Monday, December 22, 2008

On Assignment in the Mitten State

Dear reader, I had hoped to write you a sunny message en route to Michigan today. Instead, I just had one of the worst mornings of my life, but thankfully, I’ve stopped crying and it looks like I just might make it home before Christmas.

I was supposed to be on an 8:30 AM Amtrak train today. I arrived at Union Station at 7:15 AM, ready to roll. Instead, at 7:45 AM, my train was CANCELED with some vague promise of a bus to get me to Dearborn. Then I waited. And waited. And waited. Then I started crying, great big chest-heaving sobs of exhaustion, frustration, anger. Because this month, I just cannot deal with any more stress. My nerves are completely frayed, and the only thing that got me through these last few weeks was the promise of a week-long vacation with my family. They would soothe me, feed me, comfort me, and generally help me forget about graduate school and this frantic urban life of mine. I need a week without public transportation, packed lunches, timers, and fruit flies.

So here I am, sitting on a coach bus, waiting to leave Union Station, my packed lunch sitting next to me like a cat. Luckily, I do have a tasty meal with me, and I even packed enough for an afternoon snack, the thought of which is making me very happy right now, even though my fingers are kinda numb as I type. My fellow passengers are making me laugh: our bus driver does not know how to get to the Dearborn Amtrak station, but all the passengers are assuring him that they know how to get there, so I feel like I’m in good hands.

Yes, Amtrak sucks, but my family does not. My dear sister-in-law, Amanda, braved my sobbing and tried to find me a one-way plane ticket to Detroit, but my wallet is feeling pinched these days. I didn’t really want to shell out $100+ for yet another ticket, and just as she was on the phone with Southwest, they called for Dearborn passengers to board, so I decided to take my chances on the bus. I’ve said it before, but this time I really mean it: no more Amtrak. Seriously. My peace of mind has a price, and I’m willing to pay that price.

I believe, though, that this trip will be worth every last penny. For one thing, I haven’t seen my niece, Lydia, in a year. She’s two now, and she talks. Best of all, she remembers me. My greatest fear as a long-distance aunt is that Lydia won’t remember me. She’s so young, and I spend such precious little time with her. But she remembers me! I was talking to Amanda about my fear and she told me about this little conversation:

Amanda: Do you remember Uncle Scott, Lydia?
Lydia: He fixes trucks!
Amanda: That’s right! And do you remember Aunt Rose-Anne?
Lydia: She plays with me!

Yes! I can hardly think of a better way to be remembered by my pint-sized pumpkin. This week, there will be lots of playing, I hope, and lots of eating and sleeping and drinking cocoa. There will be presents and music, maybe even a little dancing if Lydia is in the mood. Last year, she liked to dance for us by stamping her feet and twisting her torso back and forth. She’s the cutest little dancer I’ve ever seen.

There will be tea with friends tomorrow morning followed by food shopping at Whole Foods with Amanda and Lydia. I’m cooking a family dinner for Amanda, my brother, and Lydia, which is another thing that makes me happy. When I asked Amanda if I could cook dinner for her family, she laughed and said, “Well, if you can make something without wheat, dairy, or corn, then be my guest.” I smiled and told her I was up to the challenge. I’ve got at least two awesome contenders for entrĂ©e position. One option is a big pot of Stewed Lentils and Tomatoes, perhaps served with rice or oat groats and a nice salad. The other option is a stew to which Matt introduced me, and it’s my top choice right now.

Matt has excellent taste, and this stew is no exception. It is, in fact, one of my very favorite things to make and eat. I know I say that a lot, but I think it’s okay to have lots of favorite things to eat. One of the fun things about cooking with Matt is the pleasure of surprise. I never know what he’ll want to do with the food in front of him, or, in the case of this stew, which recipe will capture his attention when he has a cookbook full of choices.

I remember that stewy evening with fuzzy clarity because it involved lots of delicious red wine. It was about a year ago, and Matt was visiting me in Evanston. He’d caught a wicked cold a few days earlier, so we spent a lot of time in our pajamas, laying on the couch. We did get dressed to go shopping for the groceries together, our teeth chattering in the bitter cold as we walked back to my apartment. After changing back into his pajamas, Matt put his palate to work. I happily played the role of sous-chef, chopping vegetables, finding various pots and pans, tossing together the salad according to Matt’s instructions. Matt chopped and tasted, insisting on a sample of the butternut squash puree that I pulled from the freezer (I love being the kind of woman who can pull squash puree from the freezer at a moment’s notice). We oohed and aaahed over the simmering vegetable stock, the intensely aromatic onion-and-spice saute, the incredible wine that Matt picked out. All of these sensory pleasures were a prelude to the outstanding stew that was being conjured out of simple ingredients. Rich with herbs and spices, Matt’s Chickpea and Artichoke Heart Stew is like a peasant stew gone glamourous. There’s a remarkable synergy between the fresh sage, paprika, and tumeric, three flavors I never would have thought to put together. But they work, magically and beautifully here. The stew’s broth, thickened with that squash puree, tastes almost creamy, or at least it did that night with red wine lingering on our tongues.

We ate our stew with Matt’s Spinach and Orange Salad, the recipe for which I promptly filed into my own collection because I liked it so much. It’s one thing to cook for someone whom you are trying to impress; it’s another thing to cook with someone who has already impressed you. I don’t know when Matt and I crossed that threshold between cooking to impress and cooking to love, but I must confess that I love that we cook together out of love. And because we’re hungry.

My bus is now on the road—I think we’re somewhere in Indiana—and I’m feeling much better. Writing is so very relaxing, and you are sweet to put up with me even when I’m feeling bad. Today, a year after promising you the recipe, I present Matt’s Chickpea and Artichoke Heart Stew, complete with Matt’s adaptations as best I can describe. I’ll be making a big batch of stew while I’m on assignment in the Mitten State. Your assignment, should you choose to accept it: have too much fun this week, sleep in, eat cookies, play in the snow, laugh until your belly hurts, and if you feel motivated, make a batch of stew. It will warm you deeply, belly and soul.

Happy holidays, dear reader.

Matt’s Chickpea and Artichoke Heart Stew
Adapted from Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home
Serves 4-6

Technically, this recipe is about 95% Moosewood and 5% Matt. But that 5% is significant to me! Matt uses a strategy he calls layering to deepen the flavors. Basically, layering is the addition of the same ingredient at different times during the cooking. For example, in this stew, Matt adds most of the sage at the beginning of the cooking to infuse its perfume into the body of the stew. Then at the end, a little more fresh sage is added after the stew is taken off the heat so that there’s a bit of uber-fresh, sprightly sage sitting right on top of the flavor profile. Genius, that Matt is.

4 cups excellent vegetable stock (good-quality bouillon cubes plus water work well here)
3 tbsp. olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped, divided
1 tsp. tumeric
1 tsp. paprika
4 medium waxy red or white potatoes, such as Yukon Golds, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
6 leaves fresh sage, finely chopped, divided
Generous pinch of dried rosemary
1/2 cup pureed winter squash, such as butternut squash
2 15-oz. cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 14-oz. can artichoke hearts, halved and rough spots removed
Salt and pepper to taste
Grated Parmesan cheese (optional but tasty)
Lemon wedges for serving (also optional but tasty)

1) In a large saucepan, bring the vegetable stock to a simmer.
2) Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large pot. Add the onions and saute until soft. Add about 2/3 of the garlic and cook briefly with the onions. Stir the tumeric and paprika into the onions and saute for about a minute.
3) Add the potatoes, minced sage from about 5 leaves, and simmering vegetable stock. Crumble the dried rosemary into the stew by breaking its needles with your fingers. Cook this stewy mixture for about 10 minutes, until the potatoes are just shy of tender. Stir in the pureed squash, then add the chickpeas and artichoke hearts. Simmer for a few more minutes until both the potatoes and the chickpeas are tender. Add the remaining garlic and sage. Taste; add salt and/or pepper to taste.
4) Serve in deep bowls, topped with Parmesan cheese if desired, with lemon wedges on the side for squeezing over the stew.


JD @ said...

I think I will get a chance to see you today!!!!

a said...

I'm so sorry about your travel woes! But I'm relieved to hear that you finally made it on the bus, and I hope you're having a wonderful relaxing time. And the stew... I hope you know I've been making a large percentage of the recipes I read on your blog :)

Rosiecat24 said...

Yay, JD! It was SO GOOD to see you today. I have missed you very much.

Ammie, I finally made it home! Ugh, it was pretty ugly until we finally hit the road (only three hours after our estimated time of departure from Union Station), but the ride itself was fine. I'm settling into vacation quite nicely now. As for the stew...well, you and I are both hippies who love Moosewood, and what's not to love about chickpeas and artichokes? We made that stew tonight for dinner, and I didn't know my sister-in-law is not wild about sage. Oops. Other than that, we all liked it. My niece just drank the broth ;-)

Unknown said...

hopefully your day turned around and you made it home safe and sound, that is the important thing! Holiday traveling is especally tough!

i never thought to freeze squash puree, but that's b/c i enjoy them so much they don't stick around too long ;-) This soup sounds lovely!!

Have a wonderful time with your niece and the rest of the family!!!

Rosiecat24 said...

ttfn, thanks for your warm wishes! Holiday traveling is so hard; I don't know why I ever expect it to be easy. Maybe I'm just hoping for a Christmas miracle every year!

Squash! I love squash too. If you're feeling ambitious, making a big batch of squash puree and then freezing it in 1-cup portions works really well. It's a trick my friend Nicole taught me. I steal--ahem, BORROW--all her good ideas. She has a lot of them to share :-)

I hope your traveling was smooth and easy. Have lovely holidays and keep that kitchen warm and happy!

yasmin said...

Glad to hear there was a happy ending to your traveling adventures. Enjoy your vacation! And I too know about needing to get away from fruit flies.

Rosiecat24 said...

Whew! Yasmin, the trip was worth every tear. And damn those fruit flies! They sure know how to drive a girl batty.