Poetry in a Bowl of Grains

Quinoa Salad with Homemade Harissa | Eat This Poem

I've been wondering, lately, how it is that we each manage to get through the day, cooking for ourselves and often our partners and children.

How do we manage? How do we plan (or not), and what do we eat?

Maybe it's a strange series of questions to ask, but I find that most of us are so involved (rightly so) in our own routines and habits, we rarely discuss what occurs in each other's kitchens. And I'm not talking about a pre-scheduled dinner party, either.

I'm interested in Monday morning and Thursday night. What you come up with when you realize you're missing an ingredient, or you didn't plan what to make for breakfast on Saturday, or you've been inundated with zucchini from the garden and are trying to make it interesting again and again. Or you're just flat out hungry but don't feel like making anything. (My answer for this always tends to be an omelette with Parmesan cheese, any greens I can find, and crushed red pepper flakes.)

So that's what I want to talk about today.

As for my own routine, I meal plan most weeks, a habit I took to years ago, right around  the time when I started working full-time. It just makes life easier knowing I've already thought ahead and designated a meal for dinner. It keeps me calm. It gives me something to look forward to. Sometimes meals are switched around, of course, or an impromptu dinner out ensues, but generally you can find me at home Monday through Friday standing at the stove soon after getting home from work.

The weekends are a bit more leisurely. While I do tend to plan those as well (except for days I just want to roam the market and see what happens, which happens a lot this time of year), I like leaving room for a dessert I've bookmarked or something more involved that I don't have time for mid-week. (homemade croissants, anyone?) Also, there is almost always some version of pancake or waffle at the breakfast table. It's borderline obsessive. 

Recently, I made stew. I don't typically associate June with stew, but it turned out to be the perfect accompaniment to an unusual bout of gloomy Los Angeles weather. It rained, actually. Really rained. Our state is always in desperate need of water, we just don't tend to receive much of it during the spring. So here I am in the middle of the year, making stew. And harissa, I should note.

Quinoa Salad with Homemade Harissa | Eat This Poem
Quinoa Salad with Homemade Harissa | Eat This Poem

Have I told you about Amy Chaplin's new cookbook yet? It just won a James Beard award (!!), and has reignited my interest in grain soaking. I dare you to close her book without feeling inspired. Somehow, Amy makes the basic act of soaking rice and quinoa a meditative moment, and you can't help but feel enormously healthy and on top of things when you remember to pull out your bowl and pour water over the lentils before you go to sleep at night.

There's something deeply poetic about the whole thing, especially when you consider rhythms of poetry. We find similar rhythms in our kitchens, too. We move from the sink to the refrigerator seamlessly, opening the door like a line break, taking out the pitcher of water. Next line. And so on.

I've been making my way through this cookbook slowly. First I read it cover to cover and kept track of the recipes I wanted to cook (along with their page numbers) on post-it notes. The inside front cover is now a pale shade of yellow, almost like homemade mayonnaise when you make it with yolks. 

Lately I've started prepping a few things on Sunday to help make cooking faster during the week. Amy's harissa is the perfect example of make-ahead condiments, destined for a robust quinoa salad. 

Quinoa salads have had their run, haven't they? First, no one really knew what quinoa was. Then no one knew how to cook it properly. There have been debates about how to make it fluffy, and whether or not our healthy grain habit it making matters worse for the people of Peru.

There were lots of bland recipes, too, but quinoa doesn't have to be bland. This is one of those wow! yum! pow! salads that hits you over the head thanks to a few spices like cayenne and coriander. It's probably the simplest homemade harissa you can make, but it makes an entrance. Roast some summer vegetables, saute rainbow chard in garlic oil, and toss it all together with a sprinkle of cheese. I can't say enough good things. 

And as for your own kitchen routines, I'd love to hear about them. They're deeply personal yet wildly relatable, aren't they? 

Homemade Harissa from Amy Chaplin | Eat This Poem


Adapted slightly from At Home in the Whole Foods Kitchen

1 tablespoon cumin seeds (I used ground)
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 tablespoon caraway seeds
2 teaspoons ground paprika
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 small garlic clove, grated
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Warm a small skillet over medium heat and add the whole spices. Toast seeds, stirring occasionally, until fragrant (about two minutes). Transfer to an electric spice or coffee grinder and grind until fine; pour into a bowl. Add the paprika, cayenne, garlic, salt, oil, and lemon juice. Stir until smooth. Store in a sealed glass container for up to two months in the refrigerator. 

I didn't follow her quinoa salad recipe very closely since I had a variety of other ingredients on hand. But the general method goes something like this.

Soak 1 cup of quinoa overnight. Bring 1 cup of water to a boil and add the drained and rinsed quinoa. Cover, lower the heat a bit, and simmer for about 12 minutes. (You'll find with Amy's method that for soaked quinoa, you only need a 1:1 ratio instead of 2:1 for un-soaked grains.)

I roasted zucchini and cherry tomatoes, and while those were in the oven, sautéed half a bunch of rainbow chard with plenty of garlic. (Amy's recipe also calls for red peppers, which would be fantastic.) Then I dumped in the fresh herbs (parsley and basil), crumbled in feta, and spooned harissa over everything. 

"turnip root" by Polly Hatfield + Turnip and Chard Buckwheat Tart

turnip buckwheat tart

You would think a turnip to be straightforward. After all, it's nothing more than a tuber, cream with a bright purple neck, peppery, bold, confident. Yet, we're put off. Very little in the way of turnip recipes feels inspired. We see them roasted, often with carrots or parsnips, the trio of roots tossed in oil and pushed to the side of our plate. I'm guilty of it myself.

Even one of my favorite food writers, Nigel Slater, had a slow start. "The Romans knew the turnip, though hardly worshipped it, and part of its problem may stem from the fact that it has always been used as animal fodder. It has taken me most of my life to appreciate the turnip."  I knew if Slater was reluctant, there would be little hope for the rest of us.

True to form, it took me three recipes to be happy. I made a tart the first time around, but it wasn't hearty enough. The turnips were thinly sliced on a mandolin, the circles too large. I waited two or three weeks before trying again. Next, root vegetable latkes. Potato, turnip, golden beets. Not terrible, not memorable. It still didn't feel inspired. I went back to the tart, tried again, adding onions and chard, cheese and mustardingredients meant to enhance the peppery turnip. 

What I learned was that to cook with a turnip is to forge a path in the darkness, not unlike the turnip itself as it grows underground in the cold. In the spirit of fresh starts, realizations, and fighting for the underdog, I turn to this poem that was sent to me by a reader. You'll see, the poor turnip has stiff competition. 

turnip buckwheat tart08.jpg
turnip buckwheat tart07.jpg

turnip root

by Polly Hatfield

i lack the pr team of organic mesclun
the allure of blanched white asparagus

upstaged by the newfangled glitz of micro greens
the lunatic verve of doughnut peaches             

i am a white root vegetable    
with a pungent mustardy bite

i simply cannot compete 
with the hothouse fervor

of sun-ripened heirloom tomatoes
sweet, succulent, sexy orbs

i languish unharvested in the fields 
where forgotten i wither and turn punky with neglect  


Poem first appeared in Alltopia Antholozine, Summer 2010, Volume 2, Issue 3. Reprinted with permission from the author

In any other season I would agree with the turnip's lament. In August, it "cannot compete/ with the hothouse fervor/ of sun-ripened heirloom tomatoes." The tone is jovial, almost dramatic. But there is some truth here, because a turnip can easily be upstaged. It's such a sad scene, turnips languished "unharvested in the fields," likely to be tossed at the pigs for a meal. In this poem, the turnip knows its place, and how difficult it is to share the stage with other vegetables that are sexier and more popular.

In a way, the turnip makes his peace with neglect, but employs a passive aggressive strategy to plead with us, letting him prove that with a little attention, he can make something of himself in this world. Let's resolve not to neglect the turnip this year. You don't have to love it or praise it, or cook with it frequently, but give the turnip a chance, if only to reach out of your root vegetable comfort zone temporarily. Of all the months to embrace the turnip, January offers new beginnings for us all.

turnip buckwheat tart09.jpg

Turnip and Mustard Tart

To get ahead with dinner prep, make the crust in the morning (or better yet, the day before), so you’ll be ready to assemble. 

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 large turnip (about 1 pound), diced into 1/2-inch pieces
1 brown onion, diced
1 garlic clove, minced
1 bunch chard, stems removed and thinly sliced into ribbons
1 sprig thyme, leaves removed
1 buckwheat crust (via Sprouted Kitchen)
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard (I like a combination of whole grain and smooth)
Salt and pepper
4 sprigs thyme
1 cup grated gruyere
1 large egg, lightly beaten

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. 

Saute the turnips in 1 tablespoon of oil over medium low heat for 8-10 minutes, or until just beginning to turn golden. Season with a pinch each of salt and pepper. Add the turnips to a large bowl and heat another tablespoon of oil in the same pan. Add the onion and garlic; cook for 2 to 3 minutes, then add the chard, thyme, and season with a pinch each of salt and pepper. Cook for an additional 3 to 5 minutes, or until the chard is wilted. Scrape the vegetables into the bowl with the turnips.

Roll out the crust in an 11 to 13-inch circle and gently place into a tart pan. Lop off any overhang by running your rolling pin over the top. Add a piece of foil and a cup or so of beans or pie weights on top; bake for 15 minutes. 

Once the vegetables have cooled slightly, add the egg and half the gruyere; mix well to combine. Pour the filling into the crust and spread in an even layer. Top with the remaining gruyere. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until the tart is just set and the top is starting to brown. 

"On my Third Anniversary in New Jersey" by Noelle Kocot + Chard and Mozzarella Panini

Do you ever have one of those moments when you wake up, let your thoughts go, and wonder how you arrived where you're currently sitting? I do. Not often, but every six months or so I might be driving down Santa Monica Boulevard or wine tasting or just reading a book on my lunch break, and there it is. How did I get here? The answer is usually very practical. You quit your job, packed a U-Haul, got another job, etc. Yes, that's how I got here, physically. but there's another side to our journey, and this poem is working on uncovering it.

That's where we find our speaker. In the kitchen, craving "a sandwich in the moonlight," and hungry for far more than a meal.