Sometimes when I look at blogs, I can’t help but think that none of this is real. Not only is this not how real people eat, it’s also the fact that so much of what gets put on a blog–towering cakes of remarkable beauty, perfectly plated vegetables and meals cooked only during the daylight hours*–defies reality. Of course, the words “real” and “reality” are themselves problematic (more so these days than ever before), but even if we ignore them for a minute, an often unacknowledged truth about about cooking is that, while we like to look at beautiful pictures of dishes that are, at their heart, kitchen projects, we more often than not want to eat simply. We may want to make the dish on the cover of the latest Ottolenghi cookbook and fantasize about how amazing it would be, but, by the time we’re making our way through the seventh step, we may be more inclined to abandon the whole project and to hell with the pomegranate seeds that are meant to go on top! This is probably because, ultimately, our eternal kitchen fantasy involves washing fewer dishes and spending less time overall in the kitchen.
Another oft-neglected facet of eating simply is that we want to make things with what we have on hand; we don’t want to have to forage for sumac or drive to the Asian grocery store for fish sauce or even to stuff our pantries with ingredients that we might reach for only once in a blue moon. And I would almost swear that, besides the most careful of recipe testers and recipe followers amongst us (and we all know that nine out of ten cookbooks contain errors), nobody ever makes any dish in the exact same way twice. I may be wrong about this last part, but I know that when I cook, I don’t always measure my salt and pepper, nor do I measure out my grated cheese. I also don’t really blink an eye if the recipe calls for one type of cheese or flour and I use another, or if the one pound of beets required by a recipe becomes a pound and a half if this is what I have in the fridge; do these changes necessarily matter? There are those who would say yes and, at times, I would even agree with them, but there are also moments when fast and loose cooking, or au pif as the French would more elegantly say, has its place.
I started thinking about all of this lately for two reasons: 1) between the recipes for the pistachio cake
and the dill bread
, I have kind of driven myself a little crazy these days with recipes that consist of many many steps, which doesn’t reflect how the Greek and I cook or eat on a daily basis, and 2) I want this blog to be at least somewhat approachable and inspiring, even if it eschews the white marble craze, which still seems to be de rigueur in today’s “pin-worthy” food photography. I realized that, for me, this mode of cooking is often best described by my approach to lunch.
I don’t know why, but these days lunch is when I do my most “liberated” cooking. This may be because I have only myself to please and, despite the ticking clock and the speed with which a one hour lunch can fly by, it’s a comfort to take a brief midday moment for myself. Of course, my ability to do this in and of itself reflects my somewhat privileged status: I work from home, which may sound fabulous in theory, but, in practice, can be a mixed bag with its own fair share of curses. There are days when I sorely miss my walks through the bustling lunch crowd in Jackson Square, with the fog swirling around me and the option of Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Californian, Italian or Greek packed into a 2-3 block radius. Both this nostalgia and the isolation of working from home may be what ultimately drives me to avoid the fate of a “sad desk lunch.” Call it my personal rallying cry against the entrapment of the 9-5 job, but it’s no exaggeration to say that lunch is sometimes the highlight of my day.
Just to be clear, I don’t always have the luxury of making myself lunch. But if I didn’t make a meal the day before that had led to leftovers, I have to make something
or I will start to graze–almonds, chocolate, cheese–and know that I will again feel hungry within an hour or two. Sometimes this something is a tuna salad or peanut butter sandwich (I have expressed my love of the sandwich
, or toast, before and hold to all of these combinations even several years later); at other times, if I’m feeling more ambitious, it can be pasta with broccoli or chickpeas, or even a quick-cooking grain. If I’m feeling very fancy, I’ll make a salad, use up some herbs in the crisper and dress it simply with lemon and oil. If I follow a recipe (and most days I don’t), I start making substitutions before I even get past the ingredient list because, when time is of the essence, there is no time to deliberate. Decisions must be made quickly, lest the hour disappear before I’ve decided what I want to eat (too many options, just like a very full crisper, can lead to a crippling indecisiveness).
Fortunately, I have a lot of recipes or templates that I consider to be old faithfuls, dishes that I made at one point or another and that left an impression. One such dish, which also has the benefit of being quick, simple and good, is a Shaved Kohlrabi and Apple Salad that I found on Epicurious (via Bon Appetit before it was possessed by the urge to be a food blog in print form) back when we still lived in Berkeley. This was probably in response to the the first time we had ever gotten kohlrabi (German for “cabbage turnip”) in our weekly vegetable box and, if you’ve ever seen kohlrabi before, you can imagine my confusion. Kohlrabi, a brassica like broccoli, turnips and cabbage, is basically the bald and mild-mannered version of celeriac, not to mention equally difficult to peel. I would call its flavor both crisp and light–a hint of pepper with a subtle sweetness, but you want to look for smaller, rather than larger, bulbs, since they tend to be more rounded and complex in terms of flavor. As far as vegetables go, it’s appealing and tasty, as well as widely available in March on the east coast; this alone may be one of its best selling points. When shaved thinly with a mandoline, paired with a thinly sliced Granny Smith apple and topped with sweet pecans, lemon zest, fresh mint and salty sharp Manchego cheese, kohlrabi reminds you that lunch, even one thrown together pretty quickly, can be both exciting and satisfying. And there’s nothing sad about that, which is why I’m determined to make this a regular (semi-regular) series on the blog.
*Even if photography on food blogs defies reality, conventions are conventions, which is why I, to a certain extent, follow them. That said, these photos were snapped quickly and right as a storm rolled in, so the light is barely bright enough. Plus, I am not a natural food stylist or photographer (I blame the astigmatism) and often can’t be bothered to leave a suggestive sprinkling of nuts or dreamy smattering of herbs on the counter, as this kind of thing not only drives me crazy, but also must be cleaned up by me, which makes it a less compelling aesthetic choice. Alas, such considerations must factor into real life.
Shaved Kohlrabi and Apple Salad with Pecans, Mint and Lemon
Adapted slightly from Epicurious
Serves 1 as a meal or 3-4 as part of a larger meal
I don’t know that I’ve ever made this salad in the way that the chef behind it intended it to be made, but, even if I’ve erred on the side of shortcuts or substitutions, I’ve never been disappointed. Parsley or chives can easily replace the mint; if you don’t have hazelnuts, a naturally sweet nut, you can replace it with pecans. Similarly, as much as I love a good Pink Lady apple, Granny Smith will also do and will provide the same welcome shock of tartness. Although I always try to keep Parmesan or Pecorino in the fridge, we were out last week, so I went with Manchego, which has the same creamy saltiness.
I will write up the recipe as I made it for lunch last week, but will put in Chef Mattos’ (of Estela in New York) original suggestions in brackets. Truth be told, these changes are minor, but no matter what you do, I don’t think you can go wrong with this recipe. Salads can be deceptively simple, but I’ve also found that the heartier ones can more than withstand a few changes.
1 handful of pecans [1/2 cup blanched hazelnuts]
2 medium kohlrabi, peeled and thinly sliced on a mandoline
1 Granny Smith [or Pink Lady or Crispin] apple, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 lemon, zested
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon olive oil
salt and pepper, to taste
3-4 stalks fresh mint, leaves removed and roughly torn [1/2 cup torn fresh mint leaves]
small piece of Manchego, grated
Heat a small skillet over medium heat; add the pecans and toast, turning once, for 5-7 minutes or until lightly browned and fragrant. Remove from heat, let cool and then roughly chop the nuts. Set aside.
With the kohlrabi and the apple spread out on a cutting board (I place my mandoline over a cutting board), sprinkle them with lemon juice. Turn to coat, before placing the kohlrabi and apple onto a plate.
Top the kohlrabi and apple with the lemon zest and chopped toasted pecans. Whisk together the vinegar and oil in a small bowl with some salt and pepper. Pour the dressing over the salad, then top everything with the fresh mint and grated cheese.
Taste and adjust, if need be, the seasoning. Enjoy!