When my mom was in town, a few weeks back now, we spent one delicious afternoon strolling the Springfield Antiques Show. We didn't bring home much, no more than we could carry, easily, for hours, under the beating hot sun. (This, I find, is an important rule for such places.) The joy of such outings is really in the being there, anyway, the chatting, the perusing, the endless unknown backstories.
Still, we came away with a clutch of jolly striped towels, a few mother of pearl buttons, one small special something for each child. Old blue bottles, formerly home to Dr. S. Pitcher's Castoria and Sirop d'Anis, currently home to singular stems. And a phrase, which weighed nothing, and cost the same, and which might have been my favorite takeaway.
At one point, early on, we came around a corner and face to face with a frog. He was two feet tall, maybe three, vivid green and very flat and completely fantastic. He was the centerpiece of an old, defunct sign company's sign, the name of which was something like Dazzling Frog Signs, the motto of which was exactly, we make signs plain and fancy.
Plain and fancy. I love that.
Plain and fancy, I realize, is how we do so much around here. It is how we host guests, one foot here, one foot there. We did, for us, a fair bit of sightseeing, those ten days. We saw the Science Center, had lunch under the rooster, played hooky at the zoo with the goats and polar bears. We paid visit to the Conservatory, where we hung with the Blue Morphos and Atlas moths and Koi as big as Copper River Salmon. Passed an afternoon finding frogs and smelling the roses, the only afternoon I bothered to bring a camera. Went to tea, just us three, and ate as many scones. Enjoyed multiple applications of ice cream.
Two words regarding Graeter's: pretzel cone.
Two words regarding Jeni's: try everything.
But equally, okay more so, we hung around home. We bailed on a proposed trip to Pittsburgh, after I finally thought to look up. Given the glorious spring weather over our heads, it seemed criminal to up and leave here for elsewhere. We watered the garden. We walked to the park. Searched for fireflies, made mudpies, re-read Many Moons. (Oh, Thurber...) Scooped up schoolboys for lunch out, more than once. Celebrated imaginary birthdays with real lemon cake. Poked around thrift shops. Went to the movies. Played Clue. (It was Miss Scarlet. Isn't it always?) Made fantastic messes of the kitchen table. If that were a hobby, it might be my favorite. Most especially when Mamo's in town.
Everyday, ordinary, unremarkable stuff. Very plain. Very good.
This plain/fancy business makes such sense to me. Not as dichotomy, not as paradox, but as method through the madness. There are those who can do full-time fancy. Me, I need big doses of plain, as ballast, as bulwark, as beige to the bling. But taken together? By all means, count me in.
It is all about the conjunction, I guess. The absence of or. The presence of and.
It is our everyday dishes, old Limoges plus all manner of orphans. (There's something about settling chips in a swell old bowl that makes such a snack seem the treat that it is.)
It is my summer uniform, white T's and Tevas, and swishy long skirts for cool and comfort.
It is how we design our days, at least the ones we enjoy most, an outing, maybe two, and long stretches without structure.
It is how I see the garden, oblique, articulate, as eloquent in decay as in full throttle. I cannot resist dewdrops, buds, bugs, expired blooms, the sinuous tracks of some stump-loving chomper. For all my peony appreciation, and this litany of roses (if only I could .mp3 their perfume ... ), I am convinced the common daisy is as elegant, in its way. Not to mention that snake, and that opal fly, up top.
(This may be why I so often miss the weeds. Or, rather, why I stop to admire their shape, form, texture, and sway. And then walk right on by.)
And it is how we eat, ever and always, this week, as much as any other. We've grilled flank steak and poached salmon and made hash from spring turnips. Made scratch waffles and gougères and strawberry-stuffed crèpes. Biffed a double batch of lemon bars, the less said about which, the better. (Actually, scratch that, and know this: they were serious, I was serious, about filling hitting HOT crust. Pour it over a cold crust, and, it turns out, it runs right under, yielding Burnt Lemon Slime Bars. That is a euphemism. And a generous one, at that.) Redeemed ourselves with cardamom shortbread.
Ate apples and popcorn and called it dinner.
Plain or fancy? Beats me. One cook's plain is another's fancy. Starting waffles in the evening, setting dough to rise in the morning, salting water like the sea for a treasured Copper River side: these are habits, in my hands and in my memory, requiring little time and less thought, and therefore, my plain. Even past little bedtimes, and so past the KitchenAid's curfew, I know I can go off-recipe on shortbread, pinch soft butter into flour with ten silent fingers. I know I'll find small hands to help in the a.m. We've rolled cookies together one hundred times. Easy-peasy.
Pork chops, on the other hand, terrify me. I last made a batch in 2003.
But sometimes something comes along that is perfectly plain, by anybody's standards, in anybody's day.
Say hello to chard. Steamed, buttered chard.
Chard is a funny, fence-sitting sort of green. It is not one of the lightweights, lettuce, spinach, arugula, the stuff of salad bowls and shimmery vinaigrettes. But neither, really, is it one of the hardies, the kales, collards and mustards, the braise and sauté set. For years, too many years, I let this confuse me, egged on by countless recipes that complicated matters. Unnecessarily, it turns out.
Can we talk stems?
There is a body of literature that claims, nay, insists, that a chard leaf is in fact two different vegetables. Unlike the ribs on tuscan kale, say, which are too tough to eat and must be stripped away, chard's ribs are entirely edible. Indeed, the charm of chard, at least for my children, lays entirely in the stem, which turns tender and sweet. I agree entirely; the stems are magnificent. (I adore the leaves, also; more on those in a minute.) The problem's not in the eating, then, but in the cooking.
The Two-In-One School separates leaves from stems, then prepares each separately, according to its needs. The theory of course being that the more-substantial stems need more time on the hob to cook through. This makes sense. This also begets fussification. I recall a recipe which yielded a yin/yen sort of plate, garlicky sautéed greens over here, stock-braised stem batons over there, re-united on the plate after two profoundly different paths. I recall another that tossed seriously blanched stems and barely blanched leaves with a nutmeg-gy béchamel, showered one and all with gruyère, then ran the whole business under the broiler until bubbling.
To which I say: yum. And also: unlikely. Highly unlikely, if you answer to Molly. Few of my days invite such swaths of fancy. And when they do, I usually choose 'nap'. If you have time and inclination to fix chard in this fashion, by all means do. Then call me. I'll be right over.
If you do not, I am here today to tell you: chard is also a one-pot, seven-minute affair, and one of the finest vegetables I know. With a dash of logic (and permission if you need it: here you go), chard can be cooked ensemble, to fantastic effect. The premise, here, borrows from the asparagus pot, those tall specimens designed to keep fat spear-ends near the heat, while keeping tender tips away. Only without the cupboard-cluttering, and without the steep price tag. As applied to chard, the technique works as follows: in an ordinary saucepan, add a splash of water, followed by the sliced stems, followed by the slivered leaves. Slap on the lid. Simmer five-to-seven. Drain. Done. Devour. (Neat, huh?)
The stems blanch themselves in the bit of boiling water, while the leaves steam to just-tender, up top. All this talk of stems! About those leaves, which are the (other) very best part. Chard has a particular plump to its leaves, somehow built into its crumple and bump. It doesn't wilt, like spinach, or stay tough, like collards, but in a half-dozen minutes turns silky and splendid. And then there's the flavor, more sorrel than kale, mostly sweet with a twinkle of tart. That is their oxalic speaking. It is a very flattering accent.
So flattering, we ordinarily add little else. A dash of salt, to complement the sweet. A good knob of butter, because, well, it's melted butter. Some fingers. Sometimes forks. Seconds and thirds, if you're me. By any measure, plain. By every measure, yum.
Softly Steamed, Buttered Chard
1 big, plump batch of chard, around 1 pound
dash of salt
1 generous tablespoon salted butter
Wash chard well, leaving water clinging to leaves, and trim ends. Stack leaves in one pile, all pointing the same direction, and beginning at stem end, cut 1/4" slices. Add stem slices to a medium sauce pan with a lid, along with a few tablespoons of water. Continue slicing, increasing to 1/2" as you hit the leaves, until all leaves are chopped. Add to the pot, atop the stems, and add two pinches of salt. Place pot on stove, turn heat to high, and bring water to the boil. Turn heat down a nudge, to medium high, to keep water at a vigorous simmer. Steam, covered, 5-7 minutes, until stems are toothsome and leaves, emerald. Timing will vary based on chard's size and age, so use these cues for best results: Begin testing at 5 minutes, and continue every minute or two, until the stems are just past al dente, without crunch, but well before the sog that usually sets in around the 10 minute mark. There is this lovely zone, usually between 5-7 minutes, where stems are tender but still have substance, like good asparagus, and the leaves are vivid green, soft but not limp.
Drain well, leaving to sit a few minutes in the strainer, then shaking, then transfer to a plate. Check for seasoning, adding a bit more salt, if desired. Add a generous tablespoon of butter, and enjoy.