When vacationing in a place as beautiful as North Carolina, it’s hard to tell the story in one fell swoop. And maybe that’s the way it should be: the stories should unfold over time, much like how the layers in a really delicious glass of wine reveal themselves gradually, gently. I like letting the stories tell themselves without my wrestling them into a “How I Spent My Summer Vacation”-type essay. How unlike actual vacation those essays are, all crammed and detailed and action-packed! An actual vacation, to my mind, is slow and sensual, a bit lazy and totally delicious. And, hopefully, a little surprising as well. The one thing I was truly craving, besides time with Matt and Owl, was a change of scenery, which is really the essence of surprise. Take me out of my element, and put me in a place with different people and different things to see and do. And please, please make it a place warmer than Chicago in April!
North Carolina did all those things for me, and more. There were the turtles that Matt and I saw while walking in the woods. A giant SPLASH and minutes later, the biggest turtle I’d ever seen crawled up onto a log in the river, accompanied by a second, smaller turtle. Were they friends? Lovers? With turtles, as with people, these things are hard to tell. These two turtles joined two other turtles on the same log, and for as long as we stood there watching them, these four turtles sat perfectly still, sunning themselves in the middle of the river on the most beautiful day.
I was pretty turtle-like myself. It’s such a blessing when the most taxing thing you do all day is shower and get dressed. Everyday life ceases to grind away at you, and you feel free, light, full of happiness. And then something amazing happens, something that just does not happen every day. You meet someone famous.
Now, I’m not normally starstruck. I care little for Hollywood stars; my celebrities are cookbook authors and other food bloggers, people who are well outside the range of Hollywood fame. I’m deliberately unplugged from television these days, and my attention span is too short for me to be a regular at the movie theater. But through a friend, I got to meet the star of my Corner of Shameless Promotion, the heart-stealing, lullaby-murmuring Dan Cohen. And it was awesome.
Perhaps a disclaimer is appropriate here: Dan is famous to me. I listen to his CD over and over again, singing along with him while I chop onions and wash kale. I swear, he really does sound better when I sing back-up! He croons, I swoon. We’re very happy together. But—silly me—I was a little too starstruck to be clever and witty when fate presented me with a chance to meet Dan by phone. I actually nagged him for not having performed in Chicago yet! I told him I love his single, how it’s one of my very favorite songs on the album. And we chatted a little bit about my work, life in a research lab, and the joys of being on vacation. That was that.
What I wanted to tell Dan, if I’d had my wits about me, is that I would totally cook for him if he actually made it to Chicago. And if he happened to have his guitar with him, and he happened to play it for me while I made something yummy for dinner, well, who knows what mischief might unfold? I might be tempted to do something wild like, oh, I don’t know, make him dessert. Yes, dessert—that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
My secret source of all Dan-related knowledge tells me Dan’s a big fan of that lovely yellow fruit, the lemon. Dan likes his food to pack a nice sour wallop. I’m a little more timid about the sour stuff, but I do make a delicious white bean stew laced with a hefty dose of lemon. And for a guy like Dan, I’d buy a few extra lemons and serve it with lemon wedges on the side, along with homemade breadsticks and maybe a green salad. It’s a perfect early spring meal, a time that calls for hot food that manages to awaken the palate and refresh the spirit. Those lemons, and Dan, really do make a girl feel good.
Rustic Lemony White Bean Stew
Adapted from “Artichoke and Lima Bean Ragout in Lemon-Garlic Sauce” in Passionate Vegetarian by Crescent Dragonwagon
Makes ~5-7 servings
I really can’t say enough good things about this stew. The spirit of the original recipe is here in full force, but I’ve adapted it to my tastes (which, apparently, do not include lima beans). Bite-sized chunks of carrot and potato lend it a rustic, peasanty quality, while artichokes, white wine, and fresh lemon juice make it special. Soft white beans transform this stew into an entrée, the star of the meal. I served it to Matt not too long ago and he expressed such profound love for the white beans that I started to feel jealous of my own cooking! Strange indeed. But I understand his love because I share it. Consider serving this stew the next time you have a famous musician to feed or you have a lover you want to impress. Or just make it for yourself and enjoy the pleasures of solitude.
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 rib of celery, chopped
5-6 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
3 ¾ c. mild vegetable stock, preferably homemade
½ c. dry white wine
1 tbsp. tomato paste
4-5 carrots, scrubbed, peeled if desired, and chopped into 1-inch lengths
2 large, not-too-starchy potatoes (such as red potatoes), scrubbed, peeled, and chopped into ¾-inch dice
1 lemon, zested and juiced
1 tbsp. butter, olive oil, or Better
1 tbsp. all-purpose flour
1 16-oz. can white beans, such as Great Northern beans, drained and rinsed
2 14.5-oz. cans artichoke hearts, drained, each heart cut in half
Salt and pepper to taste
Handful of minced fresh parsley leaves, optional
1) Heat 1 tbsp. olive oil in a nonstick soup pot over medium heat. Add the chopped onion and saute until it starts to soften, about 4 minutes. Lower the heat slightly and add the celery and about 2 tsp. of the chopped garlic. Continue sauteing for another 2 minutes or so.
2) Add 2 cups of the vegetable stock, the wine, and the tomato paste. Stir until the tomato paste blends into the stock. Raise the heat to a boil, and then add the carrots and potatoes. Lowe the heat to a simmer. Partially cover the pot and simmer for about 20-25 minutes or until the potatoes are almost (but not quite) tender.
3) About 20 minutes into simmering the potato mixture, heat the butter (or olive oil or Better—your choice here) in a nonstick skillet with high sides over medium heat. Whisk in the flour, stirring constantly, for about 2 minutes and then slowly and gradually, whisk in the remaining 1 ¾ cups of stock, the remainder of the garlic, the lemon zest, and the lemon juice. Cook, stirring constantly, for about 1 minute. While you are stirring here, everything should eventually come together into a smooth, brothy sauce. Once that happens, scrape the sauce into the simmering potato mixture and stir well to blend.
4) Add the white beans and the artichoke hearts to the stew. Stir, taste for seasonings, and add salt and/or pepper as desired. Eat a potato to check its tenderness; if it’s tender, then the stew is done cooking. Heat gently if the stew isn’t hot enough for your taste, and when it’s good and hot, serve in deep bowls, sprinkled with some fresh parsley if you like.