Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Here's Looking At You, Kid

Call me a bit of a rebel, I’m not a big on holiday traditions. For obvious reasons, I’m fine with a turkeyless Thanksgiving. I’m likewise fine with a treeless Christmas, a menorahless Chanukah. I do like New Year’s though, with champagne on New Year’s Eve and hopping john New Year’s Day. There is nothing glamorous about a plate of hopping john -- it's rice, black-eyed peas and collards. It’s cheapish to make and plainish to eat, but I love it for being rich in fiber, folklore and mystique. What other dish promises good luck, fortune and romance?

Some say black-eyed peas look like coins and collards or other greens represent paper money, therefore you’ll make as much money as the hopping john you eat.

Black-eyed peas also fit an old superstition that if a dark-eyed man is your first visitor on New Year’s Day, love and good luck will be yours.

Who knows where such stories started? One version has hopping john originating with the slaves who brought black-eyed peas and rice from west Africa. Some say the dish got its name from a child dancing around the stove, eager for supper. What started as a slave dish, livened with a lttle pepper and pork made its way into plantation kitchens.

It could be hopping john got its start even earlier, from our Celtic forebears who lighted fires on New Year’s Eve and danced around them all night. The Anglo-Saxon word hoppan means religious dance.

In either case, dancing seems as much a part of hopping john as black-eyed peas. I'm a great believer in dancing and a big fan of good luck, great fortune and hot romance. Do I believe a plate of rice and beans will make that happen? Not so much, but just enough -- that's why I’ll start the year the way I have for the past decade, with a pot of hopping john ready for New Year’s Day. Call it the victory of hop over experience (sorry).

Hopping John

Traditionally, hopping john is made with everything going into one pot. Traditionally, it is also made with pork. I -- surprise -- have broken with tradition and make this in two pots and sans pig.

Make it New Year’s Eve or even the day before. Flavor improves over time and hopping john reheats like a dream. You’ll have a nourishing, cheap meal ready to go on a day when some of us are too tired and bleary-eyed to cook. And there’s a bonus -- the sturdy rice and beans dish sops up any hangover.

Happy New Year.

1 cup black eyed peas

3 cups of water

6 cloves garlic

1 dried hot pepper

1 bay leaf

2 cups vegetable broth

1 cup brown rice

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

1 jalapeno, chopped

3 ribs celery, chopped

1 big bunch collard greens, sliced into thin ribbons

juice of 1 lemon

sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

In a large pot, bring 3 cups of water to boil over high heat. Add black-eyed peas, 2 cloves of garlic (whole), pepper and bay leaf. Skim off any beans that float. They’re duds.

Reduce heat to low. Simmer beans uncovered for an hour and a half until beans are tender, not mushy.

Add brown rice and the vegetable broth. Cover and simmer over low heat for 20 minutes. Don’t lift that lid. Turn off the heat, leave pot on the burner and let hopping john sit.

Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion, jalapeno, celery and the remaining 4 garlic cloves, chopped. Saute for about 5 minutes, stirring, until the vegetables soften.

Reduce heat to medium. Add greens by the handful, and cook until wilted, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes.

Fluff rice and beans, fold in collard mixture. Squeeze in lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Splash with hot sauce.

Serves 6.

Spin the Bottle

I have for some time been searching for a line by one of the French decadent poets. Baudelaire? Rimbaud? Verlaine? One of them guys. The gist of the citation is, be drunk. On wine. On life. On love. On poetry. But be drunk.

I’ve interpreted “drunk” in this context to mean loose, uninhibited, delighted by, infatuated with. I do not interpret it as yoimashita, Japanese slang for drinking to the point of paralysis. This is how the Japanese drink -- single-mindedly, with a real purpose. . . and the purpose is oblivion. You’ve got to see it in action to appreciate it.

My husband and were at our favorite Tokyo sushi bar and the woman beside us was so red-faced and unstable (which, as I say, is the point), she knocked a whole flask of sake onto my husband. Sober, she would have been proper and Japanese and mortified. Yoimashita, she just laughed.

I’m not a yoimashita drunk, but a cheap and happy drunk. A glass of wine and I’m cheery, then sleepy, then out.

Of course there was the first time I drank sake.

I was college freshman in the company of a friend and a guy on who I had a brain-bending crush. We sat in at a banquette which seemed to me rather grand. They were seniors, madly sophisticated. To wit -- they were eating sushi and drinking sake. I, who had no money and no interest in fish, was drunk and dazzled just being off campus and in their company. I just cheered them on and drank tea. I really like tea. But at some point, they insisted I try sake.

The crush proferred his cup. This seemed far more erotically charged than it needed to. I brought my lips to where his lips had been and took a sip. The sake was warm and viscous and tasted like cotton. Then came the afterburn. I spluttered.

“You don’t sip it,” the friend said. “You knock it back.” He demonstrated.

I tried, but the fumes alone made my eyes tear. This made me appear girlie, and not adorably so.

“It’s just wine,” the crush said.

I tried to man up. I could drink wine.

A waitress was summoned, another little cup produced.

Strictly speaking, sake is not wine. It is not fermented in the same way and has an alcohol content that starts where wine’s ends. I didn’t know that at the time but I enjoyed the toasty sensation it produced when I drank it.

They ordered more sake. I did my best to keep up with them and became fascinated by the banquette’s dark, scratchy upholstery. I caressed it. At one point, I began singing. This signalled to crush and friend I was plastered.

“I’m fine,” I slurred. My teeth were soft. This seemed like it might be a problem, but not now, sometime in the distant future. I was floaty and happy and launched into "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down."

This turned out to be oddly prescient. Though friend and crush fed me to soak up the booze, crush ultimately had to carry me out to the car, flinging me over his shoulder like a sack of spuds.

I did not get disgustingly ill or even hung over. I was young, my body could probably metabolize sheet metal. The crush did not take advantage of me -- I’d remember that part. What I don’t remember is the source of the being drunk quote. Makes me wonder if I might have been yoimashita when I saw -- or imagined -- it.

Whether it was Baudelaire who said it or an inebriated me, being lightly, giddly drunk on is a philosophy I embrace, even though being drunk on life doesn’t always work for me as it should. I worry about the war in Afghanistan, the fizzle of talks in Copenhagen and assorted traumas closer to home. Being drunk, loose, giddy, in love, is something to shoot for, though. Or drink to. Cheers.

Sake-Spashed Millet with Miso and

Gingered Greens and Tofu

Sake-Splashed Millet

1 tablespoon sesame oil

2 tablespoons garlic, chopped

1 cup millet

3 cups vegetable broth, more if necessary

1/2 cauliflower, chopped

1/4 cup miso

1/3 cup sake

Heat sesame oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add chopped garlic and saute for 3 minutes, or until fragrant. Add millet and stir until the millet toasts. Add cauliflower and broth, reduce heat to low and cover. Simmer for 30 minutes, checking progress periodically, Should mixture dry out, add a splash more broth. After half an hour, all the liquid should be absorbed and the millet should have a porridgelike consistency.

Using an immersion blender, food processor or the back of a spoon, puree millet and cauliflower. It should smoothe out and fluff up a bit. Stir in miso and sake and serve.

Serves 4.

Gingered Greens and Tofu

2 tablespoon sesame oil

2 tablespoon garlic, chopped

4 tablespoon ginger, chopped

6 turnips, sliced

1 head of cabbage, shredded or a big bunch of greens, chopped into bits

1 cup vegetable broth

1 pound tofu, diced

4 tablespoons soy sauce

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add chopped garlic and ginger and saute until golden and fragrant, about 5 minutes. Add sliced turnips and coat with oil, stirring for another 3 minutes. Work in greens and stir until just starting to wilt.

Reduce heat to medium, add vegetable broth, tofu and soy sauce. Continue cooking until heated through and greens are tender, about 8 minutes.

Serves 4.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Unintended Consequences

I almost failed high school chemistry because I had a sixth period class, the last of the day, and our instructor was an alcoholic. In her sozzled mind, she’d already taught us the same lesson five times that day and she was crazed and furious because we hadn’t nailed it yet. Also there was the time she allegedly saw a guy spill acid and ripped his pants off “so he wouldn’t burn himself.” Uh-huh.

There was some sort of administrative intervention and another instructor took over, but it was too late for me. As intrigued as I was by chemistry and all its nifty accoutrements and accessories, I was never going to be of a scientific bent. I could neither draw nor fathom the pretty little molecular sequences. Trying -- and failing -- to memorize the period chart made me anxious. But the real problem was I believed in literature, in stories, more than I ever believed in science.

Things are never as simple and elegant as they seem in science. They can’t be reduced to formula. Or if they can be, there are always what Robert Merton (a sociologist, not a scientist) called “unintended consequences,” fallout you hadn’t expected. Side effects. And they’re usually not fun.

In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “The Birthmark,” Aylmer, “a man of science,” is obsessed with his wife Georgiana, lovely in all ways, save a small hand-shaped birthmark on her cheek. It is the flaw which obsesses Aylmer. He gets so he can’t stand to be with her, because the defect is all he sees. Aylmer develops a serum to remove the birthmark. It works, and Georgiana is left unmarked, physically perfect. And dead. Death is a fairly serious side effect. No coming back from that one, at least not yet. “With so high and pure a feeling,” Aylmer “rejected the best the earth could offer.”

We may not be perfect, Hawthorne was saying, but we’re all we’ve got and we should embrace ourselves -- and each other. Two hundred and fifty years later, Richard Powers, author of neuro-novels like The Echo Maker and Generosity, says pretty much the same thing. A physicist turned novelist, he knows his science and reminds us a blistering crush is no more than a “surges of dopamine. . . spikes of endorphins. . . waves of oxytocin.” We’re just big bags of hormones and brain chemicals. You can tweak the drugs, of course, with other drugs. Or with genetic tinkering. But would you?

Powers did. He’s one of nine people to have his genome mapped (it was a GQ assignment, they paid the hefty tab). Knowledge, though, isn’t always power. In his GQ article, Powers says sure he knows things about himself he never did before. What he came away with, though, is not an undying belief in science, but a rather touching fondness for human imperfection. I find this very cheering, especially lately, when evidence of my imperfection is everywhere.

I’ve had the text for this post, or at least the core of it, for the better part of a week, but was waylaid by deadlines, Thanksgiving and a boring headcold. Besides, I couldn’t think of a recipe to do it justice or what sort of image to do -- some mad scientist thing? A crazed periodic chart? I made myself far nuttier over this than necessary (quel surprise) and in so doing, tried your patience, please forgive. Fate intervened by way of dinner.

Serendipitously, I had a cauliflower in the fridge, and taking it out this evening for the pasta recipe below, was struck by just how brainlike it looks, I had been writing about brain chemistry. Eureka. This is what I always forget -- sometimes unintended consequences can be positive.

I steamed the hell out of the cauliflower, as I do for this recipe. But what was unusual about today’s preparation is that I left the pot on the burner while I was working, thinking to check its progress, oh, any minute now. This I failed to do until I smelled something burning. Had I had a little more presence of mind, I’d have photographed the very impressive blackened pot. In the heat of the moment, as it were, I was more interested in damage control.

When the smoke cleared, I discovered the cauliflower, which had been sitting in the steamer basket within, was not only fall-apart tender, it also bears a sensual, smoky tang. While delicious, I do not suggest trying to replicate this. Unless you have All-Clad and an intrepid nature (dang, they make All-Clad solid -- the pot cleaned up just fine).

Genetic mapping, Powers says, is only a recipe at this point. We don’t know if the recipe produces “a cracker or a cake.” Meanwhile, we should enjoy who we are now. Our flaws make us beautiful. Or at least they make us interesting.

Unintended Consequences Cauliflower Pasta

1 cauliflower

4 teaspoons olive oil*

5 cloves garlic, chopped

1 generous pinch saffron

1 generous pinch red pepper flakes

1/2 cup white wine

8 ounces whole wheat penne

handful fresh chopped parsley

sea salt to taste

Steam cauliflower for 20 minutes or until it’s snowy and falling apart, but not until you burn the pot. No, really, you don’t want to do this.

Heat olive oil in a large pot. Add chopped garlic, saffron and red pepper flakes. Stir for about 4 minutes, until garlic is golden and fragrant. Add steamed cauliflower and mash the whole business. Add the wine and stir to combine, creating a thick sauce. Season with sea salt.

You can puree it into silkiness with an immersion blender or with a food processor, but to me, a rustic imperfection is part of its charm. Either way, it’s delicious.

Make pasta according to package directions. Toss with cauliflower sauce and cook over medium heat until heated through. Top with chopped parsley.

*Note to nonvegans, you can also use brown butter instead of olive oil, which makes things quite luscious indeed. Top with fresh grated Parmesan.

Serves 4.