The Best Place to Start
Sophie, Musicals, and Tamar on Menu Monday
Of the two daughters in the Local Family, one is obsesses with musicals. One has an evil arch-villainess alter-ego known as Broadway B**ch. In this constant combat, various, shall we say, stuff, lingers in my brain. Settles, like it or not, in my conscious. So, that when I taught a college class, I found myself, every week, asking the class, where shall we start. For weeks, not a single kid got the reference or knew the line until I gave it to them, that the beginning was a very good place to start. I’m reminded of that line as I think about my latest round in the kitchen, and how I’ve approached Menu Monday.
Most of us already have water, a pot to put it in, and a way to light a fire. This gives us boiling water, in which we can do more good cooking than we know.
Thus begins my mentor and hero, Tamar Adler, in her lessons towards an Everlasting Meal. Chapter One: How to Boil Water. There is, yes, a recipe. After imploring you to taste the water as it climbs to 212 degrees fahrenheit–why, I suggest you find the book. Once at boil, she has you salting to the point of “pleasant saltwater.” You should taste, to ensure its pleasantness. Tasting at each step, she notes, is the most important thing a cook can do. Now, get to work. As she writes, “the best vegetables to boil will be the ones in season. She does not mention this, but the addendum to this is, that some of the best in season needs boiling, and needs boiling now. For instance, you want to boil your ears of corn as soon as possible from the time it comes off the stalk. I had corn from the Oak Park Farmer’s Market needing this treatment. (Peas and asparagus are other vegetables that require attention fast.) As Sophie knows, the beginning is a very good place to start.
And a pot of water can put a lot of good food on your table. Your Menu Monday will be rich with ideas and items. If you have started at the beginning, you know that the hardest part of boiling water is waiting for the water to boil. Manage that by working it around your other kitchen tasks. I needed to shuck and de-silk about ten ears of corn. That, and cleaning up all the stray hairs flying around the kitchen takes about the time it takes for my stock pot to boil. I moved on to my next task, three bunches or Swiss chard from last week’s Tomato Mountain CSA box. I moved fast, lopping off the dirty tips with a sharp knife, sacrificing a little stem for speed. Likewise, I used a knife to divide stem from leaf, moving individually but not trying to catch all stem each time. This has to be done because the stems take longer to cook, but a little stem left with the leaves won’t mess things up. The corn needs only about a minute in the water, enough to set the sugars and stop the enzymes. I probably had the pot going a few minutes until the chard was ready even as I moved fast. I boiled all the chard stems and about half the leaves. My task during and after this was to top and tail green beans. Again, I found a knife a better and faster method. The last vegetable that went into the water were new potatoes.
Tamar Adler notes that, “salted water seasons the vegetables, which means that by the time it comes out, it is partially sauced.” More importantly, she also notes, “boiling a vegetable improves the quality of the water as much as it does the vegetable.” Thus, each later round of vegetables gets cooked in more and more flavor. Corn is a good place to start because you do not need or want much added flavor, but by the time you get to the potatoes, that stock makes a difference. With water good and tasty, I try, if possible, to finish with a grain. Rice or wheat berries or polenta, anything starchy, benefits from that elixer brewed from water now flavored with salt and several vegetables. My pot’s worth ended with a few cups of mixed-type rice. I shall add that I am a huge fan of the “pasta” method for cooking rice and other grains. That is, instead of seeking the proper ratio of water to weight and cooking to a time where the grain is done but the pot is not burnt, you just cook in too much water, testing grains for doneness when you think so. Then, you strain out the grains or pour out through a colander; don’t worry after four vegetables and the grain, I got the most out of that boiled water.
Boiled vegetables cooked well, done past crisp or tender, can be enjoyed with a dab of butter or a dosing of good olive oil. They also stand as bases for other fun dishes. This week’s menu features that prize of summer, pesto. “Pesto Genovese,” a dog walking companion asked me today. “Pesto Midwest,” I replied. That is, it was pine nut-less pesto. No nuts actually in my recipe. Garlic, a lot, Nordic Creamery Parmesan cheese, basil and olive oil combined in a food processor. Proportions of each? Until it tastes good and looks like you want it. After I added my first batch of basil, I noticed the sauce seemed too yellow, so I added more leaves. The pesto dressed the potatoes and green beans. Trust me, it was very good. On the other hand, I have done nothing with the boiled chard, keeping this neutral and ready for later things on the menu. You can oil your vegetables in advance, but once they are subjected to acid, a splash of vinegar or a squeeze of lemon, other flavorings; they break down. By having vegetables boiled ahead, they can be finished as needed. You can saute them a minute or so with garlic. Use them as a base for poached eggs. Wake them up in the microwave and it’s like you just started. Which we know is the best place to be on Menu Monday.
Lunch after Tamaring.