It has been a little while since I have written, partly due to busy life, busy shops, and general procrastination, but also, I need to be inspired to write. Today, I was inspired. I was viewing a Schwartzberg TED talk on Youtube about gratitude. He is an artist who records images of flowers in super slow motion, and they are stunning. You should check it out, (Gratitude: Louie Schwartberg at TEDxSF") very cool, but for my purposes, I was inspired by his central message; simply put, be grateful for that which nature gives us. Nature gives us gifts freely, but to be sure, some are more fortunate than others. As we are hit with a blizzard in the northeast, it is hard to feel blessed, but we are so fortunate and need only walk on Rhode Island's coastline to see that.
I thought about food and wine in a way that I had not before, they too are the gifts of the earth, and I am fortunate to enjoy them in abundance.For starters, I am fortunate for the beauty of these gifts in both their natural state, which appeals to the eye and the touch, and in their prepared state that appeals to smell, taste, and perhaps a sizzle satisfies our sense of hearing. We can look around a grocer or a farm stand and witness the glory and gorgeousness of vegetables. Then, we take them into our hands, we smell them, clean them, chop, plan, dice, blanche, or what have you, and then begin the poetic process of composing a meal, a dish, an experience, a ritual...
Preparing and sharing a meal is the way that we express our gratitude for the gifts the earth provides for us, with recognition that not everyone is as fortunate. So, I must share my blessings, right? (yes, I am getting to that part) All of this is done in communion with others.
I am beginning a new book, William Sitwell's "A HIstory of Food in 100 Recipes." My Dad kindly bought it for me in a moment of excitement (okay, I wont go on that tangent, but thanks Dad!). The book traces a history of food by way of one hundred recipes tracing a historic line from nearly 2000 years before the Christian era to today. I like the narrative that Sitwell draws out, so I decided that I need to follow his journey, and let me own develop from it.
Tonight was the first of many, making dinner for my friends from the history of food. (sounds so dramatic, doesn't it?) I am going to go in order, for now (rules are so flexible, I find), and so I began with Ancient Egyptian Bread and a Babylonian Stew, the two first recipes. I will not write out the recipes: one, because you should buy the book and check it our for yourself; and two, this is my journey, so I am going to share that experience with hopes that I can pass on to you a little inspiration to go out on your own food and wine journey. I will tell you that both of these recipes are very simple and entirely impossible to recreate, so I did what any decent cook would do, I made it up!
The first recipe was for Ancient Egyptian Bread, and the instructions began with something about grinding the whole grain with two sticks in a wooden bowl. I took some liberties, thanks to Bob's Red Mill Spelt flour, a "grain of antiquity" the label assured me, seemed like a good substitute for hours of rubbing two sticks together in an effort to produce a product that a reasonably good company had already done for me. I added water and yeast, as the instructions that had been left on the tomb walls of Senet indicated. I did mix it by hand, though I wanted to use my Kitchen Aid. The texture was dry and when I saw the dough, I immediately texted Louise to stop at the shop and pick up a loaf of bread, surely this was not going to go well.
While the dough was rising (and Louise arrived with a stunning loaf of sourdough), I prepared the stew. I will admit I took a lot of poetic license with this one, but what I liked about this recipe was the labor involved in recording it onto a cement tile. As Sitwell reminds us, we communicate recipes with great ease by text, email, etc, imagine writing it out in a tile with a stick. Again, get this book and read the detail of his research, it is so cool. What I learned is that this culture appreciated the ingredients available from their fertile ground, just as I do, so I decided that a stew made from local ingredients, inspired from the narrative of an ancient Egyptian tablet was what the menu called for.
I started with some leeks, onions, celery and carrots, a bit of olive oil and a couple table sppons of butter and from there, every few minutes added small cubed pieces of beets, potatoes, winter squash, parsnips, and Brussels's sprouts, to which I added sauteed broccoli, mushrooms, and garlic. I cooked the broccoli, mushrooms, and garlic separate because I wanted to layer in flavor, a surprising burst, rather than a flavor bended in. I also cooked the vegetables a little longer than I typically would because I recently heard that you need to cook broccoli at least fifteen minutes to get the full flavor from it, and this worked in my favor. I did the first cooking off with chardonnay, and then added water to cover and finished in the oven. It was so beautiful, bright green, red, and yellow all smeared like a Impressionist dinner table.
The girls said it tasted pretty good, so I was happy. The bread, surprisingly, turned out all right. The texture was very satisfying, like a thick Naan, though the French Sourdough would have been better...leave some things to the professionals! I learned something tonight about my meal: trust local seasonal things to blend in flavor and take some chances. It is food after all, so make it up as you go!
I am only 2 recipes in, so you will surely hear more about this. By the way, I asked the girls to bring red wine to pair with the dinner, thinking the blizzard conditions and our winter stew would be better suited to a red wine, but we ended up, driven by our own impulse to drink white, and Louise's pinot blanc was the best pairing of the night. The little caramelization that happened on the veggies while roasting with the ripe stone fruit of the Alsatian white were so lovely, richness to them both but the dance nicely together.
Next week, fish wrapped in figs and sweet nuts...I will let you know how it goes. I love to hear about your cooking adventure, so please share. When we can't travel, we should go places in our kitchens with our friends.
Be grateful and may your table be abundant in 2014, cheers, Maria