From the First Ladle: Tender
February 4, 2014 § 2 Comments
My longtime crush on Nigel Slater stems from the first time I laid eyes on his book Tender: A Cook and His Vegetable Patch. The thick, almost homely tome lay on a bookshelf in a local store, and somehow seduced me with one sidelong glance. On the cover beautiful young pole beans were gathered in a loose pile on a kitchen tea towel and blanketed with a simple but alluring title- just sort of tucking them in.
I was instantly smitten. Since that day I have cooked from those trusty recipes inside again and again, and thumbed through the accounts of planting times and harvest yields preceding each vegetable’s recipes countless times – as only the urbanite wistfully hiding a rural past does.
I grew up in the foothills of Northern California, in a forested community boasting only a couple hundred settlers, many of them trying to live “off the grid”. Here among the ferns, oaks, and cedars, my parents instilled an early love of gardening in my siblings and I, allotting each of us a raised bed for growing whatever we fancied from the big box they kept full of little paper seed packets. My seed choices were often of the sweet and spicy variety, like peas and radishes, strawberries and carrots. I distinctly remember the excitement of watching seedlings sprout in their little indoor trays, before it was warm enough to plant them right in the red clay ground. The garden was sprawling and overgrown in areas, making it necessary to leap over the Sweet Williams to reach the hose nozzle, and weave around the groping tendrils of cucumbers leaning off of their trellises to get to the strawberries. Yet, the garden was a safe space and a sanctuary, with a bean tent meant for imagining fairy encounters, and always enough blackberries, nasturtiums, broccoli and cherry tomatoes to snack on during the torturous wait between lunch and dinner.
College found me moving to the Bay Area to attend UC Berkeley. Through all my excitement and ambition, I never outgrew the need for green growing things, the need to smell damp earth and eat sun-warmed tomatoes straight off the vine. Somehow Nigel managed to comfort and reassure me in the adjustment to living in the ever-awake, always impatient, incessantly moving Bay Area. He seemed to say, you can live in a city and keep to the pace of your woodsy heart.
This recipe speaks to the soul of my cooking and the core of Nigel’s philosophy. Simple ingredients, seasonally chosen and generously unspecific in their amounts are just right for February, for soup, and for warming city-weary bones. The ingredients sing of woodsiness, rusticity, and comfort.
I adapted Nigel’s recipe to swap out the rib of celery for another seasonal vegetable that I love, celeriac. Not only did it flavor the soup with a subtler but deeper flavor than a celery stalk, but its wonderful almost-starchy quality lent a comforting layer of creaminess to the final dish. For the porcini-laden toasts, I used a whole-grain German bread from Maria Speck’s Ancient Grains for Modern Meals, a wonderful whole-grain resource. This bread is more than interesting, it is exquisite. I heartily suggest you invest in a seedy rye or other whole-grain toast.
A soup of toasted roots with porcini toasts
from Tender: A Cook and His Vegetable Patch, by Nigel Slater
enough for 6
- dried porcini mushrooms – a handful
- onions – 2 medium
- olive oil – 3 tablespoons
- a large tablespoon of butter (I used ghee)
- parsnips – 1.25 lbs (600g; 2 large ones)
- light stock – 5 cups (1.2 liters)
- a rib of celery, chopped (I used celeriac, about the size of an apple)
- garlic – a plump clove, peeled and squashed
for the porcini toasts
- dried porcini mushrooms – a handful
- the leaves from a small bunch of parsley
- a small clove of garlic
- walnuts – a handful, lightly toasted and chopped
- butter – 4 tablespoons (whoa Nigel- I used 1 tablespoon of ghee)
- interesting bread – 6 pieces, toasted
Soak the porcini in about 1 1/4 cups of warm water (300 ml) for thirty minutes.
Peel the onions, chop them coarsely; and put in a heavy-bottomed pan with the oil and butter. Cook until soft and translucent, stirring regularly. Peel the parsnips and cut them into large chunks (if using celeriac, cut into same-sized chunks). Add them (parsnips and celeriac) to the pan and let them color lightly on all sides. This will take seven to ten minutes, occasionally stirring.
Pour in the stock, then add the celery (if using), garlic, porcinis and their soaking water. Season with salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Decrease heat to simmer merrily for about forty minutes.
Meanwhile, make the toasts. Soak the porcini in warm water for half an hour, then squeeze dry and mince along with the parsley and garlic. Throw in the walnuts and chp a bit more. Melt the butter in a small pan, tip in the porcini mixture and sautée until warm and fragrant.
Purée the soup until smooth, either with an immersion blender or by transferring ladlefuls to a standing blender. Spoon the sautéed porcini, walnuts, garlic and parsley onto toasts and float them in individual bowls of soup.