The Wren's Nest

A space for inspiration, creativity, & discovery

Cranberry bean Gratin

As an unabashed bean lover, I felt immediately drawn to Alice Waters’ recipe for Cranberry bean gratin in The Art of Simple Food.  Flavorsome cranberry beans are first cooked from scratch, and later sautéed in a variety of aromatic vegetables and tomatoes.  The mixture is transferred to a baking dish, drizzled with olive oil, and sprinkled with toasty homemade breadcrumbs.  After about 40 minutes in a 350 degree oven, the gratin comes out hot and bubbling slightly beneath its crispy crust.  Lately I have been a bit heavy handed in the kitchen, and today I soon noticed that I had added slightly too much cooking liquid to the dish prior to baking.  Though the liquid never quite cooked off completely, no one really seemed to mind seeing as how it developed into a tasty and savory broth.  Waters also calls for carefully adding a bit of liquid to the gratin if it seems to be drying out in the oven, so I suppose I’ve erred in the right direction. 

As the cranberry beans simmered along in their pot on the stove, I diced various humble and handy vegetables including half an onion, a carrot, a stalk of celery, and half of a large tomato.  I passed a few morsels of tomato and celery along to Piper, who sat beside me enjoying her lunch as it was, but still accepting of a few goodies from Mama now and then.  I heated a fair amount of olive oil in the Dutch oven and let the vegetables cook and meld while I thinly sliced several cloves of garlic and chopped some fresh sage.  I really loved cooking with the sage, as it immediately released its lovely clarifying aroma and uplifted my senses in doing so.  The final touch before placing the whole thing in the oven was of course a generous sprinkling of freshly toasted breadcrumbs, which I had made quickly and easily while the beans simmered.  One slice of hearty bread yielded 1/2 cup of coarse breadcrumbs, which I tossed in a touch of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt (as per Waters’ instructions).  I nearly forgot them in the oven, though fortunately as I remembered to pull them out I saw that my crumbs were crisp but unburned. 

We ate the entire thing for dinner.  Even Piper enjoyed the meal, popping bean after bean into her mouth.  I love the depth of flavor and the festive feeling that came with this meal; served hot at the table and straight out of its dish, I could see myself making this gratin again as a side dish during the holidays or other get together.  The fresh sage really lends a sophisticated flavor to the meal, though other fresh herbs would work as well. 

I’ll continue keeping you posted on any other great recipes that I try from Waters’ book.  Until the next time, have a great night!

On the state of our garden and reading The Art of Simple Food

The weather these last two days has felt entirely different than it has all summer long.  Rather than dense and blistering hot, the air feels light, tickling our skin and sounding chimes as it whooshes by.  Piper and I put on hats as we walked out back to assess the current situation in the garden.  What we found looked unfortunately grim.  Overripe peppers, rosemary singed at the tips, and two half eaten pineapples (though not by us).  A while back, you will remember we planted all sorts of herbs and greens; now I must admit that halfway through the unforgiving Florida summer most of our plants withered under the hot sun.  I hope the change in the air signals a more temperate season ahead, where we may try our hand in the garden once again, but with more success.  Honestly, if we can clear the area, I wouldn’t mind plugging in some plants that have already been started.  We have had success with starter plants in the past.  Older plants would be easier to maintain and would get us out enjoying the garden sooner. 

Now that our girl is asleep, I’m eager to peruse The Art of Simple Food some more.  I love the tiny illustrations that accent her recipes, though what I love the most in truth is Alice Waters’ depth of knowledge and her straight forward manner of writing, which makes cooking and learning technique very approachable.  I’m sure employing her tips will make me a better and more well rounded cook, and at the least more knowledgeable about some cooking curiosities that I’ve harbored for a while.  For example, Waters expounds upon the simplest of techniques that we perhaps take for granted as home cooks, such as how to cook rice, pasta, or polenta (and how just a ladleful of that starchy pasta water can add flavor and cohesion to a sauce), how to cook fresh and dried beans and the best cookware to use in doing so, and how to stock a natural foods pantry and use local farmers’ markets in order to make delicious meals at home whenever you want.  I’m off to read now — until next time!

A mere moment

I am awake writing as they sleep with the kind of peace only a long Sunday at home brings.  My husband and my daughter look so alike; in the morning they rise with disheveled hair, matted down in the places that have collapsed on a pillow all night, and yet other strands still stand sprightly, half-curls signs of the ecstatic and beautiful day to come.

We will eat oatmeal and cinnamon, drink tea, and linger this morning — one of the last mornings in what is left of August.  Soon enough September will arrive, and then as autumn creeps in we will embrace the change of season.  Now, though, I hear my cherished two reading quietly in bed, and find myself unable to resist some more time with them before breakfast. 

Have a wonderful day!

Have you seen Still Breathing (1998) with Brendan Fraser and Joanna Going?

Last weekend, Will and I curled up in bed and enjoyed a sweet movie from 1998 titled Still Breathing.  This beautifully strange and whimsical film follows a puppeteer played by Brendan Fraser as he seeks the woman of his dreams (literally, he has visions).  The woman of his dreams, played by Joanna Going, just so happens to be a jaded con artist who is weary of love after many failed relationships.  The movie captivates from the start, as the opening scenes portray a quirky, long-haired Fraser cutting out picture after picture of vintage looking women from different magazines, trying to piece together a representation of the woman he sees in his fleeting visions.  What! We were drawn into this bizarre plot, where a puppeteer could be hulking, and his aging mother could still play the tuba in a canoe on the river, and where it was not that strange after all to create a collage of different eyes, lips, ears, etc.,  just to conjure up the true image of his soul mate (it was his soul mate, after all).  I have always been a fan of somewhat awkward romances — Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Amelie, The Science of Sleep, Untamed Heart are just a few that come to mind.  Still Breathing is one I’ll have to add to the list, because in its awkwardness it too was touching.  The main character, Fletcher McBracken, reminds me of my husband in a lot of different ways.  He is artistic and strong, unafraid to believe in the seemingly impossible, a follower of dreams and of love.  In one scene, Fletcher stacks stones in the palm of Roz’s (Going’s character’s) hand to form this beautiful petite monument.  I can remember when Will and I first started dating, he sculpted a Swallow-tailed Kite for me, attached by fishing lines to a hook so that I could hang it and watch it fly whenever and however I’d like.  As our 3rd anniversary approaches, I feel truly grateful to have met my own soul mate and my very own quirky man of my dreams.

A still from Still Breathing (1998), directed by James F. Robinson.

Cookbook reads

Last night, Will and I devoured a pot of chickpea and leek soup intended to serve 6 people.  I found the recipe in Jamie Oliver’s book The Naked Chef.  Published almost 15 years ago, the book offers a glimpse into the humble beginnings of one of today’s most successful and loved chefs.  Several pages are dedicated to thanks, most notably to his then fiancée (now wife and mother of his four children), and to one of his early cooking tutors, Gennaro Contaldo, whom Jamie still features on many of his shows.  While I don’t know him personally, I can’t help but feel there is a genuine kindness and earthiness about him, and I definitely appreciate his efforts to bring simple, healthy, home-cooked meals back into our lives, particularly us Americans (see Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution).  All that aside, I have never chopped so many leeks in my life! I’m happy to report, though, that the meal was warming and oh-so satisfying (as you can tell from our 3 portions each).

I have also been exploring Deb Perelman’s The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook and David Lebovitz’s My Paris Kitchen.  The last two are so wonderful in their celebration of food in general.  I can also appreciate both writers’ shared experience cooking in small kitchens, one in NYC and the other in Paris.  I love that David Lebovitz dedicates a page to his quest to find the perfect farmhouse sink — deep and wide enough for even his baking trays.  A picture of the sink loaded with dishes makes me feel somewhat better about my own escapades in the kitchen — the mess comes with the territory, and so does the backbreaking work of washing up after!  I completely understand his desire for such a beautiful sink, given the amount of time he spends before it.

As if all these were not enough already to satisfy my literary cravings, I’m anxious to crack open Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food.  We picked it up at the market not too long ago, and I know she is a legend in the food world, so I am very excited and curious to see what the book is all about.

Before I finish here for today, I must share with you that I enjoyed a wonderful morning with my family last weekend as we were invited to bake sourdough bread with a local baker (and new friend).  I am amazed at the technique, timing, and effort that goes into producing these beautiful artisan loaves.  I hope to have the opportunity to bake alongside her again.

Enjoy your week!

 

Inspiration

I find a trip to the library always time well spent.  The quiet calms me, while the productive energy of study and exploration fosters my own feelings of inspiration.  I returned two books this weekend, only to bring home yet one more book, two movies, and two CDS.  Our days feel even more enriching and stimulating when we take regular trips to the library and make good use of what we find there.

After finishing The Count of Monte Cristo, I found myself seeking an altogether different experience.  Chocolat by Joanne Harris provides just that, while still gratifying my current curiosity with all things abroad (which at the moment happens to be all things French, it seems).  The story centers upon a woman named Vianne Rocher and her daughter Anouk as they begin to create a life of their own in a small French village.  Several townspeople are quick to ostracize the little family, as they view the colorful young woman, her imaginative daughter, and their chocolaterie as particularly decadent, if not immoral.  Though Harris creates an obvious tension between forces in her book, she explores meaningful themes with a lighthearted wit that is pleasurably thought provoking.  I’m going to have to watch the film again once I’m through with the novel.

As for the movies, Will and I have already watched one of the two that I took out.  On one of his nights off, we watched a former favorite of mine — a Lebanese film by Nadine Labaki titled Caramel (or Sekkar Banat in Arabic).  I really enjoy foreign films, and watching Caramel again after many years reminded why.  The cinematography remains convincingly real while at the same time lending artistic expression to critical moments in the film.  There is also such a lively humor present that highlights well the themes explored and crosses cultural boundaries in a reminder that we all experience essentially similar things in life.  The other movie we have yet to watch together is none other than Marie Antoinette — what did I tell you just now about my current fixation?

These days while cooking breakfast, though more often while cooking dinner, I’ll pop in one of the two CDS I took out, a compilation of Billie Holiday’s music titled From the Heart, and an awesome jazz album featuring Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, titled The Great Summit/The Master Takes.  Words cannot do justice to this last work, you just have to hear it for yourself.  The music is so uplifting, playful, soulful, that I feel entirely inspired just listening to it.  The music seems to accentuate whatever it is we happen to be doing at the moment, for me most of the time that means cooking — though Piper and I have enjoyed a few memorable and ecstatic dance sessions already.

We have been eating so well, that even our food seems soulful.  I guess that it has been infused with this general feeling of inspiration as well as with all that jazz.  Though simple meals, we just seem to be enjoying the experience more — candle lit and seated extra close together.  Some meals we have enjoyed recently are: artichokes with millet and Israeli salad, roasted sweet potatoes and peaches with quinoa and leftover kale salad, pancakes for breakfast one morning and cottage potatoes for breakfast another, Cuban black bean soup, peanut noodles, and more – but you can see how we love to eat!

Wishing you a day filled with joy and inspiration — and maybe a bit of jazz and chocolate, too.

W.

 

More thoughts on The Count of Monte Cristo

I have been quite under the weather recently, suffering through a dreary head cold and an awfully runny nose.  However, while recovering in bed during the last several days I have had the opportunity to drink plenty of hot tea and read none other than The Count of Monte Cristo.  Actually, I have finished the book only two nights ago and I’m still processing my thoughts and feelings regarding the book.  I feel like I haven’t been on such an adventure since I read The Lord of the Rings trilogy a few years ago.  Despite the differences between these books, they share a common depth so often present in the works that move and touch us the most.  Themes of suffering, sacrifice, and the limits of human (or hobbit) character are as thoughtfully explored as those of redemption, true happiness, and purpose. 

There are many memorable chapters and passages within the pages of The Count of Monte Cristo, and yet a few stand out at the moment.  Eventually, the reader comes to Mercédès’ ball, whereupon she notices The Count (whom she alone recognizes as her Edmond of so long ago) refusing to eat any food that is offered to him.  She takes him to her greenhouse, where she offers him grapes and I believe a peach as well, urging him to enjoy himself.  When Edmond refuses, she feels crushed.  The plot here is really of less significance than the feeling Dumas seems to conjure up so well with his writing.  The reader feels the ache, the loss, the tension between the two former loves, and truly the food becomes a symbol for something much greater, that is perhaps of forgiveness, acceptance, and the bond between the two characters.  I just thought Dumas so cleverly used cultural conceptions regarding the sharing of food to subtly articulate the deeper occurrence taking place.

Additionally, the whole evolution of Edmond’s character is just fascinating.  As I have before mentioned, his character begins as a naïve sailor on the cusp of all the success and happiness he could possibly wish for, but through his disillusionment he becomes hardened, and years of surviving false imprisonment and betrayal shape his perception of himself into that of Providence (and consequently, menacing angel), where he believes his role is one of punishing those who so wronged him.  Later, Edmond is once again disillusioned, though finally redeemed, as he comes to terms with his own wrongdoings, emptiness, and longing, all while the possibilities of true love and loyalty unfold before him.  A powerful book all around — check it out from your library if you haven’t already read it.

Indulgences

This evening, feeling rather sentimental, I perused some of our old photographs taken last year.  Amidst photos of our daughter grinning a proud, gummy smile as she braced herself against the refrigerator in an effort to stand on her own, were delicious shots of family meals we enjoyed together.  I look back at these moments of captured joy with a deep sense of gratitude.  We have grown so much in the past year (some of us quite literally)!  Though we cannot truly relive those sweetest of moments, we can cherish them and watch with wonderment as new ones unfold before us.

All sentimentality aside, though, I thought you would enjoy a glimpse of some of the meals we shared last year.  I seem to remember finding a copy of Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookbook Jerusalem at the library, and delving straight in to several of his vegetarian recipes.  Later that year, Will would gift me Ottolenghi’s Plenty, though it was with Jerusalem that I first truly experienced Ottolenghi’s food.  His recipes seem fresh, colorful, and infused with a unique cultural perspective.  That year we made our own Za’atar and paired unlikely foods like prunes with potatoes (roasted, with caramel sauce).  We roasted butternut squash and ate the crispy skin, too.  We filled our bellies with chickpeas and our eyes with a gorgeous display of wild and basmati rice pilaf.

I also found a few irresistible photos of some sweets we shared — fudgy vegan brownies with walnuts and one particular recipe for lemon and olive oil banana bread with chunks of chocolate by Heidi Swanson seemed to stand out the most.

What has changed for you in the past year?

July notes during a rainstorm.

July brings afternoon thunderstorms, fresh puddles for jumping, and shiny little galoshes for toddler feet. The 2nd of July brings joy and Shepherd’s pie and double chocolate birthday cake for my beloved. Cousins play on the 4th, tossing toys and drawing pictures and sneaking a rigorous tap or two on piano keys, while adults speak over plates of sweet green bean salad, corn on the cob, and a few convincing veggie-dogs. Some days bring bubbles and water for splashing in the backyard, while other days bring air conditioned visits to the children’s museum where we pin-the-tail of a hen on an interactive Chagall reproduction. Today, the dark and booming sky brings time for writing while the rest of the house sleeps. I think about our evening jogs and our morning jokes – I point to my husband’s long hair and beard and he smiles and says questioningly, “Café d’If?” Chateâu! Chateâu! We laugh with playful innocence. Days to come will inevitably bring strawberry popsicles to soothe two year molars, the making of long missed play-dough, and hopefully the resumption of story time at the library. For now, I will leave as the lightning flashing across the sky and loud claps of thunder show me a strong storm is nearing. However, I will leave you on a “sunny” note — our sunflowers are all in bloom, with bees buried in yellow pollen. That’s all! That’s all! I have got to go!

Reading notes, June

I sure feel as though a lot of time has passed since I last blogged here, though in reality it has only been just over a week.  Lately, I spend the bulk of my free time absorbed in Alexandre Dumas’ classic The Count of Monte Cristo.  I’m about 500 pages in, and the plot seems to have plateaued, though more likely my interest is tapering after so many nights spent in bed reading chapter after chapter of the same book until I fall asleep.  As strange as this sounds, I have enjoyed watching the character development in Edmond Dantès — from his initial naiveté to later disillusionment and cunning.  The chapters where Edmond endures solitary confinement in the Chateâu d’If are particularly moving, as Dumas depicts Dantès’ mental strife and longing in such realistic terms.  When he finally meets Abbé Faria, Edmond finds a temporary solace as he takes great comfort in the monk’s companionship and wisdom, though he still feels the dark stirrings of loss, grief, and a desire for vengeance within, which become heightened upon Faria’s death.  The amplification of Dantès’ personal strengths and weaknesses, along with an awesome hidden treasure now his own, gives Edmond’s character a truly fantastic air (see Byronic references in book for further detail). 

On another note, all of the sea and treasure imagery within the book have been giving me exciting dreams.  One night I dreamed about a ship sailing into a blue horizon, that later dissipated into a flock of white birds that flew toward and melded into the sky.  Last night, I dreamed I was wading in clear sea water when I picked up a beautiful blue clamshell that floated toward me.  Seeing a clam still inside, I let it go, though soon found numerous other shells as striking and colorful.  The dream took a strange turn when a decorative orange and white Chinese soup spoon washed ashore, and I puzzled myself in wondering if it was ceramic or plastic, and in what era it was created.  Ha!

Speaking of spoons, and of food in general, I cracked open my copy of Alicia Silverstone’s The Kind Diet this week.  I bought my copy at a lucky garage sale many months ago, but haven’t really used it much since.  For one reason or another I felt inspired to cook from it this week, and I’m really happy that I gave it a chance.  The vegan and macrobiotic inspired recipes seem to be just what I need recently.  So far, I have cooked a Moroccan couscous recipe with butternut squash and saffron, a couple of casseroles from different grains such as barley and polenta, and a pressed fresh vegetable salad.  The latter is interesting and new to me:  first, I thinly sliced various vegetables such as cabbage, fennel, carrot, and radicchio, and then proceeded to bruise them a bit with my hands, to promote enzyme activity.  Piling the veg up in a bowl, I then took a small plate and pressed the whole mixture down, weighting it with a full teakettle for about an hour.  The result is really unique and palatable.  The massaged vegetables are easier to eat as well as to digest.

Outside, our garden continues to grow, whether or not we have much time to play in it.  Sunflowers stand five feet tall and about to bloom, chili peppers turn a ripe red on the plant, and a tight, purple skinned eggplant grows larger each day.  The days feel so hot, that we do not venture outside for too long unless we are near some shade or water.  In some ways, I’m more enthralled with the grottoes of Monte Cristo, and the scenes and costumes of the Roman Carnival portrayed in Dumas’ book.  In these pages, I find respite and a different adventure from my own busy days, as sweet as they are.

 

 

 

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