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. 


"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.

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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. 

"Kale" by Jordan Davis + Winter Survival Kale Salad (Guest Post)

I'm thrilled to welcome guest poster Natalie So to Eat This Poem! Natalie So is a writer and photographer living in the Mission District in San Francisco. By day, she is the creative content manager at a tech company.  Occasionally she writes on her blog my daily toast about eating out, food gatherings, and libraries. She is currently working on a series of interviews with artists and creators that makes visible the connection between belief, spirit, and the work we do. If you have a story to tell, please contact her at nataliejso [at] gmail [dot] com.


Winter is coming quickly. The wind's edges are sharper, dusk falls earlier, and the golden light fades into a grey palette. The arrival of winter has never been easy for me. This became especially true when I moved to New England from California and learned the importance of wool socks and leather gloves for the first time. From November through April, until all the snow had finally thawed and we could go down to the Charles River and sunbathe in what felt like a tropical 60 degrees, winter swaddled my mind and my heart. Sometimes it felt more like smothering.

It takes a hardy Californian to bear the tantrums of New England winter. One winter I made a nightly routine of drinking hot chocolate and eating a big bowl of popcorn while listening to Joni Mitchell's Blue on repeat. In our living room, my best friend and I would lay in our hammock (our "couch") together or paint and re-paint our coffee table, whose layers of pigment were like the growth rings of redwood trees, histories of sadness and joy. 


We do what we can to survive, to weather the seasons that pass. Sometimes it's a season of life that feels like a winter of the soul, a loss, a heartbreak, a defeat that feels like endless snow; our hearts freeze over and it feels like the thaw of spring will never come. Sometimes it's too difficult to even look forward to the next season, and all we can do is ground ourselves in the rituals that make each passing day a little better. That cup of coffee. That book. That song. That phone call. It's the hope of survival, knowing that bearing the winter is necessary for the blossoming and rejuvenation that spring promises.


by Jordan Davis

I hear James but can't see him so
I call out his baby name, Jamey-James
and he pops up from behind a plow
bank. We walk down the driveway
past the barn to the fenced-in 
garden, iron rail, green metal grid,
red thread for the deer. The black
mama cat with the extra toes comes 
running past us.                     
                        "The ones buried
in snow are insulated," James
tells me, as if quoting from
"The Pruning Book." He might be.
"If you cut a butterfly bush
down to nothing it grows back
the next year twice as high."

There are five or six tall stumps
of the flat variety, and eight or nine
low curly ones. We fill a plastic 
popcorn bowl and leave as much
behind still growing.

Originally published in The New Yorker, October 14, 2013, p. 52

"If you cut a butterfly bush / down to nothing it grows back / the next year twice as high," says James, in the poem "Kale" by Jordan Davis. The butterfly bush, known as a buddleia, is a deciduous shrub with purple and pink flowers (among many other colors) that blossoms in the summer and fall. However, during the winter, the shrubs die, sometimes all the way to the ground; even if they are not, it's important to prune all the flowers to stimulate growth. Winter is important time for the butterfly bush, as it is with the kale, but for a different reason.

As opposed to the butterfly bush, which dies during winter so that blossoming is possible in the spring, kale grows well in winter and is actually made more flavorful after exposure to frost. Davis' poem is a vignette of winter life on a farm, the daily ritual of gathering from a garden to sustain oneself, an intimate moment of interaction between the narrator and (presumably) his son that becomes a kind of quotidian sacrament—in spite of winter. In this ordinary act, there is much to be said about self-reliance, but the narrator also celebrates a kind of sacred and wonderful connection to the earth and to his garden, to winter and to kale and to his son, all these things in his daily life that sustain him well. With the passing of seasons, with cyclical change, there is death that brings life, and there is also continued growth. 

One of my grounding rituals is eating at Linea Caffe, an espresso bar around the corner from my apartment. On an unassuming corner, Linea is a small space with only standing room and a few tables outside—minimal design with polygon wood panels and red accents. Not only do they serve espresso drinks served in beautiful red Heath Ceramics tumblers, but they also have an impeccable selection of waffles and salads. No pastries, just waffles and salads—creative, wonderful edibles. On weekend mornings, the peanut butter and jelly waffle is a true delight, but for weekday lunches, I return over and over again to the kale salad, a heaping pile of bitter greens massaged in an avocado dressing, with orange wedges, pecans, and fried shallots. Rita, one of the baristas there, assures me that this kale salad, which is also her favorite, won't ever let me down. It doesn't. 

This salad is a tribute to winter and to the wonderful Linea Caffe (and all the wonderful people there), to both seasonal change and to grounding ritual. The creamy avocado dressing, the sweet tang of citrus, the crunch of the fried shallots, and the nutty, toasted pecans make a surprisingly delightful combination. It's a cozy and filling salad that will keep you going, especially as the markets are brimming with kale at this time of year. Like the menu says, “kale is not passing fad.” 

So let this salad sustain you through the winter. Maybe this kale salad can be your daily ritual, one that grounds you as you weather this season and look forward in hope to the next.

Winter Survival Kale Salad 

Linea Caffe uses a kind of baby kale that I cannot seem to find anywhere, but I love this the sprawling flat leaves and purple veins of Russian Red Kale, a variety available only around this time of year. The Napa cabbage, which is milder, adds a nice, brightening crunch to the salad. You won’t regret being generous with the dressing here, whose creaminess balances out the bitterness of the greens. The work in creating this salad lies mainly in ingredient prep; otherwise, it’s mere assemblage. To make it more filling, add in some shredded chicken thigh, which is an optional add-on at Linea. 

Serves one as a meal, two as a side

3 cups chopped Russian red kale (about 5 stalks), or whatever kale variety you have on hand. 
1 cup Napa cabbage, shredded
1 small orange, skinned, segmented, and cut into wedges*
A generous handful of pecans, about 8-10
2 tablespoons fried shallots**

*Here’s how to cut citrus segments.

**Here’s a tutorial on how to make fried shallots, but you can also buy them at Asian grocery stores, as they’re a popular ingredient in Vietnamese dishes.

For the dressing:

½ avocado 
2 tablespoons fruity olive oil
¼ teaspoon sea salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. While the oven is warming up, chop the kale and the cabbage. The preparation of this salad requires grooming the individual ingredients in order to make the Gestalt whole as it should be. I find that the best way to chop the kale is to first rip the leaves off the kale with your hands and chopping the leaves after. 

Let the rhythm of chopping be a meditation unto itself. The crunch of the cut into a large Napa cabbage is extremely satisfying. Ideally, you’d prepare this salad slowly and thoughtfully, letting yourself ease into daydreams and big ideas. 

Whenever the oven is ready, toast the pecans for five minutes, being careful not to let the pecans burn by checking up periodically. Do enjoy the aroma that the toasted pecans emanate, and you’ll see that the pecans are done by the darker color and shiny oils that have appeared on their surface. Remove from oven and set aside to cool.

Prepare dressing by mashing the avocado with a fork. Stir in the olive oil and sea salt.

In a bowl, combine the kale, cabbage, orange wedges, and dressing. Use your hands to massage the dressing into the kale, which is as it sounds: gripping and smothering the avocado into the kale, as with massage oil on skin. 

Finish by topping the salad with the toasted pecans and fried shallots. Consume immediately, but leisurely.