This is what you have been waiting for, he used to say to me.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This–holding up my cheese and mustard sandwich.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This, sort of looking around.
-Marie Howe (“The Gate“)
Last week, last Sunday in fact, this little blog turned 3. It was an occasion that passed by in silence, although I remembered and marveled all the same. It’s a funny thing to present pieces of your life in such a public (okay, not that public) sphere; it can be an even funnier thing when the things that you present are slices of rhubarb on a cutting board, a cake so perfect you wonder if it can be repeated and pictures of a pup gone mad. Sometimes I wonder what all of these things really have to do with me, or what the point of this collection of recipes really is. I guess I’m just one of those people who always has to look for meaning; for those of you who live in a more carefree, go with the flow kind of way, I envy you–at least a little. But I fully accept that somebody has to do the work of making sense of it all.

These days, in these last throes of dissertation writing, it’s become harder and harder to find time to put together a meal, let alone dream of taking photos of the process and finished product. I walk to campus thinking of my dissertation, I look at a computer screen all day and, by the time I head home, my brain feels a little fuzzy and I’m still writing a narrative in my head (this is in fact proved dangerous on Friday night, when a kid targeted me for theft and tried to steal my iPhone out of my hands on a crowded street. Fortunately, he didn’t realize that the dazed, petite girl who looked like an easy target would have such an iron grip. I’m not that strong, but adrenaline and fear do funny things to a person. Needless to say, his efforts were thwarted and I am more than fine, although I will say that my faith in humanity is more than a little shaken. I refuse, however, to let these petty thieves of joy ruin my day or affect my routine; that’s giving them too much power). When I arrive home from these crazy writing sessions, the pieces of a half-composed sentence fade away. I remind myself that I’m home now, that work is over. With that reminder, I give myself permission to feel human, to do human things–even if I lose what seems to be the makings of a beautifully constructed idea. It’s then–and only then–that I start thinking about a meal that will sustain me.

As lost as I can get in my narrative, as hard as it can be to tear myself away sometimes, I realize that it’s these small moments at home that really keep me going: from the droopy happy look the pup has when she is released from the crate to the easy companionship the Greek and I share as we talk and make dinner. But most of all it’s the feeling of quiet joy I experience as I realize that, as frenetic as it may all seem, everything is not just going to be okay, it already is more than okay now. 

While it’s true that here have been some rough moments over these three years (remember all of those green beans from fall 2011?), there have also been a lot of happy times, too.  And that’s essentially what this blog is about–the foods that sustain me through the good and the bad. Today I offer you one of the meals that has been one of my steadfast culinary companions over the past few years: Kadirga Pilaf, an Ottoman rice casserole that Silvena Rowe features in Purple Citrus & Sweet Perfume. This book, featuring photos of beautiful Ottoman palaces and all manner of foods with pistachios and rose petals (if you hadn’t noticed, a few of my staple ingredients), is undoubtedly one of my favorites. What I especially enjoy about it is the way it presents the recipes: it highlights the history of many  dishes, explaining how they originated during the long reign of the Ottoman Empire. Reading her vivid prose, I can almost imagine a sultan sitting in the Topkapi Palace surrounded by an array of flavorful dishes.

As much as I enjoy France and French food, it does bother me sometimes how fond Americans are of singing the virtues of French cuisine. Its hegemony in our culture, at least in my eyes, can blind us to the offerings of the East (or the non-West, really), which both had and continues to have its own fascinating culinary history. And, personally, I would say that some Ottomans dishes easily put French ones to shame. This recipe, a delicate rice casserole flavored with shallots, almonds, pistachios, dried apricots (Rowe uses currants, but I prefer apricots) and herbs, is one of them. In this modern remake, the rice is gently simmered with shallots, garlic and dried fruit and, after being mixed with the herbs and the nuts, is covered with a Béchamel sauce. It’s then baked at high heat for 5-10 minutes–until the Béchamel is lightly golden. I assure you that the first bite rivals anything you could find at an upscale French restaurant. And that the second bite will bring you nothing but joy–that and the urge to take yet another. 
P.S. Thanks to my oldest friend in the world, I have a new blog layout! After three years, it seemed time for something a little more personal. I also, as a graduation present, got a new camera lens, which I’m in love with! More changes may be coming, but slowly. 
P.P.S. I finished the fourth and final chapter of my dissertation this past weekend, which is a huge relief. Even better, the chapter has already been generally well received. 

 Kadirga Pilaf with Pistachios, Almonds and Apricots with a Béchamel Sauce

yields 4-6 portions (4 as a meal and 6 as a side)
adapted from Silvena Rowe’s Purple Citrus & Sweet Perfume

As I mentioned above, the original recipe calls for currants, which I’m sure would give this dish a lovely tangy touch, but I’ve always opted for sweet dried apricots instead, which I think work really well with the nuts and herbs. I should also add that, while this dish is fairly easy to make, it does require a lot of chopping. You could easily toss the shallots and garlic and the nuts in the food processor, rather than chopping them by hand; this would make this dish much more manageable for a weeknight meal.
      On a similar note, Rowe says that the rice should become tender after 15 minutes of cooking on low heat; out of all the times I’ve made this dish, this has happened only once (I’m pretty sure that I was using a higher temperature than I should have since the rice started to stick to the bottom of the pan). Since low heat really is best, my recommendation is to add 2, rather than 1 3/4 cups of broth, and also to cook the rice on a very low setting for 25-30 minutes. I also like to stir mine frequently; I can’t help myself since the rice is risotto and, in my mind, risotto requires stirring.
       As a final note,  in the book itself, the photo of the finished pilaf displays a Béchamel sauce that has turned a deep golden brown; I’ve never managed to get mine to look that way–even after 15-20 minutes in a 400 F degree oven. I highly suspect that this version has been put under the broiler for a few minutes. Depending on the type of dish you cook your pilaf in, you might consider putting it under the broiler if you really want to give it some color, although I’ve never minded the light golden version of this pilaf.

For the pilaf: 

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3/4 cup dried apricots
2 shallots, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 1/4 cup Arborio rice
2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
3/4 cup roughly chopped pistachios
1/2 cup roughly chopped raw almonds
Roughly 2 tablespoons fresh oregano, finely chopped
Roughly 2 tablespoons fresh Italian parsley, finely chopped
sea salt (about 1/2 teaspoon) and pepper (pink peppercorns are nice here)

-Preheat the oven to 400 F.
-Melt the butter in an ovenproof skillet or casserole dish over medium heat and swirl it around to coat the pan. Then add the apricots, shallots and garlic, sauteing them for 1-2 minutes.
-Add the rice and stir with a heat-proof spatula or wooden spoon. Make sure to coat it thoroughly.
-Once the rice starts to look translucent, pour in the stock and then cover. Cook on low heat for 30 minutes or until the rice is tender.
-Turn off the heat and stir in the chopped nuts and herbs. Combine well.

For the Béchamel Sauce

2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup milk (whole is preferable, although I mixed 3/4 cup 1% with 1/4 cup heavy cream)
a few dashes of ground nutmeg
sea salt and freshly ground pepper (again, I fully support pink peppercorns), to taste
1 cup (4 ounces) grated Gruyere cheese

-Heat the butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat until it melts.
-Add the flour, stirring it in. It should become a smooth paste.
-Slowly whisk in the milk, adding a little at a time.
-Then, sprinkle in the nutmeg and add the salt and pepper. Adjust the flavor.
-Simmer over low heat until the sauce thickens (this should take 5-8 minutes; whatever you do, do not let it come to a full boil) and then remove from heat.
-Stir in the grated cheese until it has melted into the sauce.

-Pour the sauce over the pilaf and put in the oven for 10-15 minutes, or until the pilaf is lightly golden.
-Serve and enjoy the flavors of the Ottoman Empire!

10 thoughts on “A Quiet Joy

  1. WOW. There is so much wisdom in this post. I am so happy to hear all the good news, but even happier that you have an unshakable balance in your life. However, boo to whoever tried to steal your phone. I shall track them down and kick them. Also, love the new layout!

  2. Congratulations on year three, and on chapter four! I love the new header and the new background! This meal looks so incredibly delicious and fulfilling, like gourmet comfort food.

    Most of all, though, I am comforted by your beautiful words that resonate with me so… “it's these small moments at home that really keep me going… most of all it's the feeling of quiet joy I experience as I realize that, as frenetic as it may all seem, everything is not just going to be okay, it already is more than okay now.” I needed to be reminded of this tonight — thank you.

    I look for meaning in everything, too — but I hope you know that as you wonder what the point might be, there may meanwhile be someone, somewhere reading your words and being soothed by them. In other words, there is a larger purpose you can't always see.

  3. Thank you; at age 30, I now feel like I have tons of wisdom to spout. This was only the beginning. Or maybe the continuation.

    And seriously, boo to the Telegraph Avenue thief/ves! I still can't figure out what the phone would be worth to them, but who am I to understand how the (petty) criminal mind works.

    And I'm glad you like the new layout; I was really happy with what Jon did with it. We kept everything pretty simple (blogger isn't as kind as wordpress is to change), essentially just changing the header.

  4. Yeah, this oregano looked so different from all the other oregano I've seen in my life; it must be a specialty of the North Berkeley Farmer's Market, which I went to when I was checking JN's mail one day (she's in Germany and I've been doing this as a side job for her).

    And, seriously, I love this recipe and the book. Silvena Rowe is awesome. I think this confirms my theory that British cookbooks and chefs are where it's at.

  5. Hi Moriah and thank you for your lovely comment. This meal definitely is the best of gourmet comfort food (I think anything with a cream sauce pretty much fits this bill in my book); I could eat it everyday without growing tired of it.

    And I'm glad that my words offered you comfort. You're right that there is a larger purpose to these things (blog posts, dissertations, even a random smile at a stranger); maybe they don't always mean that much to you as you're doing them, but they may really impact somebody else. It's good to be reminded of this; thank you.

    Also, I really do think that, despite the changes that are coming to both of our lives, not only are there still small comforts and joys to be had, but also that we'll both land solidly (if not smoothly) on our feet.

  6. Well, you know I love the new design. I somewhat miss the blue and white (reminded me of the Greek, for some reason;)), but I'll get used to it. So happy that you are nearing the finish line. You will feel an unbelievable sense of accomplishment when all is said and done. Trust me. Much love, J

  7. Hi Jess and thanks for your comment! I'm glad you like the new design and I understand what you mean about the old one. It's funny, I never really thought of the old design being all that Greek (although now that you mention it, it was Greece's colors); I thought of it more as Finnish. I made those changes while I was working in the archives there and it kind of reminded me of a Moomin troll pattern, or like something Marimekko would put on a tablecloth….I suppose it's all in the eye of the beholder. 🙂

    As for the dissertation, I can only imagine. I'm still at least a month away from experiencing this accomplishment for myself, but I feel better about things the closer I get. It's a long road, this project. xoxo

  8. Thank you! I am quite fond of this new lens, although it's fixed, which was a bit of an adjustment. I also used it for all of my Nashville photos; it's moodier than the old lens.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s