Last night as the wind whistled outside my window and the city prepared for Sandy to blow through, I flopped into bed and flipped open Tamar Adler‘s book which I’ve been slowly devouring. The bookmark was stuck between pages 198 and 199. The book opened to Chapter 17, fittingly called “How to Weather a Storm.” (Fair warning: this post might read like a dissertation with its quotes galore, but the passages I cite are too good, their sentiment too true, for any clumsy paraphrasing. I hope you’ll understand.)
Right up front in the introduction to her book, Adler explains that she modeled An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace after MFK Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf. She describes her inspiration as “a book about cooking defiantly, amid the mess of war and the pains of bare pantries.” There’s no war around here, but there is a mess outside. The pantry may not be bare, at least not in my kitchen, but there’s nothing like a hurricane to make you think about what might happen if you have to subsist on whatever you have on hand with little hope of rapid replenishment.
Reading Adler’s chapter on eating out of cans in the face of little, I was reminded of my favorite chapter in Luisa Weiss‘s first book, My Berlin Kitchen, another recent bedtime companion. The chapter is called “Depression Stew” and the way I read it, it’s about the loneliness of Paris. I couldn’t help but relate to Luisa’s story (we met a few weeks ago, so I think it’s OK for us to be on a first name basis) of living in Paris and wanting to be an insider, wanting to have someone to share the city with. She writes, “I went to classes by day and walked the streets alone in the evening, sometimes ducking into one of the city’s myriad one-room movie theaters tucked away in small side streets to escape the increasing seclusion I felt.” I too spent time in Paris, often alone, often lonely. One summer, I too took (dance) classes and wandered the streets on my own. And while I did go on a few dates with a guy, when it was quickly clear that there was no future for us, he said, “I’ll never forget you as the girl who was lost in Paris.”
Reading Luisa contemplate the “Depression Stew” she made in her barely-wingspan Parisian kitchen felt familiar to me. Luisa had learned to make Depression Stew from her father who liked to think of it as “the kind of food you’d eat during a financial depression, cheap and filling and healthy.” When she made it that year in Paris, she felt that the stew could also serve as “a remedy for more personal lows.” Even though I preferred to eat out with a book that summer rather than cooking anything in the similarly tiny kitchen of my one-room rented Left Bank apartment, I knew what she was talking about.
When I first bookmarked Luisa’s stew, I thought I’d make it when I was feeling a bit blue and I’d write about being lost in Paris. But after reading Adler’s Chapter 17 last night and watching reports of the strengthening storm and its havoc this morning, it seemed more fitting to write about the stew’s humble beginnings.
I imagine Adler would approve heartily of Depression Stew. She recommends that you “get out a pot and a pan, and decide that no matter how hard the wind is whipping at the windows, you will be well fed through the storm.” She talks a lot about canned tomatoes and canned beans. The latter she says need a good long simmer in olive oil to “become really likable.” Even better if you cook them up with onion and garlic. And that’s where Luisa’s stew begins. And then Luisa fills out the aromatics with whatever is in the fridge – carrot, potato, zucchini – and a can of tomatoes. Luckily I had everything I needed for Depression Stew. A couple of carrots that were a bit droopy, a handful of potatoes a bit soft, half a baguette a bit stale — food that might otherwise be headed for the garbage had this stew not saved them.
I’m weathering hurricane Sandy just fine so far. Thanks, ladies, for keeping me company. I’m very lucky.
PS – a quick thank you to What’s Cookin for sharing my blog with their readers
This is one of those clean-out-the-fridge-and-pantry recipes. Use whatever vegetables you have on hand, just make sure to add the harder ones (e.g., carrots, parsnips) early and the more delicate ones (e.g., potatoes, zucchini) later. If you have a bit of stale (or fresh) baguette on hand, cut it into thin slices and make garlic toasts to float on top of the stew. If you have lemon and parsley lying around, a quick squeeze and a sprinkle really brightens up the dish.
– 3 T olive oil, and more for drizzling
– 1 medium yellow onion
– 4 cloves garlic, divided
– 2 carrots
– 5-6 baby Dutch yellow potatoes (or 1-2 large potatoes; any thin-skinned potatoes will do)
– 1 28-oz can peeled plum tomatoes
– red pepper flakes/crushed red pepper
– 1 15.5-oz can Roman beans (also called cranberry beans and barlotti beans)
– stale baguette
Heat. Heat the olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat.
Dice. While the oil is heating, dice the onion and mince three cloves of garlic.
Cook. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring every once in a while, for about five minutes until the onion is soft and translucent. If the onion starts to brown, turn down the heat.
Dice again and keep cooking. While the onion is cooking, dice the carrots and potatoes. Add them to the pan and keep cooking for another five minutes or so. Continue to stir every once in a while.
Squish and keep cooking. This is the really fun part. Pour the tomatoes in a large bowl and squish the tomatoes between your fingers, squeezing to break them up into small pieces. If there are any cores that feel rough, throw them out. Add the tomatoes, salt to taste, and a shake or two of red pepper flakes to the pot. Continue to cook for another five minutes. And continue to stir periodically.
Drain and keep cooking. Drain the beans and rinse in cold water several times. Add them to the pot, stir gently, and bring the whole thing to a simmer. Turn the heat to low and keep the stew at a slow simmer for about 30 minutes. Cover the pot and add extra water if the stew gets too thick.
Toast. Slice the stale baguette – you’ll want two pieces per person. Cut the last garlic clove in half and rub the cut edge on the baguette slices. Then drizzle or brush each slice with olive oil. Pop the baguette slices on a piece of aluminum foil and into a toaster (or regular) oven set to 350ºF. Toast for a few minutes on each side until the baguette starts to brown.
Serve. Squeeze lemon juice over the stew right before serving. Spoon into a bowl, sprinkle with minced parsley, and float a couple of pieces of toast on top.