Depression and quesadillas.

I’ve been a bit, uhh, unreachable lately. I haven’t posted and—worse—haven’t been answering emails or commenting enough on your blogs. In truth, I haven’t been doing much of anything—well, I saw a wonderful play on Saturday which was followed by an even wonderfuller meal at Saul in Brooklyn, but after that things began to fall apart around here. Since then, the majority of my time is spent crying. I don’t even really feel like crying but I do it anyway. All the time. I’m on the verge of tears right now.

I’m depressed. It hit me like a brick after Saturday. See, I’ve been walking around since my car accident in January with pain in my hips and lower back. It feels like constant pressure, all-the-time, with breaks of intense, sharp, unbearable pain thrown in to spice things up. For a while I thought I was getting better, since the constantly intense, sharp, unbearable pain eased leaving me with the constant feeling that my hips are slowly compacting inside a vice grip—and I mean, who cares about a little pressure when compared to sharp pain? It’s, like, a cake walk. I was happy.

But then the pressure didn’t go away. It stuck. And it was painful enough that I wasn’t able to keep working out on the stationary bike (I had tried it for a few days). I wasn’t really able to do anything after work, save cook dinner—at least there was that. Slowly though, I was beginning to deteriorate into the teary, wet mess I am now. I started to limp at times. I can’t shake the image of the Tin-Man and his rusty limbs. And then over this past week, I stopped cooking.

After our meal at Saul, I came home inspired—there were so many new flavors, new dishes I wanted to play with! But over the next few days, I didn’t cook. I didn’t feel able to. I didn’t feel able to do anything. Everything started to really suck and even though I do believe my doctor will find out what’s wrong and that I’ll get better, I can’t quite seem to listen to myself. I’m depressed—a kind of unrelenting sadness that makes life with pain all that much more painful. More painful for me, and worse, more painful for those around me. Depression makes you feel like you are walking underwater—it takes so much effort to just continue that you don’t have the energy for anything else. I care for and love Jim but there are times recently when moving my eyes in the direction to meet his while he’s talking takes so much energy that I can’t seem to hear what he’s saying. And Jim, receiving this treatment, doesn’t deserve it. He’s been so great with my pain and had such a hard time himself. He knows how to make me forget about the physical pain. But this mental pain, it’s just a bit too much for everyone. I guess this is my way of an apology.

I don’t want everyone to feel sad for me, I know I’ll be okay. I couldn’t be writing about this now if I didn’t feel like maybe the worst is over. Today even, I can again appreciate a sunny day, a long holiday weekend, a smoked gouda quesadilla. I can certainly appreciate a quesadilla.

Smoked Gouda & Onion Quesadilla

serves 6 as appetizers or 2 as some serious comfort food

  • 2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) butter
  • 1 onion, thinly sliced
  • ½ teaspoon molasses
  • ¼ teaspoon white wine vinegar
  • 1 ½ cups grated smoked Gouda cheese
  • 3 oz thin-sliced prosciutto (about 6-8 slices)
  • 4 10-inch-diameter flour tortillas
  • 2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) butter, melted

Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a heavy medium skillet or cast-iron pan. Add onion, molasses, and vinegar and saute over a low heat, stirring frequently, until caramelized, about 45 minutes. Remove from heat and cool (you can leave them in the pan.)

Preheat oven to 350°F. Arrange onions over half of each tortilla. Sprinkle gouda over onions evenly. Heat the onion pan on medium-high heat and add prosciutto. Cook for a minute or so until they begin to crisp. Drape slices over gouda and onions. Fold other half of each tortilla over cheese mixture. Brush tortilla with some of melted butter. Brush the pan with some melted butter. Cook quesadillas in batches until they begin to get brown and crispy on each side. Transfer to a baking sheet.

Bake quesadillas in the oven until cheese is melted, about 5-10 minutes. Cut each of the quesadillas into four or six triangle and serve hot (but not too hot or you won’t taste all the flavors.)

Forever lentils.

All winter long, I ate lentils. I made them often and ate them greedily, thinking, for some reason, that winter is the only season for lentils. Of course you could have them a few times in the late fall, when the weather starts to get blustery, and even once or twice at the very onset of spring, when it’s still freezing out. But, when you did that, you’d be eating the dish out-of-season.

Towards the end of winter, I began feeling blue over this. I had been nourishing my little family of two (with some leftovers for the dog) for the whole winter. Lentils provided many substantial dinners, lunches, and even breakfasts. I had made lentils of all kinds—red, green, black, yellow—and every dish was different then the last; lentils are infinitely adaptable.

What was I going to do for all those upcoming seasons? Sure, I consoled myself with thoughts of berries, green veggies, lettuces, and tomatoes, but I couldn’t shake the sadness over losing lentils. And then, after weeks of this edging melancholy, I realized, like duh, why can’t lentils be made for any season? Of course! Just because you are making a lentil stew, that doesn’t mean you need to fill it with canned tomatoes and mustard greens. There’s no need for smoky pimento or turnips or squash. I had spent the entire winter fooling around with lentils and I never even thought about how far I could go—switch up the other ingredients and you can do anything with lentils!

When the weather began to turn up the heat, I was ready with a few notebook pages full of spring lentil ideas. This one encapsulates the beginning of spring—mint, peas, and carrots. It’s the perfect side dish for pork or lamb—a touch sweet, a bit salty, and very green. While it’s still a hardy dish (great for this fickle weather), the peas and mint are redolent of all the light, brightness of spring

Spring Lentils with Peas and Mint

serves 6

3 slices bacon, chopped
2 onions, chopped
1 bunch carrots, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
1 bouillon cube
2 cups lentils, french
8 oz. green peas, frozen, not thawed (or fresh if you find nice, young ones)
1-2 tablespoons mint, fresh, chopped
a big pinch of salt and pepper to taste

Render bacon fat in a large dutch oven. When crisp, remove bacon and reserve on paper towels.

Add onion and carrot to dutch oven with rendered fat. Let cook until beginning to color. Add garlic.

Meanwhile, bring lentils to boil in a small saucepan with water. Let cook 15-20 minutes or until barely tender. Drain lentils.

Add lentils to dutch oven with bouillon cube and 3 cups water, simmer for 5 minutes. Add peas and let cook another 10-15 minutes, or until all the vegetables are cooked and a lot of the water has been absorbed. If you like, blend some of the lentils with an immersion blender for a few pulses to thicken. Season with salt, pepper, and mint.

Ugly as a Monkfish’s Uncle

If monkfish can teach you one thing, it’s “don’t judge a book by it’s cover.” There are hardly any foods in the world that are this ugly:

But monkfish isn’t simply ugly, it’s also hands-down the best fish to use in a stew, assuming you can get over the look long enough to cook it. That was easy for me—I found it’s ugliness rather intriguing, actually, and the monkfish I had this weekend was fresh, clean, and about one day off the boat—caught from local fishermen and bought at the farmer’s market.

As soon as I saw the vendor was selling monkfish, I knew I had to make a fish stew. Snagging some mussels and clams, I moved on to the other stands and bought some of the most delicate, flavorfully-bitter arugula I’ve ever tasted.

I went straight to Anne Willan’s The Country Cooking of France cookbook (my favorite new book) once I got home, knowing it would have some great fish stew recipes. To my delight, one of the recipes is for Cotriade Bretonne, a fish stew with sorrel and leek. It calls for a rich fish (monkfish), a white fish (I had some hake in the fridge), and mussels. I could easily substitute the arugula for sorrel and why not throw some clams in there! A perfect combination.

The resulting soup was perfect in more than just the ease it took me to procure the ingredients—it was flavorful yet balanced, creamy yet light, with a hint of bitterness from the arugula. The mussels and clams were a fun addition for a Saturday night (we spent hours eating and plucking the meat from the shells, which were filled up with all the leeky, arugula goodness) but you could easily omit both bivalves and make this soup in no-time on a weeknight. I’ll certainly be doing so often.

Cotriade Bretonne

Fish Stew with Arugula and Leek

adapted from The Country Cooking of France, by Anne Willan

serves 6

  • 1/2 pound white fish, without skin
  • 1 pound rich fish, without skin
  • 1 1/2 pounds mussels
  • 1-2 dozen clams (optional)
  • 1 pound arugula (or sorrel), stems removed, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 3 leeks, white and green parts, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 quart fish stock
  • 1 pound potatoes, peeled, quartered, and thinly sliced
  • 1 bouquet garni
  • 3/4 cup creme fraiche
  • juice of 1/2 lemon

Wash and dry the fish, and cut into 2-inch pieces. Clean the mussels and clams and arugula. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the arugula, cover, and cook until the green wilt. Uncover and cook until all liquid had evaporated. Set aside.

Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a soup pot. Add onions, leeks, and garlic and cook until they soften, 8-10 minutes. Add the stock, potatoes, bouquet garni, salt and pepper and simmer until the potatoes are partially cooked, about 5 minutes.

Add the rich fish to the cooking liquid, immersing it in the liquid, and simmer for 2 minutes. Add the white fish and simmer until all fish are tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Discard bouquet garni. Add the arugula and creme fraiche, mixing gently. Top with mussels and clams (if using) and simmer until they open, 3 to 5 minutes.

Add lemon juice, salt, and pepper to taste. Serve with baguette toasts.

Hauntingly Tender

I don’t eat (much) veal. That hauntingly tender texture has a way of reminding me that what I’m eating was a baby animal—one who wasn’t allowed to move much throughout it’s too-short life so that I could have a tender dinner. But, like all guilty pleasures, I make exceptions. I love to have veal once or twice in the spring, when the meat is at it’s best and veal is in season (yes, veal has a season.)

Veal doesn’t have much taste because low movement in an animal’s life makes for tender flesh with little flavor, while older animals produce tougher, more flavorful meat—another reason I feel bad for eating veal, like come, on, all that just so the flesh is firm but soft, smooth, and yields to the bite, creamy not chewy. Well, actually, yes all that. What’s life without guilty pleasures?

To compensate for the loss in taste, you must make bold accompaniments for the veal. For last weekend’s veal, Jim and I made a relish of grape tomatoes, shallots, balsamic vinegar, and capers—very bold indeed. The veal and the relish sat atop a bed of arugula—what I consider the perfect veal green, as it’s bitterness pairs sublimely with the creamy veal—and alongside some soft polenta.

Truth be told, I didn’t even need the polenta. The veal, relish, and arugula was a meal in itself, though the polenta made good work of soaking up the flavors. The relish, as it should be, is very bold, and I wouldn’t really enjoy it with anything other than veal, or possibly, a filet mignon. Make sure you get a great balsamic vinegar, because I imagine that could make or break everything.

I don’t think I’ll be eating veal too often now, but it was delicious.

Veal Chops with Roasted Shallot-Relish, Arugula, and Soft Polenta

from Bon Apetite, Feb 05//serves 4

1 cup olive oil, divided
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon coarse kosher salt
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
4 1 3/4-inch-thick veal rib chops (each about 12 ounces), frenched

18 small shallots, peeled, halved
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1 12-ounce package grape tomatoes
1/3 cup drained capers plus 1 tablespoon caper brine reserved from jar

Soft Polenta
4 cups arugula
Whisk 3/4 cup oil and lemon juice in small bowl to blend. Mix thyme, salt, and pepper in another small bowl. Rub thyme mixture all over veal chops; place in glass baking dish. Pour oil-lemon marinade over; let stand 15 minutes.

Preheat oven to 450°F. Combine shallots, vinegar, and remaining 1/4 cup oil in medium roasting pan; toss to coat. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast until shallots are browned and tender, about 15 minutes. Add tomatoes to shallots and roast until tomatoes are soft and browned, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes longer. Remove pan from oven. Add capers and 1 tablespoon reserved brine and stir to blend.

Meanwhile, heat large ovenproof skillet over high heat. Drain veal chops and transfer marinade to heavy small saucepan. Add veal to skillet and cook until browned, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer skillet to oven and roast veal to desired doneness, about 10 minutes for medium.

Bring reserved oil-lemon marinade to boil; boil 2 minutes. Place 1 veal chop on each of 4 plates. Divide shallot-tomato mixture among plates. Spoon Soft Polenta alongside. Drizzle with oil-lemon marinade. Garnish with arugula and serve.

Soft Polenta

6 cups water
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups quick-cooking polenta (precooked maize meal)
Bring 6 cups water, 1/4 cup butter, and 1 teaspoon salt to boil in heavy large saucepan. Gradually whisk in polenta. Reduce heat to medium-low. Stir constantly until polenta thickens, about 5 minutes.

Because giggling is even hotter when dubbed.

Did you hear? The original Iron Chef is coming back to TV! It premieres tonight on the Fine Living Network at 11. I can’t wait to hear the dubbed-in voices of the Japanese women judges, who always look like they’re saying something more intelligent than what we hear in English—the English laden with high-pitched Americanized giggling. This girlish giggling is louder than I’ve ever heard a Japanese woman laugh. Why can’t we just hear the real giggling? Maybe it’s not American enough, too subdued or something. Or maybe it’s just that giggling is even hotter when dubbed.

I doubt it. But boy, do I love Iron Chef.

Saturdays are for staying in your pajamas all day.

This is the first weekend—in what feels like many weekends—that I have nothing to do. No one to visit. No doctor’s appointments to keep. No festivals to attend. No dinner parties. Nothing.

I don’t even have a book I’m close to finishing that, hence, would take up all my time. No crazy, laborious recipe scheduled into my weekend. No real reason to even make a blog post. But hey, lets not go crazy. I’m not going to forget about my ol’ Cav and Cod just ’cause I got a case of the lazies.

So here’s a recipe for your lazy weekend—and if you live in the Northeast, with all this glum and gloom weather today, you know what I’m talking about. Go ahead, get into your pajamas. Sit on the couch with a cup of tea. Do nothing today. I promise it will feel great.

And then, when you do feel like getting off the couch for a few minutes, throw together this salad. It’s quick, it’s colorful, it’s amazing. The mangos are a perfect component to erase any ill-feelings you have about tomatoes right now (because oh, my, god, when is it ever going to be tomato season again, it should be now!) and they work so harmoniously with watercress’s stringent quality. And, even if you think that the dressing seems just a bit too intense to work (1 tablespoon fish sauce!) or that there’s too many herbs, follow the directions exactly and trust me—it works.

Mango and Watercress Salad

serves 2-4//adapted from Gourmet

For Dressing:
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 1/2 tablespoons Asian sesame oil
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon Asian fish sauce
1-2 tablespoons sugar
2 dashes hot sauce such as Tabasco
Freshly ground white pepper to taste

For Salad:
3/4 lb watercress, coarse stems discarded (about 6 cups loosely packed)
1 3/4 cups thinly sliced Napa cabbage (from 1 head) *
1 (1- to 1 1/2-lb) firm-ripe mango, peeled, pitted, and cut into 1/2-inch dice
1/2 cup coarsely grated carrot
1/4 cup torn fresh cilantro leaves
1/4 cup torn fresh basil leaves
1/4 cup torn fresh mint leaves

Whisk together all dressing ingredients in a small bowl, then whisk in salt to taste.

Gently toss all salad ingredients together in a bowl. Add just enough dressing to coat, then serve immediately.

* The easiest way to do this is with a mandoline. Set it to the thinnest slice and the cabbage slices will be the perfect thinness.