whole grains

"How to Stuff a Pepper" by Nancy Willard + Poblano Stuffed Peppers with Goat Cheese

Stuffed Poblanos with Goat Cheese | Eat This Poem

When I was newly married, my husband worked as a retail manager. It was a short-lived period of our life that often left me alone for dinner while he worked through the evening rush. 

One night, I made stuffed peppers. They were red, brimming with couscous and herbs, probably topped with gooey cheese. I thought nothing of it, but Andrew came home from work that night and said "You made stuffed peppers? Without me?!" At the time, stuffed peppers seemed like quite an occasion. Jokingly, he made me promise I wouldn't make stuffed peppers again unless we were both present to enjoy the meal. Reading this poem by Nancy Willard, I couldn't help but smile and remember fondly those early years of marriage, especially in light of the eight year (!) anniversary we celebrated last week. 

How to Stuff a Pepper

by Nancy Willard

Now, said the cook, I will teach you
how to stuff a pepper with rice.

Take your pepper green and gently,
for peppers are shy.  No matter which side
you approach, it's always the backside.
Perched on green buttocks, the pepper sleeps.
In its silk tights, it dreams
of somersaults and parsley,
of the days when the sexes were one.

Slash open the sleeve
as if you were cutting a paper lantern,
and enter a moon, spilled like a melon,
a fever of pearls,
a conversation of glaciers.
It is a temple built to the worship
of morning light.

I have sat under the great globe
of seeds on the roof of that chamber,
too dazzled to gather the taste I came for.
I have taken the pepper in hand,
smooth and blind, a runt in the rich
evolution of roses and ferns.
You say I have not yet taught you

to stuff a pepper?
Cooking takes time.

Next time we'll consider the rice.

Used by permission of Nancy Willard in care of the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency, Inc (permissions@jvnla.com) @ 1974 by Nancy Willard. Find Nancy Willard online at http://www.openroadmedia.com/nancy-willard.

Stuffed Poblanos with Goat Cheese | Eat This Poem
Stuffed Peppers with Goat Cheese

To cook, one must learn by doing. You can view television shows, read cookbooks, and even watch your parents or grandparents over the stove, but eventually you must roll up your sleeves and follow a recipe yourself, and today's poem offers instructions to both novice and seasoned cooks. 

In the first lines, the speaker confidently remarks that readers will learn to stuff peppers. Soon we are taught to "slash open the sleeve/ as if you were cutting a paper lantern," and coax an inherent shyness out of peppers during the cooking process. But three stanzas later, we are still talking about peppers and are promised that next time, "we'll consider the rice." 

If you feel a sense of disappointment, don't, because there is a great lesson here. Cooking, like all ventures in life worth doing well, takes time, and going off course is part of the process. It's like talking with a good friend. You sit down, intent to discuss a series of mundane and not so mundane topics, when you find yourself lost on a tangent that lasts an hour. By then your tea is cold, the afternoon has disappeared, and the only option that remains is to scribble another meeting in your calendar to pick up where you left off.

Cooking is not about the peppers, ingredients, or recipe instructions, but the discoveries we make during the process. We are nourished by knife cuts, smells of the season, and family and friends coming alongside us in the kitchen. Our best cooking happens just as Willard's poem unfolds, by beginning with a single task, then losing ourselves in a trance of memory when we realize the vegetable we hold in our hand "is a temple built to the worship/ of morning light." 

Stuffed Poblanos with Goat Cheese | Eat This Poem

Stuffed Poblanos with Goat Cheese

They're not terribly photogenic, but what the peppers lack in beauty, they make up for in satisfaction. I took a Tex-Mex approach with these peppers. The cumin-laced sauce plays nicely against tangy goat cheese, and a hearty filling of beans and whole grains makes this a wonderful vegetarian main course. 

For the peppers

4 poblano peppers
1 cup cooked quinoa
1 can pinto beans or black beans
1/4 cup lightly packed cilantro
4 ounces goat cheese, room temperature
3/4 cup grated Monterey Jack cheese, divided
Salt and freshly cracked pepper

For the sauce

1 28 oz. can tomatoes
1 shallot, peeled and roughly chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled
2 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon ancho chile powder
1 teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. 

Over a gas flame, roast the peppers for about 2 minutes per side, turning with tongs, until the skin is blistered and browned. Place in a large bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let them sit for 15 minutes, then gently rub off the skin as best you can. Carefully slice off the stems, remove the seeds, and slice in half lengthwise.

Add the sauce ingredients to a sturdy blender and blend until smooth; pour into an 8x13-inch baking dish. (If you'd like a bit more heat, add a pinch of cayenne pepper!)

Add the quinoa, beans, cilantro, goat cheese, 1/4 cup monterey jack, and 1/2 teaspoon salt to a medium bowl. This is the messiest part, but the most fun. Really use your hands to mush up the thick filling. Then use one hand to cradle a loose pepper skin while you dollop some filling (about 1/4 cup) on top, mounding it until firm; repeat with all the peppers and gently place them into the sauce. 

Once the peppers are snuggled in, top with remaining 1/2 cup grated Monterey Jack cheese.

Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and the sauce has reduced slightly.

Living With Poetry | The Heat of Winter


When you rinse beans in a colander and rustle them with you hand, they sound like pebbles collected from a rocky beach. 

That's one reason why I love cooking with beans, the gentle sound they make. Some other more practical- and nutritionally-based reasons are that they're good for you, creamy on the inside, and are easy to make and freeze for later. If I have cooked beans in the house, I know a decent meal is always achievable. So I've been making a lot of beans this month, from garbanzo beans for hummus to black and pinto beans for chili. All beans have been welcome.

Sunshine, also, has been welcome, although its abundance is an embarrassment of riches given the circumstances in other parts of the country.  I'm not one to complain about the heat of winter. In California, it's a constant reminder of how good we have it, but with all the 75-degree weather we've been having (sorry, East Coast folks!), I've been craving cold. Not too much, of course, but a weekend of good, consistent rain would make me very happy. (I prefer rain on Saturdays when I can stay at home and enjoy it, not when I have to get on the freeway and drive to work.)


I always watch Hello, Dolly when it rains. And I make soup. But so far, there hasn't been a good day for this, so all the parasols and parades and musical numbers will have to wait until the mood strikes. Aside from failing to watch a favorite movie, the constant warm weather is also causing drought and fire, two things we're far too familiar with in California and that a good dose of rain could help quell. But I can't avoid soup for too long, even when it's warm, so I've been making a series of stews with meat or grains or beans that lend a bit of heft and offer up profound satisfaction. 


That's January so far. Sunshine, beans, stews, and re-reading Jane Hirshfield's After. Reading a poetry collection by Jane Hirshfield is like standing on the edge of a mountain and letting your face absorb the wind. Her poems just resonate. They always make you feel something, usually more than one thing, and make you think and question long after the book has been placed back on the shelf. That's been my experience, anyway. This poem, in particular, seemed well suited for a discussion of beans in the new year.

Two Washings

by Jane Hirshfield

One morning in a strange bathroom
a woman tries again and again to wash the sleep
from her eyelids' corners,
until she understands.  Ah, she thinks, it begins.
Then goes to put on the soup,
first rerinsing the beans, then lifting the cast-iron pot
back onto the stove with two steadying hands.

From After, Harper Perennial, 2006

It's remarkable how much we can learn of this woman in seven lines. The fact that she's in a strange bathroom is telling, and points to an upheaval of some kind. But she's not in a hotel or on vacation escaping, because unless she's rented a little flat with a kitchen and gone to the market, she wouldn't be rinsing beans before the sun comes up. She must be staying with someone. A friend, more than a friend, a family member. Wherever she is, she is trying to steady her hands again. Two washings for the beans, two for the spirit. 


Barley, Bean and Mustard Greens Stew

Recipe adapted from Bon Appetit

A photo of this soup occupied a full page in the January issue of Bon Appetit, and I dog-eared it immediately. The original recipe uses spelt, but since I had a mason jar full of barley in the pantry, I made a simple substitution. Farro would also do nicely here. I reduced the red pepper flakes from 3/4 teaspoon to 1/2 teaspoon and felt that the soup had plenty of spice, so modify this to your liking.

1 medium onion, chopped
1 small fennel bulb, cored and chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
1 cup barley
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
12 cups vegetable stock
1/2 head escarole, leaves torn into pieces
2 cups cooked cannellini or navy beans
Parmesan cheese, for serving

Dump the onion, fennel, carrot and celery into the bowl of a food processor and pulse until finely chopped. Heat the oil in a large stock pot over medium heat. Add the barley and cook, stirring often, until the grains are slightly browned and smell fragrant, about 3 minutes.

Add the vegetables and season with a generous pinch of salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are softened, about 6 to 8 minutes. Add the tomato paste and red pepper flakes, and cook until the paste is well-incorporated, about 1 minute.

Pour the broth into the pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, until the barley is tender, about 20 to 40 minutes, depending on the grain. Stir in escarole and beans and cook for another 3 to 4 minutes, or until the escarole is wilted and the beans have warmed through. Serve drizzled with additional oil and topped with Parmesan shavings. 


"Five Quarters of the Orange" by Joanne Harris + Orange, Cinnamon & Oat Pancakes

Within the course of three days, I came into a rather large abundance of oranges from two people whose citrus trees were overflowing. As you can imagine, I wasted no time scrounging around for recipes to use every last one before they started going bad. It was quite a weekend, with no less than five orange-infused treats including cake, scones and sorbet.