Three Things I Learned in Alaska

A Handy Tip: One of the many treats on a recent Alaska trip was a visit with my young friend and her mother. When I arrived at their house on Saturday afternoon, I found pizza makings arranged on the kitchen counter. Three circles of dough sat on parchment paper, and little bowls held tomato sauce, artichokes, cheese, chopped red onions, tomatoes, olives, roasted garlic, and leftover cooked broccoli and beets. A pizza stone heated in the oven.

We put our own made-to-order pizza together, and transferred each to the pizza stone – along with the (here’s the tip) parchment paper. Set the timer and pull the parchment paper out after about two minutes (a 500° oven might ignite parchment paper). This handy hint eliminates cornmeal and the tricky shift from peel to stone.

A Small Miracle: I stayed with our son and his wife and their four lively non-human companions – two orange cats and two beloved dogs. The critters claim a tall kitty condo, multiple sleeping spots (mostly sunny) throughout the house, and a variety of dog beds. Each is important in its time.

So when the zipper on a comfy contraption of foam and fleece (placed in front of a low-down window for maximum neighborhood surveillance) refused to zip after a wash, we struggled with it, managing to get the two rows of teeth lined up and into the fastener – but the teeth wouldn’t unite as a zipper must do.

The sweet dog liked the bed anyway – but I woke early the next morning and began to wonder what makes a zipper zip. A few minutes with e-How and now I know that pressure on the teeth from the fastener (the part below the toggle pull) does the trick. As instructed, I squeezed the in-place fastener just a little on each side with pliers – and voila! Zipness.

A Helpful Hint: In these three days I saw old friends, enjoyed my old garden with its new owners, drove down memory lane along Turnagain Arm to Girdwood, and ate a lot of good, home-cooked food.

We got meal mileage from the big pot of black beans our son prepared before I arrived, but for Sunday evening, Bittman’s “French-Style Lentil Soup with Sorrel or Spinach” was on the menu.

A simple recipe: put lentils, a bay leaf, pinches of dried thyme or several sprigs of fresh, one each chopped carrot and celery, and six cups of stock in a soup pot and sprinkle with salt and pepper. (Bring to a boil, then cook till the lentils are tender.)

At the same time, sauté a chopped onion in olive oil, and when cooked, add a bunch of washed and chopped spinach plus a teaspoon of sugar. Add to the soup, along with a squeeze of lemon.

What’s new in that recipe? I learned from the young people to use the bean cooking water as part of the stock. Why have I never known that? It makes the soup full-bodied and uses up the nutritious bean liquid. Perfect!

The Bean Project – Hummus

So far from the royals! Return to reality and embrace the common chickpea – the lowly garbanzo bean – unassuming in appearance but full of protein. The other day reaching for a container of hummus at the Co-op, I wondered why am I always buying this. I should try to make it.

The day I tried was also the day I’d been up from two to four in the morning, wrapped in a blanket in front of my computer, streaming BBC to watch the wedding live. All the sleepy day later, I kept thinking how we never get out of bed in the middle of the night for a happy event. So it was a strange treat to join people all over the world (not watching a disaster or a revolution either), without commentators or commercials, just cameras and sound – like being a pigeon in the abbey rafters.

Wanting the hummus sooner rather than later, and having neither dried garbanzos nor the two hours needed to cook, I noticed Bittman’s recipe says: “This is a good place to use canned chickpeas.” He warned that hummus can taste too much like raw garlic but promised his was “smoother and more complex in flavor.”

Following his directions, I combined two cups of canned chickpeas, half-cup of tahini (I had roasted tahini), quarter-cup of olive oil, a small clove of garlic peeled (Bittman also recommends roasted garlic), salt and freshly ground black pepper, one tablespoon ground cumin (or to taste), and the juice of one lemon (I had a Meyer lemon) in the container of the food processor. After beginning to process, add up to half-cup of water as needed to make a smooth puree.

Mine took a while to get smooth – I used the whole half-cup of water – but maybe should have just processed longer.

At the end after tasting, Bittman says to add more garlic, salt, lemon juice or cumin if needed.

It’s good – and rich with possible variables and additions. My friend on the bluff who makes it often doesn’t use a recipe anymore – hers is tasty.

I want to try Bittman’s “Roasted Chickpeas” with the leftover beans – adding olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper before roasting at 400° for about 15 minutes. Bittman says you can sprinkle with chili powder or curry powder – crisp on the outside, smooth inside – sounds a good snack.

Next royal wedding I’ll make some ahead of time!

Black Beans and the No CSA Blues

About the third night of black beans in a row (black beans with squash galette, black beans and rice, black beans in tacos), I realized I had the No CSA Blues – inertia, listlessness in the grocery store, a failure of imagination. It’s not that the Co-op doesn’t have food, but I’m missing the guidance – and the box of prompts.

I loved our CSA in Alaska – no matter the short season and the preponderance of greens and beets – it was a thrill to have freshly harvested vegetables on the Last Frontier. But the dependence I’ve formed on the Red Dog’s produce is more extreme. I rarely write a proper list from a recipe and take it to the store. I like best to make do with what’s in the fridge. So without the CSA I come up short. In Red Dog’s CSA season (all but a couple of months of the year), there’s always something good.

With the young couple who joined us in Hawaii we talked about black beans (in addition to cats), and they asked about cooking them. So – a little black bean cooking encouragement for dried bean beginners (like I was before the blog). Martha Stewart’s recipe has become second nature (supplied a year ago by the mother of my young friend). While simple, beans need time on the stove, so they’re good to cook on a Saturday – or an evening while watching a movie.

In spite of Bittman’s advice, I do soak two cups of beans overnight. They serve as sign of intention when I wake up to plumper beans pushing through the water over top of them. I add more water to cover till I’m ready to cook.

Rinse the beans and put in a big pot. The recipe calls for eight cups of water – but seven cups with well-soaked beans is adequate. You want enough so the beans stay covered during cooking, but not so much that you end up with more bean broth than you want.

Throw in two onions, just peeled and quartered, five garlic cloves peeled and smashed with the handle of a knife. Add two tablespoons of red vinegar. I take Bittman seriously about salt during cooking. I add a teaspoon to begin with, and try to remember the other mid-way in the cooking.

Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and set the timer for 90 minutes or so. (This is where gas stove cooks have advantage. It took a while to figure out the right knob position on my fluctuating electric stove.) Batches of dried beans vary also – older beans take longer to cook.) Sometimes I cook longer than the 90 minutes – being sure water continues to cover.

A year’s worth of bean pots and bean posts have taught and rewarded me. They freeze beautifully and make easy weekday meals.

When the CSA comes back next week (hooray!) whatever is in it will go splendidly with black beans.

Cooking Beans in Paradise

On Kauai papaya, lemons, oranges, avocados, apple bananas, and pineapples join exotic fruits I don’t know so well – rambutan and mangosteen. Even in the islands it’s winter, but at farmer’s markets gorgeous vegetables and kale bunches of all kinds overlap each other. We often bought dinosaur and frilly kale, along with shallots, potatoes, carrots (not so good as Red Dog but local), and tiny eggplants. We discovered that my old friend’s kale salad – while good right away – gets even better after a day or two – unlike any other dressed salad.

Our younger son’s sweet friend, our resident Thai cook, worked her magic on several evenings, and one night presented an all-Thai menu with cooking lessons. She charmed galangal and kaffir lime leaves from the owner of the local Thai restaurant, and taught us about ingredients like lemon grass and peppers. Her soup was fragrant and hotly delicious.

Our older son and his wife prepared vegetable kabobs to grill on the night we celebrated my husband’s birthday, and made tasty oatmeal cookies with chocolate chips to go with ice cream – a festive stand-in for birthday cake.

But black beans carried the day. I made two different big batches from dried beans, and – like the basic little black dress – they appeared in many ensembles.

We served black beans and peppers stuffed with quinoa when our younger son’s college roommate and his wife came for a weekend (they’re newly moved to Honolulu from Saipan with great stories of that life). But the highlight that night – our daughter-in-law’s chocolate-covered, frozen apple bananas!

Deborah came with us – her “Vegetarian Suppers” is a portable size, and a good book to inspire a cooking-in-a-condo trip. Our first night together we ate Deborah’s “Black Beans and Yellow Rice” – the rice made partly with coconut milk and colored yellow with saffron and turmeric.

Deborah says even canned beans work fine in this meal – as long as you “doctor them up” by cooking and adding green peppers, onions, cilantro, garlic, cumin, and chipotle – or as many of those ingredients as you have.

I can make this at home now – and the rice will be properly golden yellow with the spices, and the beans extra flavorful from complete ingredients.

But I’ll be missing our amiable tablemates!

The Bean Project

On the radio I heard a snippet of an expert on procrastination. She said to be specific when you talk to yourself – name the exact job and not a generality like “eat better” or “get more organized.” I wish I’d heard more, it was parking lot of the school moment, but I’m imagining “eat carrots” and “clean out the paper, plastic, and foil drawer” (what are those grits that drift to the bottom in a drawer anyway?).

Baked beans have been in my mind since Boston – and flipping through “The Winter Vegetarian,” I got specific: “Maple Baked Beans.” Goldstein says these beans are baked slowly “in the New England style.” That sounded good for a windy winter weekend, the last one in January – have dinner cooking in the oven for many hours and take down the long-serving Christmas tree.

Soak one pound (that means usually two cups) of navy or pea beans overnight in water to cover, with a quarter teaspoon of baking soda. The next day drain, cover with four cups of water, bring to a boil, and simmer about 30 minutes (till nearly tender). Drain – but reserve the cooking liquid.

Preheat the oven to 250° and transfer the beans to a three-quart casserole. Goldstein recommends an earthenware bean pot. Having no three-quart casserole of any kind, I used two smaller ones – with lids.

Mix together these ingredients: three quarters of a cup maple syrup (I love maple syrup, but this seemed a lot, I used a scant half cup), three tablespoons dark molasses, half cup of crushed tomatoes (I opened a small can – and added the whole thing), a teaspoon and a half dry mustard (didn’t have this, so used a couple squirts of yellow mustard), half teaspoon ground ginger, one and half teaspoons salt, freshly ground black pepper, and half teaspoon dried thyme. Pour over the beans.

Stir in a small chopped onion (I used shallots because we have gorgeous ones from the CSA), and tuck in two peeled garlic cloves and a bay leaf. Add enough of the reserved bean liquid to cover the beans (more if you like). Cover the pot and bake at 250° for five or six hours.

Goldstein says to add more liquid if necessary – but I didn’t need to. The beans and sauce bubbled and filled the house with a delicious smell. They came out of the oven (one casserole after only four hours because we were hungry) tender and flavorful – tomatoey but not too much. This recipe makes lots, so I froze a container full.

That’s a lesson of the bean project – how easy it is to freeze cooked beans – then enjoy real beans after a little thawing – almost as easy as a can. And these baked beans outdo canned ones for sure.

Thinking specifically – maple baked beans!

Lentils – Happy and Amused

If you have a little free time, like I did in early January, and search for the source of a quote by the Roman naturalist Pliny, who credits lentils with the “ability to produce temperaments of mildness and moderation in those who consumed them,” you might stumble on “LegumeChef.com la web de las legumbres.” Though the site is in English, Italian, and Spanish, it seems to be supported in this country by the Dry Bean Council. I never thought about a council for dry beans but it sounds good.

In my wandering state, I sidetracked to Catalan pinto beans and a chocolate surprise cake made with green peas and chickpeas. But I was seeking lentils. The Barcelona chef Néstor Luján writes of lentils – “a legume which has played a fundamental part in human food, especially in the West.” He describes the lentil as “the humble, nutritious and much maligned.” He names Egypt as the source of lentils, where it was said “On eating Egyptian lentils, a man becomes happy and amused.”

That seems good place to stop and retreat to an utterly simple recipe from “The Winter Vegetarian” (a cookbook I find more and more intriguing – it’s winter!). Because we’ve had terrific leeks in the CSA, I chose “Lentils and Leeks.” I rinsed and sliced the leeks half-inch thick with just a little of the green as Goldstein recommends, added them to sliced carrots in olive oil and sautéed over medium heat until the vegetables were lightly browned.

Then I added the rest of the ingredients: two and a half cups of water, one cup of green lentils, a tablespoon of tomato paste (I happened to have this open, but if I hadn’t, I think a small can of tomatoes would be fine), a teaspoon of sugar, and salt and freshly ground pepper. Cover and simmer for one hour, till lentils are tender and most liquid absorbed. Serve hot.

They really are good hot – comforting – no doubt that helps create the mildness of temperament in the diner on a cold, dark eve. Goldstein’s lentils left us happy and amused, being excellent the first night with leftover New Year black-eyed peas, and then welcome to me for several solo lunchtimes.

No matter their culinary strengths and versatility, lentils aren’t visually delightful – but my Christmas present apron is! And it also makes me happy.

Red Beans and Rice

Maybe this post is only minimally about a recipe – but in searching for a last bean dish of the year (before making black-eyed peas for New Year’s and coming full circle), I realized that in spite of all the red in the kitchen this season (pomegranates, pears, persimmons, and peppers), I hadn’t thought of cooking red beans.

Mark Bittman’s recipe for “Red Beans and Rice” calls for coconut milk and hot spices (an appropriate taste of Thailand added to our holiday). I’ll start the kidney beans – then cook onion, pepper, and celery in olive oil until softened, and add thyme, bay leaves, allspice (or chili powder to taste), and two cups chopped tomatoes. When the tomatoes break up,  add to the bean mixture, and cook until the beans are very tender.

Add a cup and a half of long-grained white rice (we bought Thai rice) and three cups canned coconut milk to the beans, turn heat to low and cook till the rice is tender and the liquid absorbed.

Ah beans: flexible, resilient, dependable, interesting, desirable.

Beans have been one of the many joys of this year’s experience with “Her spirits rose….” I’m tempted to ask my readers about going forth. I do think about that a lot – but maybe I need to go beyond thinking to a plan.

The schedule mattered to me this year – but maybe I needn’t keep so closely to that? Maybe if the blog continues, it could be once a week – day uncertain, longer or shorter. Maybe trusting myself enough to allow a little randomness – perhaps not so frequent or sometimes more frequent when called for.

I have loved the discipline and the routine, loved the exchanges around writing with the wordsmith (generous with her time and expertise) and my husband (always good-natured about his “first reader” task). Thank you both.

And I’ve loved “having” to think about illustrating each week – making new or using my archive – often working fast and always with pleasure.

It was fun to make a cast of characters from the important people in my life. From the young writer to the mother of my young friend, I have shamelessly appropriated your quirks and stories to share. Thank you.

I have appreciated hearing from readers, in comments and in extra emails – even in lovely, paper letters – about what this effort has meant in your lives. Those missives did much to support this year’s output. Thank you all.

My relationship to food and cooking has grown and sustained me also. Now it seems obvious that if one is concerned with the art of daily life – food looms large.

Back to the red beans. A reader in London told me in an email that in cultures where rice is the most important staple (like his native Japan) beans are for special occasions. He writes: “especially the red bean is for a festive occasion (white rice and red bean makes an auspicious combination).”

Sounds good!