I’ve been steeping myself in Ruth Reichl’s books this month, reading all about her California adventures in Comfort Me with Apples and her tenure as The New York Times’ restaurant critic in Garlic and Sapphires.
If there is one thing that I’m certain about when it comes to food, it’s that I have no desire to cook professionally. The frantic pace of restaurant cooking clashes perfectly with my slow, contemplative cooking style. In addition, I think my cooking boss would be none too pleased with my tendency to deviate from recipes. I’m destined to remain tablebound in restaurants, and I think we are all happier for it.
I will admit to having a newfound respect for the restaurant business after seeing it through Ruth Reichl’s eyes. It’s an enormous task they are trying to accomplish: to provide a crowd’s worth of nourishment, pleasure, and entertainment, all while cranking enough food out of the kitchen to feed everyone on the premises. I like eating out every once in a while, but restaurants make me very grateful for the sanctuary that is my own kitchen.
It’s telling that my favorite parts in Ruth’s books are the parts where she cooks at home. She often cooks for comfort, and I can’t blame her. When the world is falling to pieces around you, there are fewer things more soothing than chopping, stirring, sniffing, creaming, mixing, and tasting. Whether comfort is found on the stovetop or in the oven, on a counter or a sturdy table, these small pleasures cannot be peddled by a restaurant. Sometimes the luxury of having someone else cook my dinner is exactly what I need, but sooner or later, I always return to the kitchen, ready to feel the knife in my hand and the onion at my fingertips.
Even for a restaurant critic, and especially for one who likes to cook, eating dinner away from home, night after night, can lose its charm. But the kitchen courts our affection in uncanny ways. In Garlic and Sapphires, Ruth writes,
“That fall, worried about Carol and wondering about my work, I spent weeks standing at the counter, chopping onions, peeling apples, and rolling dough. I made complicated soups and stews, and I began baking bread every day, as I had done when Michael and I first lived together.
“In the end I came to realize that a restaurant critic’s job is more about eating than writing, and every time I cancelled a reservation I grew more seriously behind. I was having a secret affair with cooking, and I knew it could not continue. But every morning, after walking Nicky to school, I’d go home and sit in the kitchen, sifting through my recipes. A jumble of handwritten pages, they were gathered into an ancient, torn manila folder filled with memories. Tomorrow, I’d think, tomorrow I’ll go out to eat, tomorrow I’ll go back to the restaurants. And then I’d turn over another page and a long-gone meal would come tumbling out, more evocative than any photograph could ever be.”
Isn’t that great? “A secret affair with cooking.” Just the thought of it makes me happy. But the part I loved most was the luxury (stolen though it may have been) of sitting down each morning and picking out one delectable recipe to make, a way of summoning the past to bring comfort to the present. It’s an overwhelming, frantic world in which we live; the kitchen table is the perfect place in which to seek some serenity. Lazily, dreamily paging through cookbooks and recipe clippings is an earthly meditation, an antidote to the harried, forward-pushing world outside the kitchen. Sitting at our tables, looking at recipes, we can let the world carry on without us for a while.
When we are done dreaming and the groceries now sit on the counter, waiting to be turned into a meal, we can find comfort in doing. “I have found that meditation at the edge of the knife makes everything seem better,” writes Ruth in Garlic and Sapphires. Indeed, is there a task as straightforward and satisfying as chopping? Is there any more purposeful feeling than the weight of a chef’s knife in your hand, hovering over a green pepper, the blade just seconds away from slicing cleanly through the vegetal curves? On the days when I feel lost and useless, a recipe is my map and a knife my compass. On those days I am profoundly grateful for my kitchen, even the mess that remains to be cleaned up after the cooking and the eating have ended.
Alone in the kitchen, there is no need to impress. But to be honest, I don’t invite people into my kitchen whom I need to impress. It’s like a workshop, a space I share with my favorite people, the ones who have decided to hang around me, despite my warts and wrinkles. I love having company when I cook, but I’m not deterred if I’m chopping without an audience. The solitude makes it easier to justify a simpler recipe, one that sounds pedestrian and could disappoint in its ordinariness. The suspense of the outcome is rather enticing! All of this is a very long-winded way of saying that I made a fantastic rice and bean salad that I wanted to share with you today. Finding this recipe has, in retrospect, justified my search for a rice and bean salad recipe worth keeping. This class of salads can be tricky. Sometimes the rice becomes hard upon refrigeration, sometimes the beans get mushy, sometimes the whole salad tastes muddy and heavy with too many ingredients. I wanted my salad to taste light and fresh while still fulfilling its promise to appease my hunger.
Today’s salad has a few tricks up its sleeve that keep it delightfully refreshing. For one, it calls for Wehani brown rice or basmati brown rice. I used the latter because I couldn’t find Wehani rice at Whole Foods. Basmati brown rice lends a very nice texture to this salad: soft and slightly chewy without being hard or mushy. The dressing, a light and tangy vinaigrette with some Southwestern spice in the form of cumin and oregano, is simple without being boring, and it really lets the rice and beans shine. Pinto beans make for a great salad bean, and the vegetables, scallions and a bell pepper, taste bright and clean.
I like this salad on its own, but it also makes a nice backdrop for other ingredients. It’s particularly delicious served over a bed of lettuce and topped with a chopped tomato and some cubes of sharp cheddar. I’m also thinking about trying it with some slow-roasted tomatoes in lieu of the bell pepper; my friend Ammie hates bell peppers, but I think she’d like this salad without that damn pepper.
Rice and bean salads may not be cutting-edge restaurant cuisine, but they are the stuff of which my kitchen dreams are made. Keep dreaming, friends, one recipe at a time.
Southwestern Brown Rice and Pinto Bean Salad
Adapted from EatingWell, April/May 2005
Makes 6 or more servings
This recipe makes a MOUNTAIN of food, so be forewarned that if you aren’t making this for a crowd, you’ll be eating the leftovers for several days, which is not at all a bad thing. I have found that the leftovers are really good for about two days—the rice stays chewy and tender—but after that, they need a little help. If you heat up the salad, it helps to revive the rice and restore its nice texture. A microwave is fine here. On a stovetop, you can use a little saucepan, adding a few dribbles of water to steam the rice just a touch. It’s almost as easy as heating up leftover soup! The flavors, fortunately, seem to hold up well for at least 4 days after making the salad. But you can always add a sprinkle of salt or a drizzle of vinegar to perk up the leftovers. Cheese helps too.
1 cup Wehani brown rice or basmati brown rice (I used basmati)
2-2 1/2 cups water (2 1/2 for Wehani, 2 for basmati)
2 tsp. cumin seeds or 1 tsp. ground cumin (I used cumin seeds)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup sherry or red wine vinegar (I used red wine vinegar)
1/2-1 tsp. sugar, especially if you are using red wine vinegar
1 tsp. dried oregano
1 large clove garlic, crushed and peeled
1/4-1/2 tsp. salt (I used 1/4 tsp. but I find myself adding salt to each serving, so I’m going to use 1/2 tsp. the next time I make this.)
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper (I never measure pepper. I would interpret this instruction as “Use lots of black pepper.”)
2 15-oz. cans pinto beans, drained and rinsed
6 scallions, trimmed and sliced
1 medium bell pepper, any color (I used an ordinary green pepper), chopped
1) Combine the rice and water in a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook until all the water is absorbed, 40-45 minutes. Remove from heat and let rest (still covered) for 10 minutes. Spread the rice out on a large rimmed baking sheet and let it cool to room temperature, about 15 minutes.
2) While the rice is going, prep the dressing. Toast the cumin in a skillet over medium-high heat or in a 350 degree F oven for 1-2 minutes until fragrant and lightly toasted. Transfer to a food processor and let cool for several minutes. Add the oil, vinegar, sugar if using, oregano, garlic, salt, and plenty of pepper. Process until the mixture is smooth and the garlic is finely chopped.
3) Place the rice, beans, scallions, and bell pepper in a large bowl. Toss together gently. Pour the dressing over the salad and toss again to coat everything lightly. Serve immediately or refrigerate in a tightly sealed container. This salad tastes best at room temperature or warm (see headnote).