[San Francisco this morning, February 2012.]
Today: the sky a sweet, deep blue, warm for February. I am eating an orange. Trying to write an article. I just got ‘adjusted’ and now my right ankle is buzzing away not unpleasantly (I hope this means healing is occurring) and in a few hours will take the bus north across the bay to Sonoma County. I am exhaling. Sort of.
Lately I’m looking for inspiration wherever I can find it — in a new book, in a slew of flourless baking recipes, in my green tea leaves (swear), in cookbooks, in my memories of the clouds in Maine — and while it can be slow going sometimes it’s there if I just look around. Truth is, I’ve been feeling a bit bogged down with the day job and the endless routine of it all, leaving me feeling quite flat. There have been more nights than I should admit when all we’ve had for dinner is leftover (cabbage-chard-white bean) soup and grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches, or vegetarian ‘sausages’ (and, ahem, chicken-portabello sausages), roasted fingerling potatoes, and a salad. Good, nourishing stuff sure, but not necessarily fodder for dreamy food writing (or blog posts).
Still, despite my slight winter malaise, I am mostly always cooking even if I’m not always writing about it. I did just bang out two pieces for NPR, publication TBD, which jostled me out of my rut a little even though it’s kept me quieter here, and last Saturday cooked for a laid-back dinner party after a long, lazy afternoon at the beach. Come to think of it, that afternoon really did wonders for my mental outlook despite my blasted achilles tendon: a good catch-up with old friends, lots of photography talk (if Emily is my cooking soul mate Randy is surely the photo equivalent), a pint at the Station House, a black lab to play with, and dinner to make. It wasn’t fancy – my dinners so rarely are these days – but it was good.
[Kehoe Beach, February 2012.]
[Also good was Saturday's weather. I mean, look at that beach! The weather out here right now is insane, in a good way.]
I roasted a chicken with lemon and onions and tomatoes and made a big pot of mashed potatoes (with buttermilk, and lots of butter), a salad, a chocolate cake, and a chard gratin. Oh, have I not mentioned this chard gratin before? A travesty. This was a product of poring over cookbooks in Maine a few weeks ago, specifically Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food. As the title suggests, most of the recipes contained therein are incredibly simple (yet incredibly good), sometimes to the point where you’re like … this is a recipe? I’m just roasting a butternut squash and pureeing it with some broth and calling it ‘soup.’ No matter; I look at recipes more as inspiration points anyway, and I certainly got inspired by that gratin.
As you may or may not know (but really how could you not?) I love chard. Love it. I know it’s not to everyone’s taste, but, oh, there’s something about it. Nice and (naturally) salty with fluffy leaves and pretty white or red-and-yellow stems, it cooks beautifully in soups and stews, just on the stove with some garlic to pile on top of polenta, in my mom’s amazing pesto-potato lasagna, etc. etc. Yet a chard gratin I’d never tried and so it was an obvious choice. In Maine we used 1 bunch chard and 2 bunches of kale and I’d do that again; last weekend I used 3 bunches of chard and it was, as my octogenarian friend Josie might say, utterly divine.
I don’t have a photo because, well, I was cooking all that stuff I mentioned above. I’m planning to make it again next week for a small dinner party (which, err, may be nearly the same menu repeated – our secret), but I hate to wait that long to share the recipe because it’s the sort of thing you could make this weekend for your own dinner party or just because. It takes about 15 minutes of active work and then another half-hour in the oven which to me seems a small, and fair, price to pay for the result. One of the best parts about this recipe is that it’s easily doubled, probably tripled, too, and you can fool around with using different kinds of cheese, or bread crumbs, or greens, or whatever. (I’ve already made some adjustments such as eliminating the butter.) Get, you know, inspired with it. I know I will.
Next time I make this I’m going to try 4 bunches of greens, probably 2 chard and 2 kale. If you like leafy greens as much as I do I’ve advise this because, darn, do they really cook down and this dish goes fast so it’s good to have as much as possible on hand. Spinach would also be nice here, though you’d need rather a lot of it. I omitted the breadcrumbs last weekend and it was just fine, but have also made it with gluten-free cornbread crumbs (!) and whole grain breadcrumbs. Both were delicious.
3 bunches chard, roughly chopped with bottom stems discarded (composted?)
1 cup breadcrumbs (optional)
3 tablespoons olive oil (or butter)
1 medium red onion
2 teaspoons flour
1/2-3/4 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon dried thyme or herbs du Provence
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup (or less) parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the chard and cook for about 3-4 minutes, until tender (if you’re cooking kale it will take longer). Drain.
Meanwhile, in a large frying pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat and add the onion. Saute until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the chard and cook for about 2 more minutes. Sprinkle the flour into the vegetables and stir to combine; add 1/2 cup milk. You want the chard to be wet but not floating in liquid – add some more milk if it is too dry. Stir and cook a few more minutes. Add the thyme and salt and pepper and stir to incorporate.
Butter a large baking pan and pour in the chard mixture. Evenly sprinkle the parmesan across the top, then evenly spread the breadcrumbs. Bake for about 30 minutes and let sit a few minutes before serving.
Vegans: omit the cheese