Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The State of the Fava

For those on the shipping and receiving crew, there are boxes to unpack in the produce area.

The omnipotent intercom-voice directed; I obeyed. It was my first shift as a working member of my local Food Coop.

I unpacked and organized boxes of bright oranges, radishes, banded bunches of asparagus, a vivid color differentiation of beets, soft loaves of bread, multitudinous buckets of cottage cheese and yogurt. I swept up the remains of spilled farro wheat, rolled oats, and red lentils. I stood on a little step stool in order to crane my too-short body over the edge of the top shelf to rearrange more packages of rice cakes than I ever knew existed.

Are there any workers in the shipping and receiving crew who feel comfortable handling raw meat? Calling all non-vegetarians; we need meat handlers.

In the apparent dearth of carnivorous coop members, I had the opportunity to spend a long time unpacking cool chicken carcasses wrapped in plastic. Thighs, drums, legs, breasts; I organized all organic body parts with my small band of fellow meat-eaters. Grass-fed beef steaks, short ribs, stew meat. Racks of lamb. Pouisson. Tiny capons. Pates and smoked delicacies. Duck and Turkey. A ready phalanx of diverse and organic meat showered itself into the shelves as we organized. I entertained myself thinking on the deliciously endless cooking possibilities.

The hours of menial labor were pretty boring. But worthwhile, certainly. I am happy to have a nearby organization of people who care about the quality and diversity of their food. I am delighted to have things like Meyer lemons and blood oranges available at an affordable price [especially since it seems that I have zero grocery store self control]. And not only has it inspired a few interesting new acquaintances [how many Passover Seders can a girl actually go to?], but has also given me a root-like sense of community, important in this new city.

At one point in my shift, as I waded through the swamp of vegetable containers in the produce arena, my gloved hands ripped open a damp cardboard box. The contents were covered in a sheet of white paper; I could see a hint of green in leafy protrusions on the side. But it wasn’t until I crinkled and tossed the paper into the nearby trash that I fully realized what, in fact, I was dealing with. Fresh fava beans. Bright green, slightly fuzzy. I hadn’t realized they were yet in season; the large pods contain the delectable crunch of spring.

As I tossed the beans into the bins in the produce section of the Coop I was immediately back in The Restaurant. It has been almost a year since I worked as a dishwasher at the intense Boston bistro in a (sadly, aborted) attempt to work my way up the line of the culinary world. On one of my first nights working in the kitchen, I was thrown in front of a monstrous pile of fresh fava beans. I had never seen them in this unpeeled state before. My co-dishwasher S. and I spent a few bonding hours together as we pierced open the thick outer pod and freed each light green bean with our fore-fingers, tossing the edible nubbins into a metal dish.

No matter what the exact hour, as I peeled those favas for the first time I was most likely covered in chicken stock, my white staff shirt stained with beet juice and a smidgen of chocolate, my hair a detached frizzy mess on top of my sweating head. That was my usual state of things. I did not yet have such an extensive knowledge of kitchen-Spanish and probably mumbled in an odd mix of Italian and English as I attempted to converse with S. I vividly remember, however, looking at the piles of bright empty pods and bowls of fresh cleaned beans. I wondered how they were cooked, how they tasted, and how The Chef would use them. I imagined the smiles of the eager restaurant patrons as they drank in the sight of the vibrant green favas with their eyes, their steaming plates set carefully in front of them. We did that kind of prep right before the first big wave of dirty dishes of the night; I remember feeling very happy.

I bought my own little bag of fresh fava beans before leaving the Coop on Saturday. And last night I peeled them while sipping a glass of red wine, relaxed and chatting with my apartment-mate. I worked slowly, relishing the crunch of the open pod, the delicate color of the inner bean. I blanched them in a pod of salted water and then quickly slipped them out of their outer membranes. In a salad of plump farro wheat, fresh cherry tomatoes and arugula, dressed simply with olive oil, red wine vinegar and salt and pepper, the fava beans were a bright addition.

The fava beans were a vivid reminder of where I was a year ago and simultaneously a token of where I am now. No longer am I entrenched in the culinary world; I am finding my way in the confusing mash of NY. I’ve been sad, these days, as I watch my life continue in a path that veers farther and farther from my original culinary plans. My days (however short) as a dishwasher were a concrete jump into a passion and now seem very far removed from my current existence. Today I am not ‘sure’ of anything, really. I’m having trouble thinking of a job that I really want. The majority of my physical body has recovered from the accident. I can walk comfortably with both legs. Run, even. (Well, nothing close to a sprint. But jog a bit when I’m running really late). I can sit cross legged and can again do a mean yogic backbend. The only lingering losses from the accident almost 8 months ago are my sense of smell and my professional convictions. And I miss them. A lot.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

On the Birthday of a Dear Friend

It was a cool October evening, a whiff of rain lurking somewhere in the humid overtones of the night air. Adrienne’s brown hair whipped up in the frenzy of a sudden gust of wind while my raincoat ballooned out into a cape of gortex as we quickly moved down the marbled cobblestone street of a small Italian town, somewhere near the coast of Capri. I clutched my shoulder bag close to my body, checking the dark sky for signs of clouds obscuring the stars, impending precipitation. Lights were twinkling in the noisy trattorias and cozy cafes we passed as we walked; bearded Italian men and women, bronzed to European perfection, strolled nearby, tossing the light cadence of their language into our ears.

We landed at our destination, smiling – a single bench perched on a small hill. In a calm little park overlooking the cool flapping water of the Tyrrhenian Sea, Adrienne and I sat together, comfortable despite the hard wood seat. We opened my roomy bag and pulled out the bottle of rich red wine, two plastic cups and a bottle opener, a loaf of crusty white bread, hunks of white flaky cheese and mounds of fresh green grapes. Bright juicy tomatoes. We clinked our glasses in the cheers of happy travelers and attacked our wandering picnic fare with the same gusto that we often shared in those months of studying and traveling abroad. As the evening went along, always with the sound of soft waves breaking close-by, we ate, drank, and talked with the serious ease of comfortable companionship.

That autumn semester Adrienne and I lived in the same apartment, studying art history in Florence and exploring the Italian countryside in unison. It was a world deliciously far from the usual large lecture halls and musty libraries of our home university. Adrienne and I had not known each other in our first few college years, but when thrown serendipitously together in Italy we immediately found that we were kindred spirits. We hiked throughout all of Italy, picnicked at Pompeii, rode trains with large contingents of singing Italian soldiers, hitchhiked through a fit of giggles when we found ourselves stranded in a remote corner of the Tuscan countryside. Perfectly situated in our apartment right down the street from Florence’s Mercato Centrale, we cooked dinner together every night; Adrienne’s infectious laugh was always a delightful companion.

I don’t, actually, know what I would have done without her. I had arrived to begin my semester in Italy only a week after returning from Namibia, Africa. I had spent the previous three months as a volunteer English teacher in Katima Mulilo, a remote village on the Caprivi Strip. Coming from that intense experience of pervasive poverty, encroaching disease and little hope, Italy was a blaring shock to my senses. I was overwhelmed, to say the least. My post-Africa anxiety, I soon found, was all-encompassing. I felt guilty for who I had left behind; hesitant and wary of the unmitigated pleasures of my current situation.

On that cool and humid night near the ocean of Capri, one month into my Italian life, Adrienne listened as I talked about my experience in Namibia. It was the first time I had been able to verbalized what I was feeling. My fears, guilt, sadness over leaving the troubled African village to which I had grown so close. She listened that night; she listened consistently, continually, beautifully as I worked my way through all of the difficult emotions in the coming months, painful feelings I was not even aware I harbored until Adrienne’s gentle support allowed me to explore myself more deeply. Hours of involved conversation later, peppered, of course, with a plethora of fresh picnic food, we felt the sharp splash of rain drops landing on our cheeks as we looked up at the dark sky. A bright red umbrella magically appeared in Adrienne’s hand. Arms around each other and laughing with unabashed giddiness, suddenly free of tension and fear, we skipped up the hill back towards the hostel we were bunking in that night. Dark figures awash with the pattering of laughter, lost under a vibrant red umbrella.


On Saturday night Adrienne arrived at my apartment, a short ten blocks from her own, glowing in a bright flowered dress, funky cowboy boots. Her laugh, infectious as always, filled the room. Joined by other familiar college faces, we celebrated her birthday with a vivacious eating-fest.

For my first foray into ‘serious’ cooking since my move to New York, I indulged the vegetarian in all of us (though mainly our anti-meat friend, Grace) and made quinoa (one of my favorite things) with Moroccan winter squash and carrot stew, pomodori ripieni (roasted tomatoes stuffed with bread and cheese), and a voluptuous dark chocolate cake. The meal was warm and colorful. The smell of the chocolate cake as it baked lingered happily in my nose all evening. It was comforting and homey, fitting fare to celebrate the birthday of a wonderful friend.

We all gathered together on the rooftop of my apartment toward the later hours of the night, clinking glasses of wine and gazing at the sparkly view of Manhattan. Though nowhere near Italy and far from picnics of bread, cheese and grapes, when we stood there on the roof, none-the-less, I could almost hear the lapping ocean waves. Or maybe that was just the wine.

Happy Birthday Adrienne!

Quinoa with Moroccan Winter Squash and Carrot Stew
Adapted from Epicurious

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 onions, chopped
3 minced garlic cloves
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
Pinch of saffron
1 cup water
1 can diced tomatoes
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 medium sized butternut squash, peeled, cut into 1-inch cubes 2 cups peeled and cubed carrots

1 cup quinoa
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
1/4 cup finely chopped peeled carrot
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
2 cups water

1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro, divided
For stew:
Heat oil in large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion; sauté until soft, stirring often, about 5 minutes. Add garlic; stir 1 minute. Mix in next 8 ingredients. Add 1 cup water, tomatoes, and lemon juice. Bring to boil. Add squash and carrots. Cover and simmer over medium-low heat. I let it simmer for almost an hour; the vegetables were soft and tender, a wonderful consistency. Season with salt and pepper.

For quinoa:
Rinse quinoa; drain. Sauté onion and carrot in the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat, about 10 minutes, until beginning to brown. Add garlic, salt, and turmeric and sauté 1 minute. Add quinoa; stir 1 minute. Add 2 cups water. Bring to boil; reduce heat to medium-low. Cover; simmer until liquid is absorbed and quinoa is tender, about 15 minutes.

Stir in half of cilantro to the stew. Serve with quinoa and more cilantro sprinkled on top.