I'm not much for superstition, or magical thinking, or anything really on the far side of reason. But every now and again? A little mental hat trick is just the thing.
For example, I've decided Columbus is just another Seattle suburb. I've split my day's meals between the two cities a dozen times in as many months, after all. Friends have completed their fourth visit already, and a much-missed grandmother's booking her second round-trip. Okay, an exurb, maybe. But I tell you, it's practically commute-worthy!
Or consider the orange sherbet Rx. Max lobbied, the other night, for a scoop plus chocolate, arguing sherbet was medicine, not actually dessert. He's genius this way, not sneaky but savvy, already an Einstein with loopholes and laws. But I'm good this way, too, an attorney's daughter always, so I argued the point, said either/or. But you know? I regretted it, pretty much instantly, because we needed this week all the sherbet we could hold.
It's been another one of those, all three kiddos down, or as I've come to think of them, Sick, Sicker and Sickest. Max missed school the better part of all week, Henry's been out the better part of two, and Zoë, poor girl, is as ill as I've seen her. Her whole body's wracked by soul-searing coughs, both ears and both eyes are painfully afflicted, and her voice, well golly, where'd it go? A husky-hoarse croak is the best she can manage, like some ancient, three-pack-a-day Golden Age screen star. Albeit a rather short one.
The only schooling going on is of the at-home variety. The baby sling boxed up in 2008? Back in circulation. I'm launching a new Facebook group called "Conjunctivitis Term Limits NOW!" Creed: one round of pink eye, per child, per month. (You in?) We're living on fumes and caffeine and Tylenol by the twin-pack. And the funny thing is? It's been pretty darn fine.
Because — and this may be my best hocus-pocus coup yet — our black-and-white world did a one-eighty last week. In truth, two days before my last post, a freak streak of (cold) sun arrived on the set. I considered an epilogue, but decided against it, since the week's first five days were standard-fare frigid (not to mention the entire four months prior). Mostly, though, I was scared I'd hex it, stop Spring in its tracks before it got started. So mum was the word, and crossed went the fingers.
And do you know, my magical thinking paid off? Swimmingly, brilliantly, and then some! In the past week, we've had seven straight days of beauty, of blue skies and bright light and warmth, real warmth. I don't mean some adjusted-for-conditions facsimile, 21° or even textbook freezing. We're talking fifty-plus, no-jacket-required, fling-open-the-doors-and-windows warmth. The world? Color! The snow? Gone!! And underneath it all, small signs of life everywhere, shoots, green tips, even odd buds. Do you see what I see, these suddenly tulips? And those hellebores up top? And holy cow, Houston, we even have snowdrops.
So while we've been down, we've also been out, and can I tell you what a difference that makes? We've set up our sick beds out on the deck, taken our sherbet cure sitting on the stoop, and made fresh air our number one treatment. I never picked up the amoxycillin, but we doubled up on more powerful drugs. Hands-together! catch with last year's faded ball. Digging up the last snow under a shirt-sleeves sun. Chase with fly-away fever hair. Climbing the first tree of the year. Climbing the first tree, ever. Strong medicine. Puts generics to shame. We're basking like geckos, squinting like kittens, knocking on QWERTY I don't jinx it all.
I'm mindful, of course, that winter's still upon us. The last freeze date here is in mid-May. I've got a new scarf on the needles, a skeleton crew of mittens on standby. We're still baking bread and slurping citrus and I bought more red cabbage not three days ago. Winter greens remain in heavy rotation, though the winter bit's really just more squishy logic.
I'm a locavore in spirit, and often practice, but I realize there are great big gaps in my fervor. Berries and stone fruits only happen in season. Tomatoes and zucchini and endless other veg, also. But there's a special exemption for tropical crops, because bananas and oranges just never grow here. And also, I'm noticing, a sleight of mind sort of thing, for foods which I think of as stalwart winter fare, but which in sad fact are long-distance imports. Like It's 5 o'clock somewhere!, adapted to plants. It's a mild winter somewhere, so let us eat kale!
When I say kale, what I mean is this kale. Because while I always mean to try it as crunchy oven chips, and love it dearly tossed with pasta and chickpeas, I can never get past this dreamy preparation. I suppose we should call it kale crostini or something, to give it a shelf, a slot in your mind. Though those greens on toast is my household vernacular, so feel free to use that if it suits you, instead.
The name's hardly the point; this one's all about texture. And flavor. And the swell way they both play together, here. There's the base of barely toasted baguette. The plump, snowy layer of creamy ricotta. And then, only then, this velvety kale. It's a little like pesto, I guess, in its form, blitzed after braising until it goes plush. But without nuts or cheese, its flavor's more pure, which is not to say lacking, not even close. There's a gold puddle of oil, which emulsifies in the end, plus a good hit of garlic, because it's kale's soul-mate. And, um, oh dear, a delicate subject ... (anchovies). Phew. I said it. Deep breath.
I've been awfully nervous about this here kale. Prunes may have their own laugh track, as Molly once said, but anchovies, man, they've got their own hit squad. They were the butt of all jokes I learned as a child, the be-all-end-all of ultimate gross. I ate, and adored, raw octopus by seven. But anchovies? I cowered, well into my thirties. These are fish with a Reputation. Thing is, it's the wrong one.
What every country knows, save ours, it seems, is that these little fish are pure flavor bombs. Mashed to paste and melted in oil, they bring salt and savor and all manner of richness. Anchovies operate like other kitchen legends, like bacon or onions, parmesan or cream. They lose their fishy identity completely, and transform the character of a dish entirely. Anchovies make a food taste more like itself, bigger, brighter, bolder, better. This kale's one of the meatiest dinners we eat, though there's no proper meat anywhere in it.
You could use only garlic; I've tried it, I like it. But with anchovies it spills right over into awesome, rounder and deeper and full of dimension. Like Chaplin's The Tramp versus Avatar, say. Or Ohio last week versus Ohio today. I'm not saying one's better, exactly. What I'm saying is? If you want to claim they taste 'just like chicken', or sing an eyes-closed TRA LA LA! while you cook, or use whatever other mind game it takes to get anchovies off of your black list and into this dish? You have my permission.
Greens on Toast
Inspired by Italy in Small Bites, by Carol Field
Please note, you will need a stick blender or food processor (mini or standard) for this.
Two bunches of kale may sound like a lot, and the recipe can be halved easily enough. But like all greens, kale cooks down tremendously; the total yield isn't much more than a cup. We call this dinner, several slices to a head, and go through almost all of it, every time. Any last spoonfuls are lovely the next day in scrambled eggs, soup or pasta. Or, as I tried them tonight in a fridge-clean-up supper, spread onto fresh warm chapati with mashed butternut and lemon-soused garbanzos. Mmm...By fresh ricotta, I mean the sort in the clear deli container, sold fresh at good groceries and a world apart from the red-and-green tub variety (or made yourself.) I've eaten this, also, with fresh chèvre and puréed white beans, loosened with olive oil and spiked with rosemary. These were good, also. But ricotta is fantastic. As to anchovies, I keep tins and tubes, both, on hand at all times. Anchovy connoisseurs will tell you use whole fillets only, and if eating them solo, I'd agree. But when all is dissolved and mixed in with other strong flavors, I find the black tube of Italian anchovy paste, sold in most groceries, to be just dandy.
5 Tablespoons olive oil
5 large or 8 medium cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
4 teaspoons anchovy paste, or 5 anchovy filets
generous pinch aleppo or red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 bunches lacinato kale (also called black or dinosaur kale)
1/4 cup of water
12 ounces fresh, whole-milk ricotta
more olive oil
To prepare kale:
Wash kale, but do not dry. Strip leaves from stems by holding thick end of stalk and pulling leaf down on either side. Leaves will quickly, fairly tidily separate from stalk in a few pieces. When finished, pile leaves high, and roughly chop into 2" strips. This simplifies the puréeing later; don't worry about precision. Stalks can be composted, or pressed into service for impromptu sword-fights.
Pour olive oil in a large, heavy skillet with a lid, and add garlic to cold oil. Turn heat to medium, and gently heat garlic in oil until fragrant, gold-edged and shimmering, 5-8 minutes. Add generous pinch of red pepper and anchovy paste (or anchovy fillets, mashed with a fork against pan) to garlic oil, and heat, stirring, 30 seconds. Add sliced kale, salt and 1/4 cup of water to skillet, in batches if necessary, covering pan a few minutes between additions to cook down. Braise kale, covered, over medium heat, 15-20 minutes, until shiny dark green and fork tender, tossing occasionally with tongs to ensure even cooking. Remove lid, and continue to cook another 3-5 minutes, until most but not all water is gone. I often forget and it all evaporates: no worries, just add another Tablespoon of water before you purée.
While kale is braising, prepare crostini. Preheat oven to 350°, and place rack in middle. Slice baguette into 1/2" slices, and lay out on a sheet pan. Drizzle or brush with olive oil. Bake 10 minutes, until slices are gold-edged and crisp but still soft in the center. Set aside.
Purée kale by placing a stick blender directly in the pan, keeping business end flush with the pan bottom. Move blender around the cooked kale, blitzing piles as you find them, nudging kale toward the blade with a spatula as you go. I pause a few times to re-group the kale, and purée it several points past simply blended. What you want is a smooth, creamy, nearly whipped texture, like pesto only more so. This takes all of two minutes. Or, scrape kale into a food processor (mini, preferably, or standard), and pulse until texture is as light as described, alternately scraping sides and drizzling in a touch of extra water or olive oil as needed, to loosen mixture. Taste for salt and heat, and season further if needed.
Place kale in one bowl, ricotta in another, and serve with crostini. Spoon cheese onto bread, and greens onto cheese, thick and high as you dare.