I’ve been in a kitchen rut.
I cut down on the “what to make for dinner” dilemma by meal planning (so resistant to doing, so glad I did), but I was getting bored. Last week my friend Lilly hosted a winter recipe jam that got me excited about food again.
I almost said cooking, but really it’s the food. I started reading this book last night and it made a clear distinction between enjoying cooking and enjoying food. I like both, but I’m coming back to the food—the eating, the sharing, the memories, the stories.
For the recipe jam, I pulled a jar of pickled peppers from my cupboard and asked, “What would you do with these?”
The answers came in:
sprinkle on pizza
serve with sausage
toss with greens
add to white chili
use on nachos . . .
None of it was earthshakingly new. I was just in too stuck in what we usually do. I think first of fresh peppers for nachos. I turn to dried for chili. My kids are back on forth on spicy. The little one won’t eat a fried egg sandwich without Tabasco sauce. They’ll both eat our homemade chili. Except on the days they won’t. “Too spicy.” So too often I skip it.
I opened a jar to have with pork dumpling burgers (dumpling filling pressed into burgers). The suggestion to use the hot peppers on pizza with sausage reminded me of stuffed jalapenos (and that I had an overabundance of cream cheese in my fridge.) A few nights later, I sprinkled the rest of the jar over a corn-meal crusted pizza with spicy sausage, cream cheese, and a Mexican blend cheese.
Definitely not rut material.
Hot Pepper & Sausage Cream Cheese Pizza
3/4 c. warm water
1 tsp yeast
hefty pinch of sugar
1 1/4 c. flour
1 cup cornmeal
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 Tbsp olive oil
- Sprinkle the yeast over the warm water and add the sugar.
- Put both flour and the salt in a large bowl and combine.
- When the yeast has bubbled up, add it along with the olive oil to the flour.
- Stir to combine. Then knead lightly.
- Coat the dough in oil. Place back in the bowl and cover with a towel. Set in a warm space to rise. My dough didn’t double, but it expanded.
- Preheat oven to 425.
- Sprinkle a pizza stone or pan with coarse corn meal. Stretch the dough into a round (or several small rounds).
- Bake for about 15 minutes until dough starts to set.
1 8-oz package of cream cheese softened
cooked spicy sausage
1 4-oz jar pickled hot peppers (or chopped fresh jalapenos)
shredded cheddar, Mexican blend or similar cheese
fresh salsa or pico de gallo
- Spread the cream cheese on the partially baked crust.
- Sprinkle the sausage and peppers evenly over the pizza.
- Top with the shredded cheese.
- Bake until the cheese is melted and the edges of the crust are just turning golden.
- Serve with fresh salsa.
“What happened?” my big girl asked from the seat behind me, her question mirroring my own momentary confusion.
“Somebody hit us,” I said stunned.
She was OK. I was OK, but shaken, badly. All week, I was tight and anxious. All week, my stomach has churned as I called the insurance company, filled out forms, waited for call backs, avoided thinking about what could have been.
All week, still off-kilter, I needed grounding, so I stepped outside. I welcomed the golden afternoon autumn sun, warm on my back. I breathed deep the cold smell of fall. While my kids jumped in piles of yellow and browning leaves, I pulled plants soft and straggling after our frost. I loosened the cold earth and dumped wheelbarrows of compost. And I planted garlic.
Garlic was the most satisfying thing I grew in my garden this year. I don’t know why I haven’t grown it before. I loved every step from the early green points poking out of the earth to the graceful curved scapes that I cut off for pesto to the bulbs themselves that I dug a few months ago and hung to dry.
I love this starting point too. It’s time to plant garlic again, now when everything else is wrapping up or just hanging on. Now while I’m pulling dead plants and putting the garden to bed for spring. I love the hope of planting, even if it means a long wait. All winter, I’ll know that my garlic is out there under the soil, under the snow, waiting for spring sun, ready to push up shoots and get going.
Garlic didn’t ask a lot of me. I picked the scapes and dug the bulbs. I ate the scapes quickly, and the bulbs will stick around for a while (though we go through garlic pretty quickly around here).
Garlic was simple in the garden and it’s simple in the kitchen. I’ve been making this easy garlic bread for more than 20 years now, since I first learned it in an Italian kitchen.
1 loaf good, firm bread
1–2 cloves garlic peeled and halved
kosher or sea salt
- Slice the bread and toast it under the broiler just until it starts to take on a little color. Flip the bread and toast the other side.
- Arrange the toast on a platter, and while it is still warm, rub one side of each slice with the garlic.
- Drizzle with olive oil.
- Sprinkle with salt.
One of my favorite fall dinners is this garlic bread served with greens (sauteed with more garlic) and white beans. Some nights I’ll add sausage (my favorite is garlic and cheese—yep, more garlic—from our local market) or mushrooms. Some nights I just keep it at beans, greens, and bread. Simple. Quick. Satisfying.
Some people waste away when under stress or grieving.
When my son was in the hospital, I ate cookies and candy because I had them, big, heavy restaurant-sized meals. I ate whatever plate or dinner people brought me. It didn’t matter how hungry I was or if it was what I wanted (don’t get me wrong, people brought us good stuff); I just ate.
But after he died, when I was home, I cooked.
I made soups and stews, mac and cheese, scalloped potatoes, chicken pot pie. I sautéed greens that I got at the farmer’s market. I toasted bread from the bakery, rubbed it with garlic, drizzled it with olive oil, sprinkled coarse salt.
Maybe I was trying to satiate a hunger not related to food. Maybe I just needed food from home after not being there for three months. Maybe the rhythm of the kitchen soothed me, kept me busy enough without requiring too much thought or energy.
I cooked and I ate, and although the grocery store was a gauntlet of anxiety—ignore the birthday cakes, don’t go down the baby aisle, hold your breath hoping the cashier won’t ask anything about kids—I shopped for food. I went to farmers markets. I paid more for cheese than I should have. I got a farm share of meat and bought local eggs and honey.
I hadn’t worked for almost seven months and was limping along trying to get my sluggish brain to function enough to get through the projects that fell on my desk. B. was going to quit his job come fall to go back to school. I had no business spending extra money on food, and months later when B. actually did quit his job and I readied for another self-paid maternity leave, I gave up the farm share, started buying conventional eggs more and more, cut back on the cheese.
But still I cooked. Still I ate well, and I still took comfort in food.
These days, I still cook, still like to choose good food, still like to do something with the veggies I bring in from the garden. Though with little ones pouting, “I won’t eat that” without even trying it, some days I want to go on a hunger strike, holding out on making food until they are hungry enough to eat whatever it is.
Last night I made potato leek soup with potatoes and onions and carrot and herbs from our garden. I served it with garlic toast with cheese. We started dinner with two whines, but eventually one ate the soup and one at the grilled cheese (it worked better when we put the toast together and called it that). I sat back and enjoyed both.
It was a chilly day, and soup was comforting and warm as the darkness gathered. Comfort food isn’t just for hard times; sometimes we just need to feel cozy at home.
What’s your favorite comfort food?
Potato Leek Soup
olive oil or butter
1 stalk celery, diced
1 large carrot (or equivalent), chopped in half rounds (or quarters if the carrot is fat)
1 ½ cups chopped leeks* (approximate)
salt and pepper
2 quarts broth **
5 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
2 sprigs rosemary
2 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf
large splash heavy cream (optional, but recommended)
- Sauté the carrots, celery, and leeks until softened. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
- Add the broth, potatoes, and herbs. Bring to just a boil and lower the heat. Simmer for a long time until the potatoes start to break down.
- Look at your soup and debate whether to bother puréeing it. Take a taste. Wonder if you should add milk like you usually do. Take a Facebook poll.
- Use an immersion blender to smooth out the soup, leaving some small chunks. Taste again. Add a hefty splash of heavy cream if you have it.
- Serve with garlic toast, cheesy or not, and hope your kids will eat it without too much of a stink.
* I actually used Egyptian walking onions in this version. I included any green parts that looked vibrant. They fade as they cook, but still taste good.
** I used homemade chicken broth this time, because I happened to have it in my fridge and wasn’t in the mood for chicken soup, but I’ve made great soup with canned/boxed chicken or vegetable broth. I went heavier on the salt because I knew my base was lower in sodium.
I was late to the game when it came to both garlic scapes and grilled pizza, but last summer I finally figured out both, and they make the perfect pairing for an early summer dinner.
I’ve been waiting for garlic scapes—the curly tops of garlic that get cut off in late spring/early summer—to appear, and recently CISA told me it was time. I don’t grow garlic (yet). Somehow in the bustle of fall, I never manage to plant garlic . I’m determined to change that this year but for now, I have no scapes of my own. I pick them up at a farmer’s market or the local co-op.
Garlic scape pesto is bright green with a bright garlic taste. It’s easy to make and stores well. Both the color and the flavor will mellow a little if it’s cooked as it is on pizza.
Garlic Scape Pesto
- 1/2 lb. garlic scapes
- 1/3 c. lemon juice (from about one medium lemon), or more to taste
- 3/4 cup olive oil
- ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 3/4 cup grated Pecorino romano cheese
- Roughly chop the garlic scapes and put them in the bowl of your food processor. Add the oil and lemon juice.
- Run the processor until you have a fairly smooth puree. It will be rougher than a traditional pesto, but you don’t want huge chunks in it.
- Add the cheese and pulse briefly or stir in by hand.
- Taste. Add more cheese or lemon juice if needed. If the pesto is too thick add a bit more olive oil.
Garlic scape pesto is great on crackers, toasted bread, pasta—and grilled pizza.
Like I said, it took me a while to figure out grilled pizza. How do you get the pizza onto the grill? Won’t the dough just fall through the grate of the grill? I finally read about it, realized it wasn’t that hard, and got mildly obsessed with it last year.
- Start with your favorite dough. Roll or stretch it into an individual pizza size (too big and it gets hard to handle). Do not roll the edge—the dough should be flat from side to side. Sprinkle a pizza peel or the bottom of a cookie sheet with corn meal and place the dough on it.
- Prep all your toppings and have them grill side.
- Heat the grill and brush with olive oil. Slide the dough onto the hot grill and close the cover. DO not walk away. Grill for about 2 minutes. Seriously—it’s quick.
- Use tongs or a spatula to remove the crust from the grill and place it cooked side up on your cookie sheet. Cover the grill again to keep it hot.
- Spread sauce or better yet, garlic scape pesto, (go lightly so the pizza isn’t soggy) on the crust. Add cheese and toppings (again go lightly, especially with wetter ingredients).
- Slide the topped pizza back onto the grill and close the cover again. Lower the heat and cook for another 2–3 minutes and dinner is ready. Enjoy!
I used garlic scape pesto, basil Italian sausage from our local market, and roasted tomatoes for my pizza. The girls had sauce, mozzarella, sausage, and pepperoni. We had salad on the side, because the garden is really cranking out greens and the radishes are begging to be picked.