Ohio has all sorts of perks up her sleeve. This wasn't immediately apparent to me, last winter, when we first landed. I was probably a little pre-occupied, what with new schools and transferring titles and boxes up to my eyebrows. Now, I have a list, long and growing, of Ohio's many upsides. Like Jeni's Gravel Road, the one with smoked almonds and salted caramel and swoon written all over it. Fireflies and cicadas and katydids, right in our backyard. Jeni's Meringue Sandwiches. Eighty-degree days in April (same state; so weird). Jeni's Mojito Sundaes. Fine bicycling (the flip-side of all that flat). Jeni's Lime Cardamom. Swell thrifting (*sigh*). Jeni's Cherry Lambic. Wonderful brisket (we border the barbecue belt). The East Coast (we border that, too).
We've been trying to take advantage of that last one, our East Coast angle, as often as weather and school permits. In our fourteen months here, we've seen Cleveland and Kentucky. We've seen Newark and Niagara and Cincinnati, too. We've driven Pennsylvania's green rolling hills, and New York's quiet grape-growing side and, over Break, we road-tripped it to D.C.
(Yeah, I know Kentucky's not really East Coast, and I noticed Cleveland has no Atlantic exposure. But have you ever tried driving due East of Seattle? I mean, Ritzville's a nice rest-stop, and I hear Spokane's got game, and those endless amber waves are downright spectacular. And I mean no offense, Washington; I'd wander your bread basket any day, happily. It's just that the other Washington's pretty nice, also. Not to mention the country roads that led us there.)
Because — are you ready? — we drove through West Virginia. A state I knew only from a high school friend, a girl with an acoustic and a way with John Denver. A place I'd have pegged a few notches past Pluto on my least-likely-to-see-in-my-lifetime list. But by golly, there we were, barreling through the Alleghenies, in all their rugged, hardscrabble glory. My mountain-sick eyes slurped up every hill and holler, and my inner cynic couldn't believe the Blue Ridges were so, well, blue. Almost heaven I can't confirm, seeing as we were just passing through. But belting out life is old there... might be my favorite trip moment.
Kidding (sort of); that was only Day One's first half. By the end of the same, we'd seen Monticello. See, once in Virginia, it was just a wee detour, a hop-skip-jump to Jefferson's little farm. We saw his clever letter writer, and his through-the-floor clock, and left every last priceless objet intact. (With three antsy, fidgety, car-weary companions, this final fact seemed quite the coup. Like the Louisiana Purchase, but bigger. By far.) I'd seen Monticello before, of course. But details are scarce on the back of the Nickel. Its vistas and quirks and intractable errors? Really, much more impressive, in person.
From there, we kinda-sorta went straight to the capital. As straight as one can, in these parts, anyway. The layers are so deep, the landscape so rich, we couldn't help tripping over more culture still. Oh look! The Potomac. Is that the Appomattox? The Battle of the Wilderness happened right there?! It's like that, out here, history around every bend. Civil War landscapes, straight out of Ken Burns. Road signs which read, roughly, "Jamestown, over yonder". Horse farms with est. dates two centuries back. License plates with state birth dates two centuries before that. (And I thought the bicentennial was a big deal.)
But we stayed the course, despite awesome distractions, and spent a few days in the heart of it all. And, wow. What a perk, all this on two tanks. Museums and the Mall and monuments and stuff. The white house, behind bars, but still awfully smack-dab. Stuffed pangolins and Gemini 7 and Timothy's Treasury. Folks from The Hill, just jogging along. The Senate, in person, the week we got it, finally passed health care (I whispered way to go!) We didn't see cherry blossoms; too early, by weeks. But we did catch magnolias, all over town. And caught sight, on the metro, of a well-polished fellow, whose stack of manilas read only: The White House. Not all return addresses are created equal, I guess.
I don't want to mislead you: trotting three kiddos through a major metropolis was a little ambitious. Exciting, at times (absurd, at others). Not unlike herding cats. Who've just had a perm, foil and color at the local feline Fluff 'n Puff. And a mani-pedi. And no food for a week. Did I mention we'd just wrapped week one of potty training, before leaving? FYI, there's a nice public loo in the pocket park, straight across from the White House. (FYI also? It was so worth it, for this Washington girl to survey George's pastures, sneak a peak from his porch, see herself in his windows.)
Melodrama aside, I'm loving Ohio's Easterly ways, consider it one of her finest fringe benefits. Rather like parmesan crusts and my kids. Don't get me wrong: I love my kids dearly, their quick giggles and constant questions and knack for teaching me everything (that matters, anyway). Still, I rank pasta consumption among their biggest perks. Because pasta means parmesan, and parmesan means rinds, and rinds mean beans with flavor outrageous.
I've been squirreling away parmesan rinds for years, ever since I ran into Ms. Rosetto Kasper singing their stock-boosting praises. I tried dropping thick triangles into minestrone. It improved, exponentially, extravagantly, effortlessly. So I plopped the tough backs into other soups; each came away drop-dead gorgeous. Over time, I stopped using chicken stock, stopped using any stock, started every Italian-esque soup on only water and sofritto and a handful of rinds. You could call it a crutch. I call it dreamy.
Especially when applied to a plain pot of beans. Now, normally, I'm no homemade bean evangelist (I consider canned garbanzos one of the world's seven wonders). But when I've got a good stash of frozen gold, I tend to chuck normally right out the window. Add rinds to your bean pot, and two miracles occur. The rind — which is simply the cheese, air-dried — relaxes and softens as it slow-slowly simmers, giving over profound flavor to your beans' cooking water. And because dried legumes take an hour, sometimes three, they, too, wind up skunk-drunk on that rowdy complexity. It's a trip. They look like cannellini, taste like the King of Cheese. Like something out of Adrià, only without the foam.
My favorite way of eating both beans and broth is that way, down there. I've mucked it up countless times, adding bacon or sausage, ham hocks or pancetta. I always regret it; they don't need it, don't want it. So now I begin and end with only these two, sweet creamy beans and lightly braised greens. It sounds simple, even spartan, but it floors me every time. There's the garlicky, anchovied tangle of greens, plus beans all boozed-up on parm's endless umami. There's a dribble of broth, a drizzle of oil, a grind of pepper and a few shards of cheese. It's a wolf in sheep's clothing, these humble beans and greens, a riot of flavors slyly dressed up as dull. Add a slump of polenta or a hunk of crusty bread, and I'm in seventh heaven.
And apparently, a rut. I realize, as I write this, that my every trip ends in beans. I'm not exactly sure how to explain this. Coincidence, perhaps. Or maybe I'm a stick in the mud. Or maybe, a good bean is one of home's many benefits.
Beans + Greens
When it comes to bean cookery, opinions are legion. There's an excellent discussion of all the ins and outs, over at Culinate. I tend to prefer cooking beans low-and-slow; below is just the way I go about it. Also, remember beans freeze beautifully in their broth. I typically make a large pot, as below, then freeze three or four portions for later.
Which type of white bean? Whatever you prefer. Cannellini have a bigger brand name, but I think I like the tiny navy bean better. Also, bear in mind, with the broth, the aromatics are endlessly flexible. No bay leaves? Skip 'em. Add more carrots, for sweetness. I've made these more than once with no aromatics at all, only rind, and wouldn't hesitate to do it again.
As to the greens, try several, see what suits. (You canny readers will note that they're simply these greens, in ribbons. Don't hate them because they're versatile.) I tried turnip greens last week, and fell in love instantly. The stems were so tender, they didn't need stripping, and the leaves had a lovely fresh sweet flavor. I've also made and enjoyed this with kale, collards, and mustards.
2 cups dried cannellini or navy beans
4-8 ounces parmesan rinds (the more, the merrier)
1 onion, quartered
1 head of garlic, halved
2 carrots, roughly cut
2 celery stalks, roughly cut
3 bay leaves
10 parsley sprigs, tied together
several dried hot peppers (5 thai reds, 2 anchos, or more peppercorns)
Sort beans to remove any pebbles or split beans. Place beans in large, heavy pot, and fill pot with water to cover by 3". Soak beans overnight, or 6-8 hours.
The next day, discard soaking water, and add fresh water to beans, to cover by 4-5". Place pot on stove, bring beans to a boil, and skim off any foam. Turn heat to low, and add aromatics (parmesan rinds, onion, garlic, carrots, celery, parsley, bay and peppercorns/pepper). Monitor for a few minutes, until beans find a tender simmer, adjusting heat until water maintains a slight burble. You're after a gentle plip and sputter, not a vigorous simmer. On my stove, this is few hairs past low. Or, as often as not, a 300° oven. Cover, and cook gently, 1-3 hours, until beans are tender and creamy, but not falling apart. Test several beans, as they can cook unevenly. When beans are finished, I stir in salt (1 tsp to start), replace cover, and let beans cool in the hot broth, a few hours. I taste beans and broth both for salt after an hour or so, and add more, as needed.
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 greens (turnip, mustard, collards, kale)
1/4 cup of water
To prepare greens:
Wash greens, but do not dry. If stems are tender (i.e. young turnips), simply slice greens into 1/4" ribbons. Alternatively, if stems are tough (collards, kale), strip leaves from stems by holding thick end of stalk and pulling leaf down on either side. Then stack and slice into 1/4" ribbons.
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. Pay attention that it doesn't burn. 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 greens, salt and 1/4 cup of water to skillet, in batches if necessary, covering pan a few minutes between additions to cook down. Braise greens, 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 water is nearly gone. Taste, and adjust salt and heat, if needed.
parmesan shavings (peeled with a veggie peeler, from a wedge)
extra virgin olive oil
freshly ground pepper, optional
Spoon roughly equal amounts of beans and greens into bowl. Ladle over a small slurp of broth, drizzle with extra virgin olive oil, and top with several shards of parmigiano reggiano.