Monday, March 14, 2011

The Eating of the Green

I am always hungry for Ireland and love all things Irish -- the Pogues, U2 back when they didn’t take themselves so seriously, almost any Irish author, and I am fortunate beyond words to know Darina Allen and Tamasin Day-Lewis, two of Ireland’s culinary muses.

Darina Allen who runs the splendid Ballymaloe Cookery School in County Cork, is the no-nonsense preserver of auld ways, who believes in “sourcing really good, naturally produced ingredients,” as she writes in Ballymaloe Seasons. She wouldn’t recall, but we met once when I stayed at Ballymaloe House, the bed and breakfast run by her mother-in-law Myrtle Allen. Before dinner, I sat gazing out the window into the garden --relaxed, for once -- drinking in the sheep-dotted fields, when a woman with a low, flutey voice asked what I’d like to drink. I looked up and there was Darina herself, smiling and wearing her trademark red round glasses. I couldn't have been more surprised if Martin McDonagh had been acting as bartender. In retrospect this to me typifies how Darina is -- she can be the Irish Julia Child and still show some visiting American girl some hospitality, too.

Tamasin Day-Lewis is technically, English. I found out later, only after her book West of Ireland Summers convinced me of her Gaelic nature. I was sold by the title, the photographs of a good many cows and of the windswept landscape that’s my favorite place in the world, her stories of her home in the west. The fact that her brother is the brooding actor doesn’t hurt, either. Turns out her recipes are pleasing, too, and more so is her sensibility. She is of the freewheeling school, but like Darina, Tamasin starts with fresh, simple ingredients, which she pairs with an abundant sensibility.

Both women are more into elemental than ornate. So am I. There’s never been anything in molecular cuisine that resonates for me, that makes me say, “Yes -- sous vide and foam and celery gelee” the way I can swoon over a bowl of soup made with love and the freshest of vegetables.

Both women write about cooking with a big-heartedness, and both were kind enough to participate in a story I did about wild mushrooms story I wrote for Every Day WIth Rachael Ray. They have a generous way in the kitchen and on the page, writing about cooking the way I feel about it -- as an act of giving that’s simple, personal, profound.

So Darina, Tamasin, thank you for feeding what my soul longs for, for providing a sense of companionship even without being in the same room with me. But I hope sometime you will be. If you’re ever in Miami, please come to dinner, c’ead mille failte.

Low and Slow CSA Gumbo Z’herbes

About that swoon-worthy soup -- for St. Patrick’s day, here’s one as green as Ireland and filled with vegetables fresh from my local farmers. Gumbo z’herbes, also known as green gumbo is a traditional Cajun pot of Lenten goodness. It’s a time investment -- you don’t want to rush a roux -- but a great way to make the most of a mess of greens. There’s something leisurely, expansive, luxurious about making gumbo z’herbs. If you’ve got a food processor, you’ve got it made. Most of the work happens in the pot without your help, and the result is amazing. It’s a labor of love with a big flavor payoff -- just what you’d want to make for people you care about.

Ladle over cooked brown rice, keep your favorite hot sauce handy.

Erin go bragh, laissez le bon temps roule -- Ireland forever and let the good times role.

1/3 cup olive oil, plus 2 tablespoons

1/2 cup whole wheat flour

4 pounds of greens -- your choice -- I used what came in my community shared agriculture box this weekend -- escarole, collards, tatsoi and beet greens

6 cloves garlic

2 onions

4 stalks celery plus leaves

2 red peppers

a handful of thyme

1 bay leaf

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

6 cups vegetable broth

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

Wash your greens really, really well. Best way I’ve found to do this is to plop the the armloaf of them down in your sink, start with a thorough rinse, then pick them over, getting rid of grit and odd stemmy bits. Then shake in table salt and rinse again. The salt seems to help rid the greens of stubburn sand and such. Give a final rinse and gently blot dry.

The old school method for cooking gumbo greens is to blanch or boil them, but I prefer steaming, which keeps all their lovely nutrients intact. Steam greens in batches -- it may take several batches, but the steaming itself should go quickly, no more than 8 to 10 minutes a pop, so the greens are tender but still vivid green.

Place greens in a colander with a pot beneath to catch all the good veggie broth.

In a large soup pot, make your roux. Pour in 1/3 cup olive oil and heat over very low heat. Whisk in the whole wheat flour so the two form a smooth, thick paste. Continue cooking, whisking occasionally, for a really long time, maybe 45 minutes, or until the roux starts to give off a toasty scent and turns chocolately in color.

Meanwhile, heat remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat.

In a food processor, pulse onion and garlic so they’re well-chopped, not mushy. Add to the skillet and stir.

In batches, pulse celery, peppers, and finally, the greens. Add each batch to skillet and stir. Once vegetables start to soften, about 5 to 7 minutes, reduce heat to low, cover and continue cooking for another 20 minutes.

Pour in tomato puree. Cover and cook for another 20 minutes or so, giving the thing an occasional stir.

Your roux and vegetables are now ready to meet each other. Gently stir in vegetable-tomato mixture into roux, so everything is well-combined. Bring heat up to medium-high. Add vegetable broth plus any good juices from the drained greens. Add thyme, bay leaf and cayenne.

When mixture starts to come to a low boil, cover, reduce heat to medium-low and cook for another hour, stirring occasionally. Oh, don’t complain, be generous of spirit. Call a friend, check your e-mail. Pour yourself a glass of wine, if it helps.

Splash in the vinegar, season with sea salt and pepper, serve over rice.

Serves 8 to 10. Covered and chilled, it keeps for several days.