I love a leap year.
In this era where nearly everything can be adjusted to suit standards that seem more exacting by the day, where we calculate our time down to the second on a regular basis and even a baby’s birth can be scheduled, there is something to be celebrated – something pleasingly archaic if slightly bizarre – in the continuing existence of February 29th.
The only down side is that it prolongs the end of this dreary month, which, as far as I am concerned, could not come soon enough.
Just when I thought I had endured this balmy winter largely unscathed, I was beset recently by the dreaded seasonal slump – I’ve mentioned it before, and I even had the temerity to suggest that I had avoided it this year; but that was sadly not the case (as evidenced in part by the recent waffle-mania that has overtaken our house).
So we aren’t celebrating the extra day in February, exactly.
It’s been an eventful few years – which coming from me, having lived a fairly unconventional and action-packed life, is saying a great deal – and although there were some harrowing times that I could certainly have done without, most of the time I marvel at how far we have come.
This recipe takes me back to the early days of my first pregnancy, and the beginning of my time here: a time when I felt utterly unmoored, far from everyone who knew me well and overwhelmed by what I had undertaken when I decided to embrace this new life, new love, new neighbourhood – and vastly empty new home.
But before it did I made a batch of socca one cold, bright March afternoon and ate it off a paper towel with my fingers, sitting on the floor all alone and looking out the bare kitchen window and shaping, in my mind’s eye, a life.
A long way, indeed.
I have made one addition to to this simple recipe, and fiddled somewhat with the method, so if you are a stickler you’ll find the original here. This is a southern French dish, ideally paired with cold rose served in tumblers in the heat of an August afternoon, but for some reason it always comes calling for me at this time of year.
2c chickpea flour
2 tsp coarse sea salt
2 tsp ground cumin (I am currently obsessed with roasted cumin and would recommend that if you can find it, but regular ground cumin is of course more than fine)
a generous grinding of black pepper
2c warm water
1/4c extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, halved lengthwise and then thinly sliced, lengthwise
2-4 tbsp olive oil (not necessarily extra virgin, since it’s going into a very hot pan)
Sift flour into a large mixing bowl. Add salt, cumin and pepper and stir to combine, then slowly whisk in water to form a smooth batter. Whisk in extra virgin olive oil. Cover and let the batter sit for as long as possible, ideally an hour or two and overnight if it comes to that.
Set a 10-inch cast iron skillet on a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Stir onions into batter.
When oven and pan are hot, remove pan from heat; swirl about a tablespoon of olive oil into the pan, then add a scant ladleful of batter, tilting the pan so that the batter reaches the edges and thinly coats the bottom. Return pan to oven and cook 8-10 minutes, until batter is golden around the edges. Gently flip the socca in the pan; return to the oven and cook a further 3-4 minutes, until golden and crispy on both sides.
Slide socca onto a plate and eat (or serve) immediately.
Repeat with remaining olive oil and batter.
Makes six beautiful socca.
Just wait until you try this sauce.
A couple of months ago, things around here had begun to go so wildly awry that my husband was moved to ask me incredulously, as I struggled to pull a one-inch splinter out of the bottom of my foot using a sewing needle and a pair of tweezers, “how could you possibly have so much bad karma?”
It’s a question to which there is no real suitable answer.
Still, because I take deep solace in food during times of adversity, that period was one in which many great meals were consumed in my house.
And a fair number of them involved this sauce.
It started out its life as a component of what I would loosely define as an Andean-ish potato dish, but I had far more sauce than potatoes on that particular late-spring evening, so it morphed into the kind of catch-all condiment that could improve the (forgive me) karma of just about anything that was thrown its way.
Almost an entire season later, it is still in heavy rotation.
In the photo you see above, I tossed it with some sauteed peppers, but that was just because they were what happened to be laying about. I would highly recommend it with the little local potatoes that my husband keeps bringing home by the basketful, and I can’t even tell you how blissfully it pairs with corn on the cob.
(I have mentioned before, probably at just about this time of year, that I do not find summertime cooking to be especially inspiring: the grill and I don’t have a relationship to speak of, and I am largely fine with that. There are a lot of fun things that happen outdoors at this time of year, but for me, cooking is not one of them. I like my kitchen.
Still, I bet you could slather this sauce on whatever thing you just pulled off the barbeque, and it would redeem even that.)
What can I tell you? It’s just that good.
A Sauce to Redeem (Almost) Anything
adapted from Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian
1 egg yolk*
1c whole milk
500g feta cheese, crumbled
1/2c olive oil (not extra virgin)
2 fresh hot yellow or green chilies, de-seeded and de-veined and finely chopped (leave in a few seeds for a spicier sauce)
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp flour
* I would consider the egg yolk optional if you are feeding a pregnant woman, young children or anyone whose health may be compromised. If you opt not to use the yolk, increase the flour slightly.
Combine egg yolk, milk, and feta in a blender and blend until smooth. Leave in blender.
Place olive oil in a heavy saute pan set over medium heat. When oil is hot, add chilies, garlic, and turmeric to the pan, and saute, stirring frequently, until softened and slightly golden, about 2 minutes. Add flour to pan and stir well. Reduce heat to low and add feta mixture from blender to the pan. Cook, stirring, until sauce is thick. Using a rubber spatula, pour and scrape sauce back into the blender and blend until smooth.
Add a little milk, if necessary; sauce should be the consistency of heavy cream.
Makes about 2 cups, enough to dress about a pound of cooked baby potatoes and still have plenty left over. Refrigerate leftovers promptly.
The lovely and romantic dinner I had envisioned for Valentine’s Day didn’t quite come together as planned: I bought all the makings for boeuf bourgignon, and in my fantasy it was going to bubble away contentedly on the stove, filling the house with good smells, while my beloved and I sat in front of the fire and ate cheese, drank wine, and – I don’t know, talked?
Of course that’s not what happened (I’m not sure how I managed to overlook our children when I concocted that fantasy). We did have a lovely day, replete with chocolate (and chocolate-y) kisses, as wonderful and romantic as a Sunday in February with two tiny children can be; but by about three o’clock that afternoon, I realized that the boeuf bourgignon was never going to happen.
And I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but I was quite disappointed for a moment. I felt (however briefly) that I had failed to live up to the day’s expectations of me – or my expectations of the day. All of that joyful family time diminished slightly because I felt that things weren’t happening as I had hoped.
Still, I rallied: we opened the good wine that I had bought to cook with, and I made a simple soup with the highest-quality beef broth that was also intended for the bourgignon. We ate our cheese and baguette with the soup, and the bubbly remains in the fridge, awaiting its opportunity.
Why, you may wonder, have I chosen today to tell you about a meal that happened nearly two weeks ago?
Well, I made that soup again last night and it was delicious. Everyone in our house is under the weather this week, so I put it together in a bit of a rush, not expecting much – but it was a perfect simple soup, hot enough for comfort on a cold night and hearty enough that no one was left feeling hard-done-by (which can happen with a soup supper around here).
I’m guessing I’m not the only one who could benefit from lowering her expectations this weekend. These are the dying days of February; the Olympics are drawing to a close. Spring’s celebrations still feel significantly far off. In our part of the world, it’s snowing more than it has all winter.
Best to huddle in and not plan too much. Keep expectation to a minimum, and the joy to be found in simple things may take you by surprise.
Simple Barley Soup
The first time I made this, I used a wonderful and expensive organic beef broth. Last night, I used chicken stock, which is all I had on hand, and not one of us (including the soup) was the worse for it. I also realized after I took the above photo that I had forgotten to add the mushrooms, and that the sprigs of fresh thyme I had intended for a garnish were still in the fridge. Ah well. Life, as they say, is not lived in a lab.
1/2 c pearl barley
1 1/2 c water
1/4 c olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped
2 large or 3 medium carrots, chopped (yes, those are carrot flowers you see in the photo, but really, just chop them to a uniform size)
2 large or 3 medium parsnips, chopped (see above)
a handful of sliced mushrooms
1/4 c white wine
1 tsp dried thyme
5 c broth (dealer’s choice)
2 cloves garlic, minced
Place barley and water in a medium saucepan over high heat. Stir well, bring to a boil, cover and simmer until most of water is absorbed and barley is quite tender, 30-45 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.
Meanwhile, in a large saucepan, heat olive oil over medium high heat. Add onions and cook until golden, stirring frequently so they don’t burn. Add carrots, parsnips, and mushrooms, and cook, stirring, until onions are deep golden in colour, about another 5 minutes. Add wine, stirring and scraping up any brown bit stuck to the bottom of the pot. Add thyme and broth. Bring to a simmer, then cover and lower heat. Cook until vegetables are just tender, 10 minutes or so, then add cooked barley and garlic. Cover and continue to simmer until vegetables and barley are tender, 20-30 minutes.
Serves 4-6 as a main course, with bread and a salad.