We eat for survival. We eat to stay healthy. We eat to celebrate. We also eat—especially with others–to offer thanks. I wrote about preparing and sharing foods of autumn in last post. Meals at harvest have long been associated with giving thanks, with being grateful for communal hard work, a generous season and a store of food for leaner months. The harvest meal becomes a ritual, flavored by reverence, accomplishment and joy. But really every meal we make is an opportunity for gratitude.
My good friend Mary Lynn began a tradition with her son when he was only a small child. She placed a lidded jar on the dining table, and they each filled it with the names of people who were important to them—family members, good friends, teachers, etc. They called these printed names “prayer cards” and continued to add as time went on. Then at dinner time, they would dip into the jar and pull a name. This person framed their gratitude for the meal and focused their prayer before dinner.
I’ve never forgotten this practice—it’s brilliant, really. Not only did my friend ensure that there would be a family meal each day that was shared and appreciated in a space that allowed no intrusion between herself and her son, but also she took a simple act of eating a meal and elevated it to ritual, to learning and, most importantly, to awareness of how special family and the gift of food can be. The food was not often grand (although Mary Lynn is an awesome cook) but the meal and the ritual were always sacred.
Mary Lynn was my guest this past weekend, as she traveled cross country on her way to see her son. So I wanted the meal to be special… to be a ritual of gratitude for our friendship and for being able to offer her some of the food of my local area, grown by people I know and truly appreciate.
Here’s the menu, my thinking behind the orchestration of flavors, some of the chef’s that inspired the dishes and instructions, in case you’d like to make it, too.
First Course: Green salad with coriander dressing and sage-laced white cheddar. White, dry table wine from Spain.
- Fill a large salad bowl with chopped kale leaves, torn arugula and baby spinach leaves.
- Add two fresh oranges, peeled and sectioned (carefully removing all the pith). Add one large diced avocado and thinly sliced red onion rings to taste. Top with toasted pecans and crumbled sage-laced white cheddar cheese (cheese source Whole Foods Markets).
- Toss with Coriander-Honey Dressing by Didi Emmons from Vegetarian Planet:
- One and a half teaspoons coriander seeds, dry toasted and ground in a mortar and pestle.
- One and a half to two teaspoons Dijon mustard
- One tablespoon honey (We use raw honey by YS Organic Bee Farms.)
- One small clove garlic (Well, I used at least one large clove.)
- Juice from one small lemon
- Three quarters of a cup olive oil
- Sea salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste
- Put the ground, toasted coriander into a mixing bowl, and add the mustard, honey, garlic and lemon juice. Place a damp, folded kitchen towel under the bowl to secure it in place. Begin whisking the mixture while slowly pouring in the olive oil, in a stream the width of a pencil. Season with salt and pepper. Stores in the refrigerator for up to one week.
This salad gave us a fresh, sweet, citrusy start to what follows—heat, spice and buttery richness.
Second course: Smokey black beans with cheesy polenta. Grilled cod with coconut oil, lime zest and juice, and Himalayan salt. A pinot noir, appropriately named Ritual. (The inspiration for this bean recipe comes from the Fields of Green cookbook by innovative vegetarian chef Anne Somerville of the famous Greens Restaurant in San Francisco. You can follow their blog for great cooking ideas and organic news out in sunny CA.)
Step one: I began my bean dish the day before by soaking two cups of dry black turtle beans in water for about six hours. I then rinsed them, added five cups of my own vegetable stock and an herb sachet, including sprigs of sage, thyme, oregano and a fresh bay leaf. I cooked my beans on a low simmer for a couple of hours, until they were almost soft (but not done because they will continue cooking the next day). Then, I put beans, broth and herbs in the frig. I could have done this all in one day, but anytime you are planning a dinner party, working ahead is the way to go.
For step two, a few hours before the party:
- I dry toasted a tablespoon of cumin seeds and a half tablespoon of caraway seeds in a small cast iron skillet until fragrant, let them cool and then crushed with my mortar and pestle.
- I sautéed one cup of yellow onion and three cloves of garlic in a few tablespoons of olive oil in my large chef’s skillet over medium heat for about five to six minutes. I added about a half teaspoon sea salt to the sauté to help the vegetables soften and caramelize a little.
- When the onions and garlic were softened, I added the toasted spices and gave it a good stir.
- Next I added my pre-cooked beans and most of their liquid. I reserved some of the liquid (maybe a good cup) so that I could continue to add until the beans were ready to be served—the beans should remain soupy. I taste-test my salt here and add more if I need.
- The original recipe calls for the addition of some of the restaurant’s homemade chili purees. Since I have fresh-made Harissa in the frig, I added a heaping teaspoon of that and some good-quality ground chipotle chili powder, which works great. You could also make the original recipe purees, which are outlined in the cookbook, or substitute some local hot peppers—this is a pretty easy-going recipe that seems to allow for variation without a fuss, in my opinion.
- Cook this uncovered over low heat for 30 to 40 minutes, making sure to add reserved stock as necessary.
- Just before serving, add the juice of half a fresh orange, one teaspoon of rice wine vinegar, and sprinkle with chopped fresh cilantro. The addition of the orange takes us back to flavors in the salad, but now we have spice and heat on our tongues to add contrast.
To create a creamy, buttery foil for the black beans, I took the cookbook’s suggestion and served it with polenta. I started the polenta at the final stages of the beans and then left it in a covered pot in a barely warm oven until ready to serve as the cod was coming off the grill.
Polenta is very easy to make, as long as you are patient in the beginning and just a little vigilant about stirring periodically while it cooks. The measurements are four to one, water and corn grits, plus salt to taste. When your water comes to a good boil, slowly and carefully whisk in your corn grits, taking a least a full minute. Then whisk continually for a few minutes so that lumps do not form. Once you are back to a boil, take the heat to simmer until the polenta thickens, about one to two minutes. Now turn the heat to low, cover the pan and stir frequently with a wooden spoon until the polenta is soft and the taste has lost its raw edge. At the very end, add a couple of tablespoons of butter, and, in my case, a quarter cup of white cheddar cheese, harkening back to the cheese on the salad, but without the sage. If you wondered where I learned to make polenta—my teacher is Jack Bishop from the Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook. Polenta usually comes with package directions, but I just think no one beats Mr. Bishop on this.
My husband is the grill master in our house, so the timing and flame are his babies. My contribution was prep: for the thawed cod, I used the juice of one large lime and its zest, about three heaping tablespoons of coconut oil and a teaspoon of pink Himalayan salt. I believe the gilling took about 20 minutes total, but this also depends on your own desired doneness for fish and the heat of your grill. I’m not a sushi fan, so I probably require it a little overdone by restaurant standards. Everyone ate it, so there you go.
Third Course: Muhallabia Massawa or Indian flavored pudding from the Moosewood Restaurants New Classics cookbook.
If you are not familiar with the famous Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, NY, check them out. The restaurant and its various chefs are legends. I have the original paperback editions–torn and tattered–of The Moosewood Cookbook and The Enchanted Broccoli Forest by Mollie Katzen, a founding member of the restaurant.
Since I wanted a dessert that would be easy to make ahead, was light and creamy and held some exotic essence, I chose this favorite recipe for the finishing touch to my ritual dinner. To give it just a little pizzazz, I added a raw sugar and coconut topping, which I caramelized with my kitchen torch.
To make the pudding you need:
- One cup sugar (I used raw sugar.)
- One quarter cup cornstarch
- A half teaspoon cinnamon (Penzys Vietnamese is the best, I think.)
- A half teaspoon cardamom
- Four cups milk (I used coconut milk, which I think works really well, although your pudding may be softer in the end than with milk.)
- Two eggs, well beaten
- Two tablespoons butter at room temperature
- Two teaspoons pure vanilla extract (Someday I’m going to make this with a vanilla bean—saving my pennies.)
In a medium sauce pan, combine the sugar, cornstarch, cinnamon and cardamom. Gradually add just enough milk to make a paste, and then whisk in the remaining milk. Add the beaten eggs.
Cook on medium heat, stirring often, for 12 to 15 minutes, until the mixture thickens. As it begins to thicken, stir constantly to prevent sticking and to ensure a smooth texture. Remove from heat and add the butter and vanilla.
Pour into six serving dishes and refrigerate for at least 45 minutes. (I suggest a few hours, especially if you go with the coconut milk. This can be made the evening before, as long as you cover with plastic wrap that you push right up against the pudding surface so that it does not develop a film.)
You can serve as is or caramelize the top as I did.
So, that’s the meal. But the ritual would have been there, even if we’d opened a can of soup and broke up a loaf of bakery bread. Sharing, gratitude, awareness and joy are all it takes.
How do you create ritual? Share an idea, menu or story, please.