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I can't wait

Hi, all.

I am writing this from an airplane somewhere between Seattle and Newark, en route to my in-law’s house for Thanksgiving. I’m afraid I don’t have a recipe for you today, but the view is very nice, and I can offer you that, at least. If you squint hard enough, the wing of the plane looks a little like a dolphin tail, so it’s really two pictures in one. I hope you will find it a fair exchange.

Or, if not, I can offer a little piece of news instead. Actually, it’s a huge piece of news, but calling it little makes it feel more manageable. Brandon is opening a restaurant.

My heart stopped for a second, just typing that.

When I met him about 3 ½ years ago, Brandon was a graduate student in music composition. Actually, if we’re getting down to the nitty-gritties, he was a graduate student in music composition until last March, when he went on leave to focus on the restaurant full-time. It may seem like a strange transition to make, but he has been working in restaurants since he was a teenager, and cooking isn’t all that different, conceptually, from writing music. The work itself is certainly not the same, but both are creative processes, ways of taking separate elements and arranging them, balancing and tweaking, to make something new. Anyway, those of us who know him – which, in a sense, includes all of you – know that he loves food. The man can run circles around me in the kitchen. I like to cook, yes, but he is a cook.

He is also obsessed with pizza. As a grade-schooler, he used to go to a pizzeria near his parents’ house in New Jersey and pepper the owner with questions about dough and mozzarella. When I met him, he lived on the Upper West Side, but he trekked out to the middle of Brooklyn at least once a week to wait patiently in line at DiFara. Last year, he agreed to drive a car from San Antonio to Los Angeles just so he could try the pizza at Mozza, and he took an overnight trip to Phoenix for the sole purpose of eating at Pizzeria Bianco. So when he told me that he wanted to make pizza, it didn’t exactly surprise me. It may have scared me a little, but it didn’t surprise me.

The wheels have been in motion for quite a while – over a year, I think – but he signed a lease on Friday, so we feel ready now to say something here. We wanted to go ahead and share it with you, because we’re excited. And also, you know, a little scared, which seems only sane. But mainly, we’re excited. I hesitate to say too much today, but I can tell you that the restaurant will be here in Seattle, in our neighborhood. The windows are covered with plastic right now, and the door is kind of garish and wonky, but it’ll be prettier soon, I promise. If you squint hard enough, you might get a sense of it. Or see a dolphin tail. You never know.

I say that the restaurant is Brandon’s, because it is: it’s his baby, his vision, his sweat. But I will be there too, helping where I can, and the menu, which I can’t wait to show you, is a real combination of his style and mine. It is inspired by two of our favorite restaurants: Zuni Café, in San Francisco, and Boat Street Café and Kitchen, where Brandon has worked for the past two and a half years, since he moved to Seattle. It happens, yes, that the emphasis will be on pizza, but there will also be wood-fired vegetables from local farmers, seasonal salads, charcuterie, and rustic desserts, the kind I like to make at home. I can’t wait.

There is a lot of work ahead, no doubt, but he plans to open in the springtime. Hopefully early spring, though we’ll see. My book comes out on March 3, so our heads are sort of exploding at the moment. But don’t worry! We have a lot of help. Susan Kaplan of Boat Street has been a hugely generous mentor, and our friend Carla Leonardi of Café Lago has spent hours with us at the oven and in the kitchen. And my brother David, who owns five(!) restaurants in the DC area, calls to check in and field questions and cheer, which makes me so happy that I feel kind of weepy right now.

I know there are a lot of details missing from this story, but I will tell you more as I can. In the meantime, thank you, always, for being here, and for believing in me, in him, and in us. I’ll see you back here on December 8, once we’ve had time to take some deep breaths, sleep in, cook Thanksgiving dinner, wander around New York and eat pizza, and get ready for what comes next.


A whole bowlful

I had intended to talk about dessert today. You’ve been extremely kind about the recent vegetable recipe bonanza around here, and to thank you, I wanted to bake you something especially nice. You deserve it. So I made a pan of gingerbread. The recipe was new to me, but it looked delicious: good and spicy, with rum-soaked raisins and crystallized ginger and orange zest and a pretty glaze. I just knew you would love it. I was very excited. To make sure it was worthy, I cut a couple of slices to eat after dinner the other night, while we sat on the couch with a DVD of Dog Whisperer, hoping that Cesar Millan might, god willing, help us understand why Jack is so weird sometimes. But unfortunately, it wasn’t very good. I mean, Cesar was fine - calm-assertive, as usual - but the gingerbread was only so-so. It tasted a little too strongly of molasses, and the glaze was too sweet. Actually, I think the first word that came to mind was meh.

I really am sorry. I tried.

But on the upside, the Parade of Underappreciated Vegetables marches on! Or rolls on! Or tumbles on! Or whatever it is that kohlrabi does.

Up until about a week ago, I did not expect to ever say the word kohlrabi on this site. I had eaten it three or four times, usually sliced thinly and dunked in aioli or vinaigrette, and though it was pleasant, I didn’t feel particularly inspired to buy it again. It has a very nice flavor - a cross between a cabbage and a broccoli stem, but milder and sweeter than both - but still, I was unmoved. It seemed unapproachable, difficult somehow. It always caught my eye at the farmers’ market, but more as a sort of vegetal artwork than anything else. To me, it was kind of like Damien Hirst’s dead shark in formaldehyde, the one that’s on display right now at the Met: interesting to look at, even beautiful to some, but at the end of the day, a little too weird. (Is that a bad comparison? Yes?)

But the weekend before last, I went to Wordstock, a literary festival in Portland, and while I was there, I met Ivy Manning, author of The Farm to Table Cookbook. Over the past few months, a couple of you have e-mailed me about her book, telling me how wonderful it is, and I thought she might like to know, so I told her. (Thank you, by the way, for giving me something to say to her; I am sometimes a little shy.) She was warm and funny and down-to-earth, and the two of us got chatting, and somehow we wound up on the subject of kohlrabi. I have no idea how it happened, but it did, and I am now forever indebted to her, because in the course of that conversation, she told me about a recipe in her book, a recipe for a kohlrabi salad that, as of lunchtime today, officially changed everything.

In fact, between Brandon and I, we ate almost a whole bowlful - normal yield: 6 servings - in a single sitting. I don’t know why it took me so long to warm to kohlrabi, but I think I made up for it today. Ivy’s recipe, which comes from Chef Fearn Smith of The Farm Café in Portland, makes a bright, refreshing salad that could win over any skeptic, myself included. Actually, when Ivy was describing it to me, she referred to it as “The Y Chromosome Salad,” because it has conquered, in particular, so many doubting men. You just peel and julienne a carrot and two kohlrabi - a slightly tricky venture, admittedly, since kohlrabi is quite hard, but it’s well worth the effort - and then you dress them with a mixture of rice vinegar, olive oil, toasted sesame oil, and ground toasted fennel seeds. What results is wonderfully cool and crunchy and light, a taste of high summer in the middle of fall. The dressing is gently Asian-inspired, but it gets a twist of intrigue from the sweet, fragrant fennel seeds, and the crispness of the kohlrabi is oddly addictive - a bit like water chestnuts or jicama, only less watery and with more flavor.

I ate mine with a peanut butter sandwich, if you really want to know, and though the pairing was not promising, it was somehow completely delicious. Brandon ate his portion with some chickpeas and slices of sharp cheddar, and he pronounced it especially tasty with the cheese. It would be terrific, I think, with roasted chicken or fish, or even with a grilled cheese sandwich. Or a turkey sandwich. Or absolutely anything.

P.S. If you’d like to take a peek, artist Stephanie Levy posted an interview with me on her site. (I had so much fun, Stephanie. Thank you.) And over at slow blogs, Monna said some very kind things about this site. (Thanks, Monna! What a sweet surprise.) And boiled kale had a day in the sun on nytimes.com. (Huzzah, kale!)

Kohlrabi Salad
Adapted from The Farm to Table Cookbook, by Ivy Manning, and Chef Fearn Smith of The Farm Café

Kohlrabi is available almost year-round, and lately my farmers’ market has some particularly gorgeous specimens. When choosing kohlrabi, be sure to look for nice, hard bulbs. If the leaves are still attached, all the better: they’re an indicator of freshness. (If the leaves are yellow or wilted, don’t buy it.) Oh, and try not to buy the huge ones: their flavor is often stronger and less sweet than the smaller or more moderate-sized specimens.

Also, note that I left out the pea shoots when I made this. And I added garlic. I’m sure it would be wonderful with the shoots, but they would have required a special trip to the Asian market downtown. So I went ahead without them, and I wasn’t the least bit sorry.

2 medium red or green kohlrabi bulbs
1 large carrot, peeled
1 tsp. fennel seed
2 Tbsp. rice wine vinegar
1/2 tsp. kosher salt, or more to taste
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 small garlic clove, pressed (optional)
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. toasted sesame oil
2 cups pea shoots (optional)

Trim away any stems from the kohlrabi bulb. Using a sharp chef’s knife or a sharp vegetable peeler, cut and discard away its tough outer skin. Then julienne the kohlrabi, using either a mandolin or the same sharp knife. (Because kohlrabi is hard and dense, I found the mandolin to be a bit precarious, so I used a little of both.) Julienne the carrot too.

In a small dry skillet, toast the fennel seeds over medium heat until they begin to brown slightly and smell toasty. Transfer them to a mortar and pestle or spice grinder, and grind them into a coarse powder.

In a small bowl, combine the fennel seeds, vinegar, salt, pepper, and garlic, if using. Slowly whisk in the olive oil and sesame oil. Pour over the vegetables and toss to coat. Taste, and add more salt, if needed.

Chop the pea shoots, if using, into 1-inch pieces and toss into the salad immediately before serving.

Yield: 6 servings


Out of love

I am not trying to torture you, I promise. I know it must seem like I sit around all day, cackling evilly, stroking my black cat, scheming up ways to trick you into eating lima beans and kale, but I don’t. Cross my heart. I don’t even have a cat - although I do sometimes cackle, but never at your expense. Everything I do here, I do out of love. Which is also, coincidentally, why I am going to talk today about a Savoy cabbage gratin.

This, in case you wondered, is what love looks like. Isn’t it beautiful? In a vaguely Little Shop of Horrors way? Actually, don’t answer that. I don’t want anything to color my feelings for this cabbage.

Those of you who have been around here for a while may remember that I am quite fond of a book called All About Braising, by Molly Stevens. Actually, I’m so fond of it, and so nerdy, that I’ve plastered my copy with a pack of Post-It® flags left over from my half-hearted attempt at graduate school, one flag for each recipe that catches my eye. As of this writing, there are 16 flags in all, enough to make the poor thing look like it’s wearing one of those jackets with fringe that were all the rage in the eighties. I am a little bit crazy about this book. Even more so now that I’ve made the Savoy cabbage gratin on page 61.

It may not look particularly inspiring, but this gratin made me cry last Tuesday night. Our new(!) president(!) may have also had something to do with it, but for now, let’s focus on the gratin. Talking politics around here makes me nervous, but I am always happy to talk cabbage. Especially Savoy cabbage, the ruffly-collared beauty queen of the cold months. Until I tried this recipe, I didn’t know quite what to do with it, aside from putting it in the crisper drawer, forgetting about it, and cussing profusely when it started to rot. But now I most certainly do know what to do, and I think I will do it at least once every couple of weeks, or, who am I kidding, once a week, until the warm months come back from wherever they went.

Here’s how it works: you slice up a head of Savoy cabbage, along with a bunch of scallions. Then you melt some butter in a large skillet, toss in the cabbage and scallions, and let them cook until the cabbage wilts and starts, just barely, to brown. Then you add some stock and bring it to a simmer, and then you turn the whole mess into a gratin dish. Then you bake it for about an hour under a nice, snug blanket of foil - this is the braising part, just so you know - until it goes completely relaxed. Then, then, as though a dish of meltingly tender cabbage were not soothing enough for a cool night, you take a ration of soft, creamy, pungent cheese - Molly Stevens calls for Saint-Marcellin, but I used Delice de Bourgogne, a triple-cream - and cut it into bits and nubs, which you then scatter over the top. Then you return said cabbage to the oven for another ten minutes, just long enough to melt the cheese and make the kitchen smell outrageously savory and complex, causing everyone present, including you, to stare impatiently at the oven door.

Now, I know I said a lot of nice things about those lima beans last week. I know I compared them to cream-braised Brussels sprouts, a type of praise that is not to be toyed with. But I am tempted to say the same sort of thing about this gratin. This thing is a keeper. As Luisa would say, it’s lamination-worthy, even. We were with our friends Ben and Bonnie and Olaiya on election night, and I think Ben put it best. After he took his first mouthful, he looked up from his plate and said solemnly, proudly, “MOLLY.” To get the full effect, you really had to hear him say it, but you get the idea. He liked it a lot. This one is for him.

Savoy Cabbage Gratin
Adapted from All About Braising, by Molly Stevens

A couple of notes about ingredients:

- Good stock, either chicken or vegetable, is key here. The first time I made this gratin, I used a quick homemade chicken stock, and it was delicious. The second time, I used store-bought vegetable stock - Imagine brand No-Chicken Broth – and though I wasn’t sure what to expect, it was just as good. In general, though, be picky about store-bought stocks: often, I find, the chicken kind tastes too strong, too overwhelmingly chicken-y, while the vegetable kind tastes just plain gross. That particular Imagine broth is the only one I really like, because it actually tastes like vegetable stock.

- If you can’t find Saint-Marcellin, use a good triple-cream cheese, such as Delice de Bourgogne, Pierre Robert, or Brillat-Savarin. I used Delice de Bourgogne, and it was wonderful. Just remember not to use the rind: it’s too pungent. Also, don’t be tempted to use Brie. It isn’t quite right here.

3 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1 Savoy cabbage (about 1 ½ lb.), quartered, cored, and sliced into ½-inch-wide shreds
1 bunch scallions, white and green parts, sliced into ½-inch-wide pieces
Kosher salt
1 ¾ cups mild chicken or vegetable stock
1 ripe Saint-Marcellin cheese (about 3 oz.), or an equal amount of triple-cream cheese

Set a rack in the middle of the oven, and preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly butter a large (roughly 10”x 14”) gratin dish, or another dish of similar size.

Melt the butter in a large (12-inch or bigger) skillet over medium-high heat. Add the cabbage and scallions, season generously with salt, and cook, stirring, until the cabbage is nicely wilted and just beginning to brown in spots, about 10 minutes. Add the stock, bring to a steady simmer, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 2 minutes.

Transfer the cabbage, scallions, and all the liquid into the prepared gratin dish. Cover tightly with foil, and bake for 45 minutes. Remove the foil, and continue to bake until the liquid is mostly evaporated, about 20 minutes more. Then remove the dish from the oven. Cut the cheese into small lumps and scatter it over the cabbage. Increase the oven temperature to 375°F, return the dish to the oven, and cook until the cheese is thoroughly melted, about 10 minutes.

Serve hot or warm, as a side dish for almost any meat. I’ll bet it would also be delicious with an egg. Or on its own, as a light meal, with a hunk of bread.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings


Certainly good

I’m feeling a little bit preoccupied by the election tomorrow, so if you don’t mind, I’d like to cut straight to the chase.

I have four words for you. Lima. Beans. In. Cream.

Still there? Yes? You won’t be sorry, I swear. They may not sound like much, but they’re right up there with cream-braised Brussels sprouts, and that is not something I say lightly. In fact, if it’s any indication, I rank those Brussels sprouts as one of my Top Ten Best Things Ever. Just so you know. I mean business about these lima beans.

When I decided to make these, I was mainly after something soothing to eat on election night. My first idea was a pan of brownies and some beer, and that’s still a viable plan, but I figured we should have some vegetables too. Even if they are in cream, which kind of cancels out the vegetable part. Anyway, the recipe was inspired by none other than Miss Edna Lewis, whose sweet face alone is miraculously soothing. I like to think that, were she alive today, she too might require a brownie, a beer, and some lima beans in cream on this most important, and most nerve-wracking, of nights.

Miss Lewis’s version of the recipe called for freshly shelled lima beans, but I took some liberties and used frozen instead. They get simmered in water for about 15 minutes, or until they are tender, and then you drain them, dump them back into the pan, and add a cupful of cream. Now, I know. It sounds like a lot. It is a lot. But listen: we are living in very uncertain times, and when something this certainly good comes along, you would be wise to not ask questions. You would probably also be wise to not eat it every single day, but that’s another issue.

So, yes, you add the cream and some salt and pepper, and then you set the pan on the heat just long enough to warm it through. During this time, you might take a minute to notice how pretty it looks, the lima beans peeking up out of the cream like cobblestones on an empty street. Actually, what it really called to mind for me was the Pebble Garden at Dumbarton Oaks, in Washington, DC. Have you ever been there? Remind me to tell you sometime about the afternoon I spent there with my mother, my sister, and my niece, and about how we accidentally got locked in the gardens at closing time, and how, as the sun started to set, we climbed our way to freedom over the brick wall that encloses the estate, giggling like schoolgirls until we were caught by a security guard. Or nevermind. I guess I just told you about it.

But about the cream and lima beans. It takes only a few minutes to warm them together, but in this short time, they do something sort of remarkable. Each brings with it a kind of sweetness - a green, starchy kind from the beans, and a rich, caramelly kind from the cream - and together, mingling and melding, they become unreally delicious. I mean, lima beans in cream. It even sounds delicious, a cute little near-rhyme. I can imagine this dish sitting beautifully alongside a piece of roasted chicken on a Sunday night. Or you could serve it as Miss Lewis did, on the holiday table. I think it would be spectacular with turkey, or with a roast of beef. I’m not entirely sure of how it will go with brownies and beer, but I’ve got my fingers crossed - about that and so much more.

Lima Beans in Cream
Inspired by The Taste of Country Cooking, by Edna Lewis

For this recipe, try to use the best, richest-tasting cream you can find. I am completely in love with Fresh Breeze Organic heavy cream, made in Lynden, Washington.

1 (16-ounce) bag frozen baby lima beans (about 3 cups)
1 cup heavy cream
¾ tsp. kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp. unsalted butter

Dump the lima beans, still frozen, in a 2- to 3-quart saucepan, and add cold water to cover by about 1 inch. Place over medium-high heat, cover, and bring to a boil. Adjust the heat to maintain a brisk simmer, and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the beans are tender. Drain into a colander, and then return the beans to the saucepan. Add the cream, salt, and a few grinds of black pepper. Stir gently. Warm over low heat, shaking and swirling the pan occasionally, until the cream is warmed through and slightly, ever so slightly, thickened. It will still look quite soupy. Do not allow to boil. Stir in the butter, and serve hot.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings