the tart until the pastry is crisp and golden brown and the apples are beginning to color, about 35 to 45 minutes. [If your apples aren’t getting much color, don’t worry; if the pastry is looking right and the apples are at least tender, you should be fine. My apples stayed pretty pale.] Cool on the pan on a rack.

Just before serving, rewarm the glaze. Slide the tart from the pan onto a cutting board. Brush the apples with the warm glaze. Slice, and serve.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings


Pleasantly sogged

I never thought I would say these words, but I like boiled kale. Kind of a lot.

This may not be the most exciting confession I have ever made, but please bear with me. Or, at least, don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. Boiled kale, I mean. I don’t usually like boiled anything - except, of course, pasta - but boiled kale, yes. It’s the wool sock of winter vegetables: warming, soothing, completely unglamorous, as cozy as a bunch of green leaves can be. If I could climb into a bowl of anything right now, I think I would choose kale. That’s the ultimate measure, you know, of a cool-weather food: would you want to lie down in a vat of it? Creamy polenta is a top contender, as is rice pudding, but, for me, for now, boiled kale is the winner. It’s soft; it’s silky; and if your shoulders get cold, you can grab a few slivered leaves and drape them over you like a shawl.

I always eat a lot of kale during the colder months, but boiling it is new to me. Usually, I toss it in a hot skillet with some butter or olive oil, knock it around for a couple of minutes, just until it turns bright green, and then drizzle it with lemon juice and turn it out onto a plate. Or I braise it with some chickpeas, like this. I had never even thought to boil it until a little over a year ago, I think it was, on a trip to San Francisco, when we had lunch at Zuni Café. Every time I go there, I seem to come away inspired somehow, and this lunch was no exception. I was in the mood for something healthy that day, and as I read down the menu, the first item to catch my eye was cavolo nero, or Tuscan kale, boiled and served on toast with a fried egg. Oh, I know. Listen, I know. It’s criminal to pass up the famous Zuni hamburger. But I couldn’t help it. I ordered the humble kale, and I am not sorry.

In fact, what the waiter set down in front of me a few minutes later was the closest I have ever come, in a restaurant, to my ideal lunch. It was a wide soup bowl - the type my mother calls a cream soup bowl - and in it was a beautifully sloppy pile of kale, stewed into tenderness in a clear, fragrant broth. Beneath the kale was a generous slice of country bread, happily soaking up the aforementioned broth, and atop it all sat a fried egg, waiting to loose its yolk onto the greens below. It wasn’t rocket science, but it was everything I love about Zuni Café: unpretentious, perfectly pitched, and utterly ballsy in its plainness. The best part was, of course, that it was delicious. The kale was sweet and earthy, the egg mellow and rich, and the bread soft, comforting, pleasantly sogged.

So, this past week, the week when I pulled my wool jacket out of the closet and put on my new wrist worms, I decided to boil some kale. Or, rather, I asked Brandon to do it while I did a load of laundry and cleaned the bathroom. I think he got the better end of the deal. But it doesn’t really matter, because 45 minutes later, I got some kale either way - and on toast, to boot, with an olive oil-fried egg, my favorite kind. And though I know I’ve been complaining about fall lately, I have to admit, I was happy to see kale again. I almost couldn’t believe it - especially since I got so tired of the stuff last winter - but I really was happy. Isn’t it great how that works? It’s kind of magical, to tell you the truth, like some sort of benevolent strain of amnesia. Hello, kale. It’s nice to know you again. For now.

Boiled Kale with a Fried Egg and Toast
Adapted from The Zuni Café Cookbook

I like to use cavolo nero - also sold as Tuscan kale, lacinato kale, or dinosaur kale - for this, but you could also use curly kale. And while you could use just water for this, I prefer to make it with chicken stock, preferably homemade.

Here’s a good, quick chicken stock: take 2 pounds of chicken parts (I like legs, or a mix of legs and wings) and dump them into a large saucepan with the following: 3 sprigs of fresh thyme; 1 small carrot, cut into a few pieces; 1 celery stalk, cut into a few pieces; and half of a yellow onion. Add 2 quarts of water. Bring to a simmer, and cook gently for 45 minutes, skimming away any foam that rises to the surface. Salt to taste. Strain through a colander to remove large solids; then strain again through cheesecloth. It’s ready to go.

About 8 ounces kale
5 Tbsp. olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, diced
A pinch of dried red pepper flakes
2 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
3 to 4 cups mild chicken stock, or water, or a combination of the two

To serve:
Thick slices of country bread
Olive oil
Prosciutto, torn into bite-sized bits (optional)
Parmigiano Reggiano or Pecorino Romano

First, prepare the kale: trim away any discolored spots, and then remove and discard the ribs and stems, if they are thick or woody. Stack a few leaves at a time; then slice them into ¼-inch-thick ribbons. Dump the sliced kale into a salad spinner, and add plenty of cold water. Swish the kale around to free any trapped dirt. Let stand for a minute or two – this lets the dirt fall to the bottom – and then lift the basket from the spinner. Pour out the dirty water. Replace the basket, add fresh water, and repeat. Spin dry.

In a large (4-quart) saucepan, warm the oil over medium-low heat. Add the onions, and cook, stirring occasionally, until they are translucent but still firm. Add the red pepper flakes and garlic and the kale, and stir until the kale is fully wilted. Add stock to cover by about ½ inch. Bring to a simmer. Cover, and continue to simmer until the kale is tender but not mushy, about 30 minutes. Taste, and salt as needed. This dish needs quite a bit of salt, so don’t be shy.

To serve, toast one slice of bread per person. While still hot, lightly rub both sides of the toast with raw garlic. Place the toast in the bottom of a wide soup bowl. Now, fry some eggs – one per person, probably – in olive oil. Pile some kale onto the toast in each bowl, drizzle with a little bit of olive oil, and top with a fried egg. Strew with prosciutto, if you want. Grate some cheese over the whole thing, and serve.

Yield: about 4 servings


A second shot

I’ve got nothing against fall. Really, it’s just fine. It’s plums and pumpkins and leaves changing color and apple cider and all that. The problem is that it paves the way for winter. The way I see it, fall is sort of like the butler in an English novel, and winter is the shadowy, black-clad, slightly deranged visitor at the gate. Fall, being very polite and professional, escorts Winter into the parlor to have a seat. Then, while Fall is upstairs, alerting his master to the arrival of the visitor, Winter wreaks havoc on the manor, downing an entire decanter of brandy, startling the maid, and stealing the sterling tea service from the sideboard in the dining room. Is this making any sense? Maybe not. Sometimes I read too much P.G. Wodehouse.

I guess what I wanted to say is this: it is October, and it is raining. I am wearing a scarf and wool socks. I don’t think there is any going back now. It is solidly fall, which is okay. But soon, it will be winter. For a while, I was hoping that this photograph of some artichokes, if clutched tightly enough to my chest, might ward off the chill in the air, but I’m starting to have my doubts. It does make me happy, though, in an October kind of way.

I know I have mentioned this before, but I love artichokes. They may be a little tricky to prepare, what with their thorns and furry chokes, but to those who persevere, they are particularly generous, because they bear two crops a year. They love cool weather, so they thrive in both the spring and early fall, producing fat flower buds, the part that we eat. So if you, like me, didn’t quite get your fill last spring, you get a second shot at it now, before you are sentenced to several months of cabbage and potatoes. Not that I equate cabbage and potatoes with jail time, but you know what I mean.

I found the specimens you see above at Whole Foods on Friday morning, when I went out in search of some breakfast. I had woken up to find that we had nothing in the house, so I got in the car. Of course, going to the grocery store on an empty stomach is never a good idea, but I had no choice, and I think I did alright. I came home with a box of cereal (breakfast), one bag of baby artichokes (cute, in season), one box of Hint ‘O Mint Newman-Os (RIP, Paul Newman), and one sweet potato (no clue). I didn’t have any plans past a bowl of cereal, but a couple of weeks prior, our friend Carla had invited us to dinner, and one of the dishes she made, I remembered, was baby artichokes braised with garlic and thyme.

Carla has been leading me to lots of great recipes lately, so I probably shouldn’t say this out loud, but on first glance, they looked to me like those marinated artichokes you sometimes find in the deli section of the grocery store, with the olives and pepperoncini. But once in the mouth, they were much more delicate than that, sweeter and more mellow, fragrant with grassy olive oil and earthy from all the garlic. They were fantastic. Carla had found the recipe in Chez Panisse Vegetables, she told me, and it called for only a few ingredients, not counting water and salt. When they were ready, she put them, still warm, in a ceramic bowl on the kitchen counter, and while we stood around and cooked, we plucked them up with our fingers. I ate three, which, since there were not a lot of them, was a little impolite, but Carla, being infinitely more polite, didn’t say anything.

And I needed even more, of course. So when I brought home those baby artichokes last Friday, I knew what had to be done.

There is a decent amount of prep work involved in cooking baby artichokes - or artichokes in general, really - but that should never stop anyone. I’m just letting you know. It takes a while to peel away all the tough leaves, so if you make this recipe - and I hope you do - be sure to think ahead about something to keep you occupied: a phone call, maybe, or that old album you’ve been meaning to dig out, or that Maira Kalman interview you’ve had bookmarked forever. It’s worth the trouble. Basically, you trim the stems, chop off the top, and then peel away the outer leaves until you reach the tender yellow inner ones. Then you dump the artichokes, thus groomed, in a skillet with some water, sliced garlic, fresh thyme sprigs, and a good dose of oil. They simmer gently for a while, until they are tender to the tooth, and then you serve them just like that, simple and perfect, with some curls of Parmesan on top and some warm bread alongside. I can’t think of a better, more savory first course for fall. Or, if you want to, you could serve them as part of a larger appetizer spread, with salami and the like. Either way.

Friday’s batch disappeared quickly, so I made another today, and for a few minutes, while the scent of garlic and artichokes wafted through the house, the rain outside didn’t feel quite so ominous. I ate a few of them for lunch, with some leftover baguette, an apple, and some cheddar cheese. And three Hint ‘O Mint Newman-Os. I highly recommend it all.

Braised Baby Artichokes with Garlic, Thyme, and Parmesan
Adapted from Chez Panisse Vegetables, by Alice Waters

The original version of this recipe calls for 20 very small artichokes. Alice Waters isn’t very specific about it, but I assume she means the ones that are roughly the size of large strawberries. The artichokes I used, however, weren’t quite that petite: before I began trimming them, they were about the size of tennis balls. If you can find smaller ones, go for it. But if yours are more like mine – which I am calling “small” here, as opposed to “very small” – you can use them too. Just use fewer of them, that’s all.

Serve these as a first course or hors d’oeuvre, with some warm bread for sopping up the pan juices. With a bowl of olives, some salami, and some cheese, and you’ve got a nice spread.

1 lemon, halved
About 20 very small artichokes, or 10 small artichokes (see headnote)
5 large cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1/3 cup olive oil
1 cup water
4 sprigs thyme
Parmesan cheese

Fill a medium-sized bowl with cool water, and squeeze 1 half of the lemon into the water.

Cut off all but about half an inch of the artichoke stems, and trim off the tops to remove any thorns. Break and peel off the outer layers of leaves until the tender, yellowish inner leaves show. (When in doubt, keep peeling: you don’t want to wind up with a mouthful of tough leaves.) If you want, pare the ragged edges of the base where the outer leaves were torn off. If your artichokes are only small – as opposed to very small – cut them in half from stem to tip. If there is a choke inside, use a demitasse spoon (or something similar) to scoop it out. As you finish working with them, drop the prepared artichokes into the bowl of lemon water.

In a shallow, nonreactive pan – I used a 10-inch skillet – combine the artichokes, garlic, olive oil, water, and thyme. Season lightly with salt, cover, and bring to a gentle simmer. Cook for 10 minutes, until the artichokes begin to soften, shaking the pan occasionally. Remove the lid, raise the heat slightly, and cook for a few minutes more, shaking the pan occasionally, until the artichokes are soft and tender. Salt again, and squeeze the other half of the lemon into the pan.

Serve the artichokes warm, with some of their liquid and with curls of Parmesan on top.

Serves 4.