Take your time

 

I love stories about food, but you probably know that by now. There’s a recipe at the end of this post, but if you’ve got a second, here is a story about fennel: Last December my sister and I went to a winter solstice fire and ran into our longtime family friend, Gillian. While we huddled near the low light of the dying bonfire, Gillian told us about the summer solstice party that she used to throw in June, complete with a bottle of Aquavit frozen in a block of ice with floating flowers. In the darkness, we dreamed of fresh dill, rye crackers, vinegary cucumbers, gravlax, and a long, drunken dusk under the willow tree of Gillian’s backyard. We hadn’t been at these parties, but we could picture ourselves there.

Several snow-less, gray months later, my friends and I started to make plans for a July weekend getaway to the Driftless area of Wisconsin. When we started to talk about menus, I thought back to Gillian’s summer solstice party spread. So for our Friday evening meal, my friend Morgan brought smoked salmon, crackers and cheese, and I decided to make a fennel salad. Gillian hadn’t mentioned fennel, but I could see the green, wispy-fronded vegetable fitting right into the mix. I had read about a salad with fennel and olives in Bon Appetit and wanted to recreate for our mid-summer meal.

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And now for a brief interlude- here is something that you need to know about my sister and me: while we love to think about, prepare and eat food, we are the world’s slowest cooks (just ask our mom.) Once when my sister was visiting my roommates and me in Wyoming, she decided to make us beef stroganoff for a Sunday meal. After an afternoon trip to the grocery store, I believe dinner was served just after midnight… But it was some of the best beef stroganoff you could ever have, as this was back in my meat-eating days.

Back to the old farmhouse in the middle of July and the fennel salad that I began preparing around 6 p.m. Several hours later, as more friends had arrived, I was still grating orange peel, chopping fennel fronds, sipping on gin and tonics, listening, talking, crushing an olive, laughing, slicing a fennel stem, and looking again at the recipe I had scribbled down in my notebook to loosely follow. When the salad was ready around 10 p.m., it was a hit.

Next in July came a vacation to a cabin on the Gunflint Trail in Minnesota (it was a good month.) Reunited at last, my sister and I decided to recreate Gillian’s menu for one of our nights at the cabin for a belated summer solstice party.

 

Again I decided to make the fennel salad to accompany smoked salmon from Grand Marais, boiled potatoes with dill, pickled beets, marinated cucumbers, and a bottle of Aquavit. I picked up the pace a bit this time as there was a hungry family to feed.

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Fennel Salad with Green Olives

Adapted from Bon Appetit

Ingredients

2 large fennel bulbs, tough outer leaves discarded, bulbs, stems, and fronds separated
1 cup Castelvetrano olives
¼ cup olive oil (lemon-infused olive oil is nice)
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
Kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper
Flaky sea salt

Preparation

Slice fennel stems crosswise (not too thin) and place in a medium bowl. Coarsely chop fennel fronds (you want about ⅓ cup) and add to bowl. Crush olives with a flat-bottomed cup or side of a chef’s knife and remove pit. Coarsely chop olives. Add olives, oil, vinegar, orange zest, and red pepper to bowl; season with kosher salt and black pepper, then toss to coat.

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I realize it is now October, but we often get a brief period in southern Wisconsin in the fall when fennel is being harvested on our farms again, so live it up! Get yourself some fennel and carve out a few hours to slowly make this salad for some people with whom it’s fun to take your time. Cheers.

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Happy today

The truth of the matter is, I’ve been feeling a lot like my sister, the one on the right in this photo, the last few weeks.

There is one glaring reason for my sadness- my beloved tabby cat passed away a few weeks ago and left a void that has yet to be filled. And another obvious one- I haven’t slept through the night in over a year. But there is another underlying issue at the heart of it: While everyone else is parading around pumpkin patches and cooking up squash, I just don’t get all that excited about fall. Yes, the leaves are beautiful and I get to wear my favorite Lebowski-esque cardigan sweater again, but I miss summer. I miss the crickets and I miss the long, warm days. I miss Bob Uecker on the radio and I miss swimming in lakes. I miss my tomatoes that never ripened and I hate spaghetti squash. There. I said it.

Now, I realize that it doesn’t behoove you to write off an entire season, especially when you live in a climate like ours; it’s a considerable chunk of your life here in the upper midwest. In an effort to embrace the season, I’m channeling my two-year-old self: The one, who upon discovering that on Halloween all you have to do is knock on a door and someone will hand you candy, danced up and down her street yelling “Happy today, happy today, happy today!”

So I’m going to carve a pumpkin and whip up some molasses bars. I’ll cheer on the Pack and dig out my ski socks. I’ll daydream; maybe this will be the winter I’ll practice the banjo and learn to crochet. And I’m making stew because when it comes to soup, summer ain’t got nothing on fall. When I first made this stew I used Rancho Gordo heirloom yellow eye beans, which I had bought back when I was employed.

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Since then I have also used good old white pea beans (navy beans.) You can read all about how to cook dried beans here. I start by rinsing the beans and then soaking them (or not) for a few hours (if they haven’t soaked, the cooking time will be longer.) You then cover them with water in a big soup pot, adding olive oil and celery/ onions/ carrots, if you like. Cook the beans at a slow simmer until they are done. I adapted this recipe for bean stew from an article I read in The New York Times all about the Greek island of Ikaria, in the Aegean Sea, where people stay up late, take naps after lunch, and drink lots of wine. Sounds good to me.

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Yellow Eye Bean Stew

Adapted slightly from The New York Times

1 pound of yellow eye peas or navy beans
1 medium onion chopped
1 can diced tomatoes
1 bunch of kale, stems removed and finely chopped
A handful of chopped parsley
1 chopped carrot
Chopped dill or fennel
olive oil
salt, season to taste

Cook beans until they are almost done (see directions above.) Add the vegetables and herbs. When the beans are done, add salt to taste. Turn off the heat and add 2 tablespoons olive oil.

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Serve the bean stew with crusty bread and lots of red wine and toast to the “blooming and singing of the dark” (this comes from another New York Times article which quotes the Japanese writer Junichiro Tanizaki who said, “Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.”) Have a fire in your backyard. Eat halloween candy. And while it’s okay to be sad, you can also try telling yourself happy today, happy today, happy today.