Thursday, March 5, 2009

When Life Offers You Lemons

With the stock market in freefall and joblessness at a 25-year high, it helps to remember attitude is everything. If you're going to eat humble pie, make it tasty.

Some of our most exciting culinary times have grown from poor soil. During the worst of food shortages and ration cards, M.F.K. Fisher taught us How to Cook a Wolf (1942). Frankly, some of her recipes, like the one for mock duck, made with breaded flank steak, scare me. However, I can utterly get behind her belief even in dire times, we have to live and we might as well do it stylishly. In "How to Be Cheerful Though Starving," she wrote "It takes a certain amount of native wit to cope gracefully with having the wolf camp out on your doorstep."

The good news is, native wit is free. It can't be bought. But it can be cultivated. "There are many ways to make a little seem like more," wrote Fisher. "They have been followed and changed and reinvented over ten thousand years, with small loss of dignity to mankind."

My dirty secret -- I find deprivation a little bit of a turn-on. Well, it's challenging, and I like a challenge. When Benjamin and I were first back in the States and I put him through grad school, our food budget for $25 a week. Granted, I don't remember eating for a couple of years, but we must have done. Of course we did -- I remember making great pots of soup to last us several days, I remember dried beans. I remember trying to make my recipe for pasta with broccoli, lemon and mint without the lemon (having neither lemons nor money) when my downstairs neighbor came up to visit. She carried a handful of lemons from her tree. I remember cupping the fruit, sun-warmed and fragrant, in my hands. It felt like Christmas.

Look, I don't want to get all Dickensian about this. Poverty sucks. All hardship does. And yet we somehow summon the spirit to get ourselves through. Thsi is what I like best about us as a species. Opposable thumbs are also nice.

This dish is satisfying, cheering, nourishing and cheap -- even if you have to buy your own lemons.

Whole Wheat Pasta With Broccoli, Lemon and Mint

1 head naked broccoli, cut into florets and chopped stems
1 16-ounce box whole wheat pasta, any shape that moves you
4 lemons, juice and zest
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup torn fresh mint leaves, lightly packed
1 jalapeno, minced
sea salt and fresh pepper to taste

Make naked broccoli (see March 2 post). Rinse, ice down and set aside.

In a large pot of boiling water, cook pasta until just al dente.
Strain and rinse.

Using the same pot, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium high heat. Add minced jalapeno, stir until softened, about 3 minutes. Add remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil, chopped broccoli and pasta. Stir well to coat.

Add lemon juice and zest, mint leaves and salt to taste. Stir until flavors are dispersed and pasta is heated through.

Serves 4-6.

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