Here I go generalizing, but as I see it we humans fall pretty nicely into two groups. There are the thrill-seekers, those go-as-they-please vagabonds of earth, who like change, adventure, newness. Others are content with routine and find comfort in habit – making the bed, the walk to work, eating the same bowl of salad 6 nights running - because it’s delicious (the salad, life) so why change?
I’m one of those boring habitual people. Unsurprisingly, as I came here today to declare my love for brussels sprouts, I realized I had already done so last winter, as I probably do every year. The story goes that brussels sprouts usually appear first at Thanksgiving dinner, boiled on my Gran’s table. She without fail overcooks them, and they turn a distinctive shade of puce (but are delicious nonetheless). They keep appearing, stowaways in my grocery basket, until mid-December or so when their season ends. Boiling is just fine, and I’ve made Molly’s cream-braised variety to a collective sigh of appreciation, but most of the time, habitually, I roast. You’ll find me tucked into the couch, bowl in my lap, munching happily.
And that’s the thing.
One of my most-loved poets, Mary Oliver, wrote my most-loved poem, The Summer Day. I find myself reciting her lines over in my head lately, again and again. I’ve always liked the poem, how it vaults the everyday to the extraordinary, how she writes of being idle and blessed and without answers. And at the end, how she asks me what I will do, with my wild and precious life.
It’s nice to romanticize my faults and poke gentle fun, couch shortcomings in pretty words, but the truth is: sometimes I worry. I worry that my aversion to change, my love of stability and this simple, contended life holds me back from everything else. In introspective times, I wonder if years of gentle contentedness lead to great unhappiness. I see people glaze-eyed and anywhere-but-here in the streets, and I fear the day that I don’t greet the squirrels and breath sweet air deep and feel joy in the constant, my ordinary life.
Then I think that I might jump. Higher, toward something else. And what then?
This has been an unusual start to fall. My mind should be full of warm thoughts of braising, stirring and roasting – at long last in this chilly weather. But all I can think about is my next bowl of salad.
Funny, isn’t it, how our bodies ask for nourishment? I had a summer of excess, plain and simple. Between vacation, work lunches, dinners out, family barbeques (and frequent stops for ice cream along the way) my mostly plant-based eating was replaced with butter free-flowing through my veins.
And so I keep eating salad. It’s surely not a concerted effort on my part. My head wants to braise leeks and roast sweet potatoes and stir gigantic pots of soup. But when I reach for the kale – with every intent of simmering it gently – it ends up in thin ribbons in the salad bowl. Stewed cranberries are made into a tangy vinaigrette. Apples never find their way into crumbles. My shopping basket teems with frilly heads of lettuce.
Which is how this salad came to be. It’s – I dare say – the perfect mid-fall meal. Sweet orange segments, creamy avocado and thinly sliced macintosh apples get lightly dressed in a salt-and-pepper lime vinaigrette. It’s hearty, refreshing, savoury-sweet and just right for lunch when soup seems depressing.
(lunch for one)
People find the idea of supreming a piece of citrus fruit to be so daunting. Likely this is a reaction to the intimidating French name, because it’s a snap. The key tool is a really sharp knife (I’d say paring knife, but I actually I love my santoku for this job.) The left-over bits and baubles around the supremes can be used for juice, or even eaten as-is.
1/2 soft, ripe avocado, sliced
1 medium orange, supremed
1/2 macintosh apple, thinly sliced
juice of half a lime
sea salt, cracked pepper
Gently combine all ingredients except salt and pepper. Add seasonings a pinch at a time and taste, until desire level of sweet-salty contrast is reached.
I’m a glossy cookbook kind of gal. Partly because I’m the sort of cook who never follows recipes, and partly because I’m a five-year-old at heart who won’t give up her picture books. I see cookbooks as stories told through pretty photos, better still if said photos are interspersed with thoughtful prose and solid recipes, something Tessa Kiros does so very well.
Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food (2007, Clarkson Potter) was not a cookbook I ever intended to bring home, pictureless and manual-like it is, with only the occasional illustration. But it sat waiting at the library having been placed in queue at some point, probably after I was lured in by its calm buttercup exterior. It waited, wedged on my bookshelf between this and this - each infinitely more exciting with their photos and styling and stories.
On a lark, I picked up Waters one night before bed, winding down with some tea, and flipped haphazardly to the ‘Broth and Soup’ section. To be honest: I didn’t expect much at all. But a couple pages later, Alice had me with her simple instructive chapters and intelligently-crafted recipes. I finished off soups, flipped ahead to ‘Pasta and Polenta’ and ultimately just started from the beginning of her story.
I want to linger some on her recipes. They really are smart. After years of compulsive cookbook reading, I’ve become quite picky about what makes an excellent recipe. From ingredients to method, a good recipe is infused with its author, be it through quirky prose, a friendly tone, or neat precision. A good recipe doesn’t skimp on details, but it doesn’t read like a technical guide. It’s been tested until it’s perfect (seems obvious, but so many cookbooks publish these days with unrefined, half-formed recipes and methods). It tells a story. Waters does an especially wonderful job, helping the reader understand how and why ingredients work together to make good things.
When I spotted two bunches of delicate creamy-orange carrots at the market, Alice’s carrot soup came to mind. I’d long since returned the cookbook to the library, but I didn’t need a recipe: a quick meld of butter, carrots, onion, and salt would do. No homemade stock or fancy pots, just a knife, cutting board and autumn’s best carrots. Thirty minutes of methodical chopping and stirring later, I had a sweet-scented apartment and warm meal fit for a chilly night.
(adapted from Alice Waters, makes two dinner-size bowls)
This soup can be pureed to a velvety consistency, but there’s something special and simple about the whole carrot pieces, swimming in broth, sinking like silk under the teeth. The carrots really are the shining star here, so make sure they’re just-picked, with bright green tops and vibrant orange flesh.
4Tbsp unsalted butter
2 cooking onions, thinly sliced
6-8c fresh-as-can-be carrots, thinly sliced (it’s okay to leave the skin on if the carrots are tender and mild – taste one!)
6c vegetable broth (I use Whole Foods’ 365 Organic), warmed
sea or kosher salt to taste
optional mix-ins, to serve: chives, cilantro, Greek yogurt
In a heavy-bottom saucepan over medium-low heat, gently melt the butter. Add the sliced onions and cook until tender and translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the sliced carrots and season liberally with salt. Cook for about 5 minutes then add the vegetable broth. Increase heat to high and boil for a couple minutes, then reduce the heat to medium-low. Simmer for about 30 minutes. The carrots should be meltingly tender. Taste for salt and ladle into warmed bowls. (You may choose to puree the soup at this point for a more refined bowl.)
Serve with a crack of black pepper, or garnish with chives or cilantro or a dollop of Greek yogurt.
The air is brisk. Pumpkins start to arrive on grocery shelves and in market stalls. I pull tweed and sweaters from storage, at last. Everything is to love about fall. It’s dismal and rainy, yes – and the hours of sunshine through chilled air are few at best. But maybe it’s the student in me that sees autumn as a fresh slate, purging summer heat to make way for snow and new memories.
I’ve been thinking about transition a lot lately. Seasons encapsulate transition, I think. As much as I get dreamy-eyed about year-long sunshine or living somewhere more temperate, I need the seasons, so reliably ephemeral: summers marked by icy watermelon, fall’s cider, cocoa and chestnuts with the snow, and spring’s first asparagus.
Each season with its new bounty, some small cause for joy.
Come fall, I’m smitten for squash. It’s such a comforting, warming food and I love its versatility. Sweet or savoury, in a soup, roasted, stirred into oatmeal – it’s comforting and tastes like the season. And there’s something pleasantly humble about squashes: knobbly and imperfect, economical, best prepared simply.
When we recently gathered to celebrate my dear friend and a soon-to-be bride, I knew I’d bring something squash-filled along. And with Thanksgiving next weekend, pumpkin is everywhere. Tiny roasting ones, even tinier ones to display, and whole shelves lined with the pureed kind in cans … some tucked into my cart to share.
A botched streetcar ride, torrential downpour, subway interchange and short walk later, my pumpkin spice pastries arrived to the party miraculously intact, if a few minutes late. Imagine pumpkin pie rolled into a neat bundle of phyllo pastry: slightly spiced, crinkly under tooth, just sweet from brown sugar.
A dessert, I’d say, fit for transition.
Pumpkin spice pastries
(makes 10 large pieces)
A note on phyllo
Phyllo is one of those falsely intimidating doughs. But it’s actually very simple to work with. A few tips for using it successfully:
1) Cover it well with a damp dish towel as you work. This keeps it pliant and prevents cracking.
2) It’s forgiving! My Yia-Yia taught me how easy it is to patch pieces together and just keep folding. Once it’s baked, no one is the wiser that dough surgery was performed.
3) Brush the pastry with enough fat, be it butter or a neutral oil. This keeps it supple and flaky as it bakes.
A note on canned pumpkin
Don’t feel you have to laboriously roast, peel and puree pumpkin for a good filling. Pumpkins are sometimes unreliable with bitter flesh. Canned is usually good quality (I like E.D. Smith or Whole Foods’ 365 house brand). Look for 100% pureed pumpkin, and not varieties that have been mixed with other squash, and don’t mistake pure pumpkin for pre-sweetened pie filling.
2c pureed pumpkin
3/4c brown sugar
<2tsp pumpkin pie spice (mine is a combination of ground clove, ginger cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice)
1/4tsp fine sea salt
2 eggs, beaten
10 pieces phyllo pastry
1/4c melted butter (salted is okay)
additional cinnamon and brown sugar to sprinkle
1 cookie sheet, parchment paper, pastry brush
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.
In a bowl, combine pumpkin, brown sugar, spices and salt. Gently incorporate the eggs. Cover and chill in fridge while you prepare your workstation for folding.
Melt the butter over low heat. Ensure your work-surface is very clean. Remove the phyllo from its packaging and unfold, covering with a damp dish towel. In a line, set the butter, pastry brush, cinnamon and a small bowl of brown sugar.
Remove the pumpkin mixture from the fridge. It will seem runny, but not to worry – it will set up nicely to a custard-like consistency once baked.
Brush one sheet of phyllo with butter and sprinkle lightly with cinnamon and brown sugar. Fold the sheet in half lengthwise. Dollop about 2Tbsp of filling at the bottom centre. Fold in the sides lengthwise and loosely roll the package upward until you have a cylinder, as you would with a cabbage roll or stuffed grape leaf. Place the pastry on cookie sheet. Repeat for remaining sheets of phyllo.
Before baking, brush pastries with butter and sprinkle with more cinnamon. Bake in a preheated oven for approx. 20-25 minutes, or until the pastry is puffed and golden. Serve warm or at room temperature.