People are starting to get sick of a life lived so intensely on the grid. They wish for more anonymity online. They’re experiencing fatigue with ebooks, with dating apps, with social media. They’re craving something else in this era of quantified selves, and tracked locations, and indexed answers to every possible question. Except, perhaps the question of who you really are, and what life has in store for you. -Julie Beck (“The New Age of Astrology“)
Last night, as I lay in bed with the beagle snuggled up against my side, I finally clicked on The Atlantic article on astrology that had caught my eye earlier in the week. I don’t even know why I tried to resist. From its title alone, it had seemed like the article was written for “new agey” people just like me, who see something inherently determinative in how the stars, sun, moon, and planets were aligned when you entered the world. The funny thing is that, despite my interest in astrology, it wasn’t the exploration of how people use their horoscopes that I found fascinating about the piece (Beck says this turn to horoscopes for answers and guidance is a distinctly millennial behavior, which although technically a millennial–of the old guard/first wave–I personally reject. I was into horoscopes in the late ’90s, which though after the term millennial was coined, still feels lightyears away from what the term has come to mean. My feelings on millennials and how I fit into my generational mold aside, astrology is, and has always been, a belief system that, as much as religion itself, operates according to interpretations of its own central text–in this case, the alignment of the stars and planets–and puts one’s faith in a higher, invisible, and generally unfathomable power); it was the realization that others are as increasingly disillusioned with the world of social media as I am.
Is this a new feeling or is it one that has been dogging me for a while? Was it the proliferation of ads, was it the oversharing, or was it the disturbing feeling that somehow I had become an invisible part of things that ultimately had nothing to do with me (granted, this seems to be the point of social media, but we do have a choice regarding our own personal engagement)? I really don’t know that I can say…I do, however, know that I have been off Instagram since January 7, and that it feels great; maybe it had gotten to the point where I too easily reached for my phone when I was bored or seeking some kind of connection (this is also possibly due to my working from home situation) but I decided that it was time for a little detox and, like an alcoholic serious about getting sober, it seemed that the only way to avoid the temptation was to take the bold step of getting rid of my stash, i.e. erasing the app from my phone. Cold turkey or bust. And here I am, almost two weeks into this self-designed program, with a clear head and less twitchiness. At times when I normally would have reached for my phone, I’ve been reading more, putting my magazine subscriptions and bulging bookshelves to their proper use. I signed up to volunteer as a teen mentor. I feel more centered and present; at night, my hands don’t hurt or curve in the weird way that I suspect they might naturally do so in 100 to 200 years after we have fully evolved as a species of smartphone users. Truly, you don’t even know how much time you were wasting until you suddenly have it all back.
Does this mean I’ll never get on Instagram again? Again, I don’t know. I’m not there yet. But I do know that, in the spirit of my old tradition of coming up with yearly slogans, I have decided that this is going to be The Year of Quiet Contemplation. It feels that the Greek and I are on the cusp of something, that some big change awaits us. In fact, as I write this, he is in Asia, interviewing for a job and testing his (our) luck. Almost as soon as he returns to the US, he’ll be off again; there are two more (local-ish) interviews in January and another one that has yet to be set, but will most likely take place in February. It can be hard to say anything concrete when so much is up in the air, but the blog seems as good a place as any to spin fantasies and to reflect; due to a cold (or even a mild version of the flu) that I caught at the beginning of the year, I never did manage to write my round-up of favorite 2017 cookbooks, but the good news is that, once you take away something like Instagram, the world of easy sharing, a blog again becomes integral. And I decided that, rather than just post a round-up, I could do one better and actually write reviews of each book and feature my favorite recipe from each. I also still have honeymoon photos and Italy photos and more things that I want to write and say than I could ever have time for, even in a social media-less world. Baby steps….
To begin, I’m going to start with a book that is recently new to me–so new as to be the first and last cookbook I have vowed to purchase in 2018–but that was on many of the cookbook round-up lists at the end of 2017. Granted, not the New York Times’ list, which seemed really unnecessarily strange this past year, but a list like the one at The Atlantic, which was possibly my favorite of 2017. This book is Joshua McFadden’s Six Seasons, which, like most of my favorite cookbooks, is a vegetable manifesto devoted to seasonal cooking, although what differentiates McFadden’s book from so many others is that he divides the four seasons into six “microseasons” (or, as laid out in the table of contents, you have winter, spring, three stages of summer, and fall). Beyond the merit of paying tribute to peak summer produce (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant) and showing how it is different from the offerings of the early summer (McFadden is based in Portland, Oregon, so the book’s layout doesn’t necessarily reflect what is happening in Florida or Maine; it does require that you be attuned to the growing season of your particular part of the world), the book is overflowing with veggie-forward and inventive recipes. Given McFadden’s pedigree–he has worked at the American Academy in Rome, in Maine, at Franny’s in Brooklyn, at Blue Hill with Dan Barber–I almost didn’t know where to start: Roasted Fennel with Apples, Taleggio and Almonds? Gratin of Brussels Sprouts, Gruyere and Prosciutto? In light of all these options, which isn’t even to say that he covers every vegetable you might have in your fridge or cupboard (sweet potatoes, I’m looking at you), the chapter I found myself lingering in, if you can believe it, was devoted to celery.
I have long believed that celery, crisp and slightly bitter, has been given short shrift by a lot of cooks, who view it as either a vehicle for peanut butter or cream cheese (not that there’s anything wrong with that) or as an essential component of a dish’s foundational flavor (think of the aromatic sofrito or mirepoix), but never as its actual star. It would seem that McFadden is a kindred spirit, as the celery chapter begins with “In my world of vegetables, celery is the undisputed flavor king.” The chapter goes on to showcase the inventive ways in which he uses celery–in a salad with dates, almonds and Parmigiano; in a salad based on the classic Italian puntarelle; in a salad with peanuts, apple and green chile…And then a recipe for a cream of celery soup. While this might scream boring and, in its method and ingredient list, may seem not all that different from Jane Grigson’s classic celery soup, nothing could be further from the truth. Where McFadden really wins the game with this soup, which in and of itself is fairly basic (cook the onions and celery in butter, then add stock, simmer and puree), is the garnish. It’s true that the extras can often make a dish, these little finishing touches that are so fundamental to restaurant kitchens, but that sometimes push the home cook to the limits of her time and patience. In this case, however, this garnish is as simple as they come: soaked and drained raisins, toasted walnuts, celery leaves, celery seed (or caraway, which I used) and a little drizzle of olive oil. With this little bowl of sweetness, sharpness and bitterness, you’ve got a soup that is not only transformed into a contender, but that makes you believe that ants on a log might do well to abandon the peanut butter and embrace the immediate contrast of flavor that exists between two maligned and misunderstood kitchen staples. It may seem crazy, but, with each and every spoonful, I’m more and more convinced that the affinity of celery and raisins must have been written in the stars.
Cream of Celery Soup
Slightly adapted from Joshua McFadden’s Six Seasons: a New Way with Vegetables
In McFadden’s book next to the recipe, the featured photo shows a soup that is green, vibrant, and highly appealing. As you can see from my photos, my soup is far from green. What happened is this: after adding a heaping tablespoon of Better than Bouillon vegetable base to 4 cups of boiling water and then adding an additional 2 cups of plain water, I ended up with a distinctly brown soup that was softened into a taupe only after adding the half and half. Given this difference, I suspect that McFadden either cooks his soup in water or that, being a chef, he has a steady supply of homemade and lightly colored vegetable stock. And while the color doesn’t necessarily matter that much, I think that next time I would go for water rather than stock so as to get the full flavor of the celery. Just keep in mind that the stock you use–brand and flavor both– will impact the final product.
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 bunch of celery, chopped into 1-inch pieces; the leaves should be set aside and chopped for the garnish
1 small yellow onion, chopped
salt and pepper
6 cups vegetable stock or water
1/2 cup walnuts, toasted and chopped
1/2 cup sultanas, soaked in warm water for about 15 minutes and then drained
1 teaspoon celery (or caraway) seed
olive oil, for drizzling
1 cup heavy cream or half and half
In a large pot over medium heat, melt the butter, then add the celery and onion. Season with salt and pepper (a few shakes and grinds will do) and cook the vegetables for about 8 minutes, or until they have softened and released their juices. The vegetables should not brown, so keep an eye on the temperature and stir often.
Add the stock and bring to a boil. Then, lower the temperature to a simmer and cook the soup for about 30 minutes, or until the vegetables have become completely tender. If using an immersion blender, puree immediately, but, if using a blender, let the soup cool for a few minutes and be sure to work in batches. The soup’s texture should be smooth.
While the soup is simmering, prepare the garnish, combining the chopped celery leaves, toasted and chopped walnuts, celery or caraway seed, sultanas and a light drizzle of olive oil to bind everything together.
Add the cream or half and half to the soup, then bring it to a slow simmer for at least 5 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
Serve and top with the garnish and prepare to be wowed by celery.
2 thoughts on “Written in the Stars”
Another brilliant essay, Katy! I believe a focus on vegetables is becoming more and more important in the kitchen. Happy that cooks and cookbooks are encouraging creativity with the lowly veggie. Went to a Sur la Table cooking class this morning. I’m inspired!
Thanks for writing and for your compliments! 🙂 And I think you are right about vegetables; not only do more restaurants and chefs seem to be highlighting interesting ways to prepare them, but the publishing numbers alone appear to suggest that they are the way of the (immediate) future! As for me, I’m always happy to be given inspiration about what to do with the produce in my CSA box.
I’m so glad to hear you got to go to a cooking class this morning; I’ve heard good things about the Sur la Table ones. What was the focus of the class? I’ve always wanted to take the knife skills class, since I live in constant fear that I might one day cut off a finger with my unorthodox methods.