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She got out a skillet

I should begin with a confession: I’m not in Thanksgiving mode yet. Who knows. It’s weird. This holiday sort of sneaks up, I’ve noticed, and then it’s quickly eclipsed by Christmas, which is sad, since Thanksgiving is our only national holiday devoted wholly to eating. This year, we’re heading to New Jersey to visit family, and I will almost certainly make cranberry chutney and probably a chocolate pecan pie, but it’s been hard to plan from a distance. Thanksgiving of 2010, I apologize. I’ll do better next year.

On the upside, I ate almost two pounds of carrots today.

I’m not sure why, but I keep thinking about my host mother. I haven’t seen her for ten years, but still, I think of her often, and when I’m not thinking of her leeks vinaigrette, I’m thinking of her carrots cooked in a skillet with onion and thyme. Corentine always cooked vegetables on the stovetop. It hadn’t occurred to me how accustomed I was to oven-roasting everything - broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, Brussels sprouts, rutabagas, carrots, everything - until I noticed that she only used the oven for cakes and tarts and the occasional quiche. When she wanted to cook a vegetable, she got out a skillet and warmed some oil in it, or she got out a saucepan and the steamer basket. I didn’t think much about it at the time, and when I cooked for myself in her kitchen, I continued to roast as usual - using the drip pan of her broiler pan, since she didn’t seem to have a baking sheet. But when I came home, when I no longer had the luxury of sitting at her table each night, I missed her vegetables, and in particular, those carrots.

I don’t think of this as a holiday dish, so it feels a little misleading to write about it only a few days before Thanksgiving. It’s not that it isn’t worthy of a holiday table; it’s just that, for Corentine, this was bare-bones, stupid-easy, everyday eating. She would serve these carrots next to a piece of fish, with a slice of quiche, or a roasted chicken that she picked up at the market. It’s what you make when you’ve got too many carrots in the crisper drawer and you need something for dinner. But it’s also the kind of food that, to me, is synonymous with French home cooking: simple and inexpensive, but also nuanced, a little elegant.

I don’t want to call these sauteed carrots, because those two words usually point toward a cloying end, likely tossed with salted butter and honey, so mushy that no actual chewing is required. When I talk about Corentine’s carrots, I call them skillet carrots, because it sounds nicer, and also because the skillet and its lid are the key elements here. These are not sauteed carrots: they’re sort of sauteed, sort of steamed, and sort of stewed. I watched Corentine cook carrots this way a number of times, and though I now can’t remember whether she used olive oil or safflower oil (her usual go-to), the basic gist is this. You warm a nice amount of oil in a large skillet, and then you soften sliced onions in it. Then you add sliced garlic, and a few minutes later, you add a lot of sliced carrots and some sprigs of fresh thyme and maybe a little more oil, and then you cover the pan with a lid and let things roll along until the carrots are tender. But that doesn’t quite capture it: what’s really happening under the lid, where you can’t see, is that the carrots and onions are mingling, stewing together, spending quality time, so that in the end, the onions are nearly caramelized and the carrots are almost rich, sticky with the onions’ natural sugars.

Corentine served the dish just like that, and you can, too, but I like to add a small amount of red wine vinegar at the very end, a subtle dose of acidity, enough to gently perk up the earthbound flavor of the carrots without adding any flavor of its own. Last night I ate these carrots with a couple of fried eggs and let the yolks scurry around and sauce them, which I highly recommend. Today I’m a little under the weather, so I ate them on their own tonight, two heaping plates’ worth, and I highly recommend that, too.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Skillet Carrots with Onions and Thyme

My host mother used regular orange carrots, but I like to use purple and yellow ones, too, when I can find them. They keep their color when cooked, so they make the dish especially handsome. Whatever carrots you use, make sure that they taste sweet in their raw state: a dull, bitter carrot cannot be fixed. I don’t bother to peel my carrots, but I do wash them well.

Also, for this recipe, I like to slice my onions from stem end to root end, like this, so that they keep their shape and integrity as they cook. When you slice onions the other way – across their equators, you could say – they tend to fall apart during cooking.

Olive oil
1 yellow onion, halved and sliced from root to stem, like this
2 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 lb. carrots, sliced into ¼-inch-thick rounds
4 to 5 fresh thyme sprigs
½ tsp. red wine vinegar, or to taste

Warm a large skillet over medium-high heat. When it’s hot, add a good amount of olive oil, enough to film the bottom of the pan. Add the onions – they should sizzle – stir to coat with oil. Salt lightly. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onions are softened but not browned. Add the garlic, reduce the heat to medium, and cook for a few more minutes, until the garlic is fragrant. Add the carrots, thyme, and a couple of generous pinches of salt, and stir to mix. If the carrots look dry, add a little more oil to lightly coat them; this dish needs more oil than you might think. Cover the pan and continue to cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the carrots are tender and the onions are very soft. (I never seem to pay attention to how long this takes, but I would guess that it takes somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes.) Remove the pan from the heat, and discard the thyme sprigs. Sprinkle the vinegar over the carrots. Stir gently to incorporate: the vinegar should subtly brighten the flavor of the carrots without being discernable itself. Add more vinegar, if needed, and salt to taste.

Serve hot.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings


I am sold

I know this cookie looks wholesome. Actually, I’ll raise you one and say that it verges on homely. But this cookie speaks to me, and what it says is, Hey, baaaabe-eh. In this voice.

Meet Kim Boyce’s whole wheat chocolate chip cookie. This might be my favorite chocolate chip cookie, which is an absolutely insane thing to say, because until about a week ago, I thought that title belonged, forever and ever, to the New York Times chocolate chip cookie. I don’t know what I think anymore. Let’s just call this my new favorite chocolate chip cookie and leave it at that.

I first heard about this recipe from Luisa, and then Lecia mentioned it to me, too, and maybe Brian, and maybe you? However it got there, it’s been on my to-do list for a while, and last Friday, I decided that it was finally time to make a batch. So I did, and by Tuesday, I had decided that it was time for a second batch. That was barely 72 hours ago, but the last cookie disappeared shortly after lunch today. I did give about a third of the batch away, but still, I would like to state for the record that our household, which consists of two (2) people, put away roughly a dozen (12) cookies. I don’t know exactly what I expected from a whole wheat chocolate chip cookie, but I didn’t expect to want to eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

On Wednesday, before they were all eaten, we had unseasonably good weather, and the whole house was washed in that crazy gold light that comes only in the fall, and even then only on exceptional days, and it gave me the opportunity to photograph these cookies for you in their natural state, which is to say, with halos on.

Take my word for it. You need to try a batch. They may be built on a foundation of whole wheat flour, but they’re not health food, so don’t get hung up on that. They’re everything that a proper chocolate chip cookie should be: tender and chewy in the middle, crisp at the edges, and very forthcoming with the chocolate. But what I like most is that, on top of all that, you also get the subtly nutty, naturally sweet-and-savory flavor of wheat. You know digestive biscuits? Imagine a cross between a chocolate chip cookie and a digestive biscuit. Do you read me? Am I the only American who hears the words digestive and biscuit and instantly needs a snack? I hope not. Because that’s the kind of flavor we’re talking about here. And that flavor, that benevolent wheaty flavor, not only tastes good, but it also performs a valuable service: it tames the sweetness and richness - that occasionally sweat-inducing intensity, if you will - that is the seldom spoken-about dark side of any chocolate chip cookie. Thank you, whole wheat. Thank you, Kim Boyce. In other words, I am sold.

Whole Wheat Chocolate Chip Cookies
Adapted from Good to the Grain, by Kim Boyce

Without really planning to, I’ve played around quite a lot with this recipe. I’ve only made it twice, but each time was in a different kitchen, with different ingredients and tools. Both times, the cookies came out beautifully. Here are some thoughts:

- A friend who had made this recipe suggested that I try making it with white whole wheat flour, so I bought a fresh bag and used it in my first batch. I loved the resulting flavor – lightly wheaty, almost bran-like – and I highly recommend it. For my second batch, I used a local brand of whole wheat flour, and it was plenty nice, but the wheat flavor was darker and heartier. If you’re after that digestive biscuit flavor, I would use white whole wheat flour.

- Because I am apparently getting ornery with age, I ignored Boyce’s advice to use cold butter. I honestly thought it was a typo, because I’ve always had a hard time creaming butter that’s even a little bit too cold. Instead, I used softened butter. (I left it at room temperature until it was still cool to the touch but took the imprint of a finger when I pressed it. Perfect for creaming.) It worked just fine, as you can see. But I’ve now done some poking around online and see that the recipe is indeed supposed to use cold butter, cubed for easier creaming. Oops! So, uh, never mind me. Do whatever you want.

- The original recipe calls for chopped bittersweet chocolate, and I tried it once that way and once with bittersweet chips. (I used Ghirardelli 60% chocolate in both cases.) I preferred the chopped chocolate because the pieces were smaller, so it gave the sense that there was more chocolate. But if you want to keep it quick and simple, chips will do the job.

- I made this dough once in a stand mixer and once with handheld electric beaters. The poor beaters had to labor a lot, and I wound up recruiting a sturdy spatula to help out, but it’s good to know that you can make do with whatever tools you have on hand.

- Boyce says that this dough is designed to be baked without chilling first. (This, I think, is linked to her use of cold butter. The cold butter likely keeps the dough cool and helps it spread less in the oven.) But I apparently am not only ornery; I also can’t follow directions. I scooped my dough, put it on a sheet pan, covered it with plastic wrap, and chilled it before baking. Some of the dough was chilled for about 1 hour, and some stayed in the fridge for two days. Chilling dough generally results in a thicker cookie, and mine were certainly nice and plump, which I like. So I recommend chilling the dough. And hey, I also noticed that the cookies that stayed in the fridge for two days were particularly flavorful. So “aging” the dough a bit isn’t a bad idea, either.

3 cups whole wheat flour (see note above)
1 ½ tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 ½ tsp. kosher salt
2 sticks (8 oz.) unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes (see note above)
1 cup lightly packed dark brown sugar
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp. vanilla extract
8 oz. bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped into ¼- and ½-inch pieces, or bittersweet chips

Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven, and preheat to 350°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment. (If you have no parchment, you can butter the sheets.)

Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl, and whisk to blend.

Put the butter and sugars in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. With the mixer on low speed, mix just until the butter and sugars are blended, about 2 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the vanilla. Add the flour mixture to the bowl, and blend on low speed until the flour is just incorporated. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl. Add the chocolate, and mix on low speed until evenly combined. (If you have no stand mixer, you can do all of this with handheld electric beaters and/or a large, sturdy spoon.) Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl, and then use your hands to turn and gently massage the dough, making sure all the flour is absorbed.

Scoop mounds of dough about 3 tablespoons in size onto the baking sheets, leaving about 3 inches between each cookie. (I was able to fit about 8 cookies on each sheet, staggering them in three rows.)

Bake the cookies for 16 to 20 minutes, rotating the sheets halfway through, until the cookies are evenly browned. Transfer the cookies, still on parchment, to a rack to cool. Repeat with remaining dough.

These cookies are very good while still warm from the oven, but I find that you can taste the wheat more – in a good way – once they’ve cooled.

Yield: about 20 cookies