Somehow, it is Spring. This makes so little sense.
When the witch hazel went all gold and good-smelly, near the end of January, I stared. Then made excuses. "Witch hazel. You know how she is. Over-achiever. Eager to please. Don't encourage her." When the heather lit up, before the Christmas lights came down, I remembered I didn't remember when it came on. That heather's not really an Ohio thing. That I must've forgotten where it was in the program. When the daffodils shot up in that long-limbed, gangly-leaved, green-teenage way that they do, I consoled myself with soothing words about the need to build buds and the energy required to manufacture flowers and. Well. You see what happened.
March 21 notwithstanding, Spring is solid, in these parts. Please explain?
Even with the upcoming back-slide of daylight savings time, the nip's left the air and the light has shifted and Leaf 1.0 is rolling out, everywhere. The plums turned pink overnight. I find myself wondering after the birds' volume dial. The camellia's trying to pull off its annual "What, these? Oh, no. Not fake. Really, truly" stunt, yet again. (As if.) The corner's been well and truly turned.
And while time has never been my strong suit, this year's another story entirely. This year, Spring seems to have sprung, all Athena-like, from the head of Zeus. This year, by my accounting, Spring was directly preceded by Summer. I mean, Spring suddenly showing up the way it has, here, now? It's all about as likely as some bombastic casino magnate-cum-oompa loompa making inroads in national politics. Preposterous. Utterly impossible. If far, far more welcome.
(Speaking of welcome, HOLY SMOKERS!!! What a way to welcome a prodigal blogger back. I have read and relished and so completely enjoyed each one of your comments from my last post. [And if I haven't replied, um, blame the boxes!] Being back in this space, in these conversations, feels like yet another huge, whopping sign of Spring. Thank you. Truly.)
Years like these—time sort of hiccups.
Moving, of course, is hardly the only culprit. New babies. New jobs. New life chapters. Heck, new shoes that pinch terribly and cause blisters and unspeakable toe nail situations. Any new big anything, I find, wreaks a little havoc on one's time-space continuum. When we skip over our ordinaries, those unthinking routines and rituals that tell us when to look up and out, we get gobsmacked. We're as bad as babies. So accustomed, so cozy, what with our little world's bumpers and boundaries. And, but, when morning naps or mid-afternoon romps or bubble-filled baths don't happen, we lose all bearings. Possibly fuss. Certainly flounder. Flail a little. A lot. Even if we skipped that nap to go to the fair and eat snow cones and ride the rides and pet the ponies. Even then. Change, man.
And then, and here's the crazy bit, you look up. Eventually, maybe, you get a good nap, and hopefully a nice walk, or even a warm meal, and sometimes it is March, and sometimes, November, but whatever: you look up. Eventually, up. And it's Spring. Impossibly spring. And you don't know how you got there, and you're weary and wiped, and yet. Leaves. Buds. Abundance. Color. Those ridiculous, photo-shopped poser camellias. New growth, everywhere. Slugs.
Still. Awfully clever.
And so here we are, surrounded by Spring, and also a fair measure of cardboard and chaos. But the boxes are sufficiently low to spy the hydrangea out the living room window. And even if all the walls are still bare, the pictures and nails are mostly unpacked. And although the kitchen is still irrationally arranged in the spontaneous style known as "Box to Drawer", there is a kitchen, and water in the pipes, and a stove that works, and these are all huge. Buds, galore. One such bud being a steady, slow, halting march toward the simplest sorts of cooking, again.
Moving and cooking are more or less incompatible. Which isn't to say we haven't enjoyed many a warm meal. Popcorn. Pizza. Toasted cheese. Popcorn. Buttered noodles. Toast. More popcorn. I recycled a 12-pound jug of Jolly Time, a few weeks back.
We bought it in June.
You didn't miss much.
And honestly, this is as it should be. Food serving life, functional, fitting. Too much is made of meals, I think. Feeding ourselves, even feeding ourselves well, need not equal cooking. (Tangent for another time.)
But boy, I missed my vegetables. And my $4 thrifted copper pot. And my half-dozen warped plastic cutting boards. And flavor. Oh, gosh, flavor. Spice. Aromatics. Onions, garlic, fresh herbs. The sorts of things that need not apply when winding down food supplies and living in temporary housing and setting up a new kitchen, mid-school-year. Indecent amounts of browned butter did get involved in a great deal of that popcorn. I love browned butter. But—though I've come very, very close—woman does not lived on browned butter alone.
So it felt like no small thing, this past month, as slowly, slowly, veg began coming home. I mean, veg always come home. Red peppers, cucumbers, hothouse tomatoes, things that can be cut and set out as "salad" and will reliably be eaten by my kids. Check-the-box veg. Slice-and-serve veg. I'm deeply, profoundly grateful for said veg. Still, I hungered after vegetables.
Vegetables not just slipped bald, cold and boring onto a plate, but delivered into shimmery oil with minced onion or maybe garlic or better, ginger. Best of all, all three. Add spice? Now we're talking. Vegetables cooked with a shred of attention and two minutes' care and ingredient lists longer than, say, one. Vegetables well informed of their rights, as fully deserving citizens of our plates, as mighty vectors of flavor and happy and monumental, mouth-watering oomph. Vegetables rendered, not complicated, or complex, or (god forbid) clever, or "healthy" (closeted or otherwise), but rendered simply as their highest, best vegetable selves. There are, I think, at least ten thousand straightforward ways in which this can happen.
Presently, I want them all.
And so—with sincere apologies to those who maybe thought I'd return with cookies, or cake, or anything even somewhat celebratory—I bring you cabbage. And carrots. Not the fancy ones, either. Green cabbage. Storage carrots. The ones we pass over when we see Spring outside but the produce aisles still chant "Winter, Winter...". You'll want a winter onion, too. And that ginger and garlic, because the more, the merrier.
You'll also want turmeric, lots, and a half-teaspoon measure. At least if, like me, your Midwestern spice jar simply cannot fathom a person wanting any turmeric more. You'll need six half-teaspoons. You'll want six half-teaspoons. But neither the Tablespoon nor the full teaspoon will fit into the Penzey's jar. (I tried.) It's worth the effort.
You'll want all the turmeric, and aromatics, and that tired and cheap storage veg trio, because together, with a little time and less heat and still less effort, they dance. Hot Bread Kitchen, from whose cookbook this hails, doesn't exactly put it that way. What they say is that this is classic Ethiopian comfort food, and great alongside doro wat, and guaranteed to disappear in seconds. I am here to vouch for that last part. At least if you leave it in my presence.
(Leave it to me to read an entire, excellent cookbook all about bread, and walk away with cabbage. That is not an apology.)
The method here is a simple braise, which is to say: add oil, then aromatics, then chop your veg while the onions et al melt. Then: dump, stir, walk away. For, oh, half an hour? Give or take. Stir a bit, once after folding the towels, say, and again after studying the week's spelling words, maybe once more after discussing that particularly sticky geometry proof.
Won't much matter.
This is foolproof food.
Anyway, around thirty minutes later, what you'll find is a tangled, fragrant, steaming slump of collapsed veg. The cabbage will by now be golden, turmeric-stained, and irrevocably limp, like you and I at the end of a looooong day. The carrots will still, somehow, hold their shape, though how they pull this off, I don't know. Half an hour in, they're unfashionably soft, like something you'd serve a very small toddler, or a toothless nonagenarian. In other words, wonderful. We underestimate the solace of soft veg.
I like a little lemon juice squeezed in at the end, and while I'm at it, toss the zest on top. A bit of bright green is nice—chopped cilantro, parsley, chives, any, all—though not necessary. Embellished or un-, it's pretty divine right then and there, full stop, end of story. I've been known to eat half the batch and call it lunch. It makes a huge batch.
That said, it's also pretty exquisite underneath an olive oil fried egg, edges crisp, white set, yolk at the runny marigold ready. Lashings of whole milk yogurt are a swell, if unorthodox, addition. Also, those little petite green peas, straight from freezer, stirred right in. Also, chickpeas, drained and tipped without fuss or fanfare straight from the tin. Also, roast chicken. I'm told, doro wat. I suspect these are merely iceberg tips.
It holds like a dream, improving steadily in the fridge while you, say, take a walk. Or go smell the flowers. Or, I don't know, unpack 17 more moving boxes? Money in the bank. Vegetables on standby, ready to feed you, immediately and well, whenever you return. I love that in a dish, and in a fridge, and in a house we're slowly learning to call home.
Cabbage + Carrots, Golden and Melting
adapted from Hot Bread Kitchen, by Jessamyn Waldman Rodriguez
This is classic blueprint territory, with significant wiggle room regarding quantities. I've upped the ginger and carrots called for in the original, because I like lots of both, though the dish won't suffer if you halve either. Similarly, the recipe called for "one small green cabbage (about 2 pounds)". The smallest cabbage my market carried weighed in at almost three. Which was grand by me, as it yielded that much more, and I can (and do) eat this daily. Just mind the seasoning—you'll want more salt and more lemon if you wind up with a bowling ball.
This makes a wonderful side for chicken or fish, though mostly, I find myself adding some substantial something, and calling it a meal. Some lovely sidekicks: chickpeas; a crispy fried egg; whole milk yogurt; last night's protein; brown rice; millet; and oddly, fried paneer. Another route: thin with broth or water, add beans or grains or both, add lashings of green things (parsley, mint, cilantro), and call it soup. I've wondered, too, about treating cauliflower the same way, in lieu of the cabbage. I can only imagine it would end in greatness.
2 Tbs. olive oil
1 large onion, diced
1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt + more to taste
4 cloves garlic, minced (1 Tbs.)
2" knob of fresh ginger, minced (2 Tbs.)
1 Tbs. turmeric
10 large carrots, peeled and sliced 1/2" thick
1/2 cup water
1 small green cabbage (2-3 pounds), cut into ribbons
Squeeze of lemon
parsley + lemon to top, optional
Heat the oil in a large pot (a wide, deep skillet or large saucepan work equally well, here) over a lowish-medium heat. Add the onion and and salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are soft and considering golden. Add the ginger, garlic and turmeric, stir to introduce everyone, and cook gently another 5 minutes, until your kitchen and your farthest-flung bedrooms are fragrant.
Add the carrots and water, stir, and cook until carrots soften slightly, 5-7 minutes. Next, add cabbage by greedy fistfuls, stirring and allowing to wilt slightly, as needed, until all the cabbage is in the pot. Give a final, thorough stir, turn heat to a burbling low, and let cook another 30-40 minutes, stirring now and again, bottom to top, to re-distribute everything. The cabbage should provide all the additional water you need, but if you find things looking dry, add a splash more.
Dish is done when cabbage is melting and tender and reduced by at least half. Check for seasoning. Really taste. Add a bit of salt, a squeeze of lemon, stir, let sit, taste again. Dish is done when the whole thing sings.