30 May 2012

Where I've just come from

I got back from Russia two weeks ago on the nose, which is to say I should have stopped by to say hello sooner than this. But I couldn't. I'd sit down ready to write and I'd fall short, for I didn't see how to mince my rib-poking post-trip melancholia that left me in a shambles and rendered me tearful, speechless and inadequate for a good two weeks and then some more into paragraphs, sentences, words...

That time with my parents, so long planned, so long awaited, couldn't have raced past any faster. I'm glad I chose early May as the time for my visit. It felt like summer, hot and scorching. I don't remember it being so years ago; back then when late spring was still a jacket season. Despite my parents' precautions that I take light, short-sleeved clothes, no need for a coat, do you hear me? It is hot here, I did what I usually do -- the opposite. For one, I really didn't believe the heat would be that lasting (It is hot my foot!); and two, my residing in Amsterdam for as along as almost four years now taught me that local springs/summers are not very often in sync with my expectations of them, which is why I don't own that many sheer summer outfits. But man oh man, was it heavily hot indeed. At times it felt I, dressed in jeans and woolen (!) pull-over, could easily melt into asphalt leaving behind not as much as a pool of sweat (not even shoes) or better yet, evaporate into thick, hot, fumy afternoon air with a dull whoosh. But when the sun would hide behind the horizon and the air would get saturated with the night's ink and the sweet floral smell of that lone acacia tree out there below the windows (oh southern nights!), it couldn't get any more comfortable. Still warm, but not stuffy, there wasn't a night when I'd reach for a sheet, let alone a blanket. In the weather like that, local short and bumpy cucumbers and crunchy deep-pink radishes popped up at the markets in spades, and I ate tons of them, plain out of hand, or thinly slivered, salted and bedded on a slice of dark coriander seeds-encrusted rye bread.

It was a blast waking up to seeing my parents every day, sharing with them copious amounts of brewed-right-in-a-mug coffee, grounds and all (a Soviet rudiment), hearing my father's rattled opinions about Russian politics, staying up late with my mother watching silly TV series and movies. It was a blast, too, seeing my grandparents. They looked more stooped, more...aged. One of my grandmothers, who had been in the hospital throughout my stay, shrank like a wizened fruit. I wasn't prepared to see her so battered. My grandfather had had surgery before my arrival, and he didn't shine with much health either.  As I was saying good-byes to all my three grandparents, I caught myself thinking that it could be the last time that I see at least one of them. It gave me the creeps.

When Mom and Dad hugged me good-bye at the airport, amidst the cold-voiced departures announcements, they cried. As did I, but not only because of the farewell blues and my already missing them, the feeling that grew stronger with my every step away. I sobbed because of the chest-hurting remorse for wishing sometimes to get out sooner, to be finally back in Amsterdam again, wishing those two weeks go faster as much as I wished them to stay still. I kept sobbing once I'd flown back, too, for I couldn't help but longing so badly to return where I've just come from. Longing to be where I'm not, always.

I haven't cooked that much yet after my return, but there's been one dish that already found home on my plate a few times by now. I find it quite lovely and comforting, and hope you will, too.

White Beans with Dried Mushrooms
Adapted from Saveur, May 2012
Yield: 6-8 servings

No major deviations from the original recipe, except maybe that I use canned beans in place of their dried brethren, which is for no reason other than my impatience with this overnight soaking business.

This bean stew, it is no big deal. It tastes like a sum of all its few flavorful components -- dried porcini mushrooms, tomatoes, cannellini beans -- coaxed by heat into bright, luscious oneness. Nothing effete, nothing fussy.

15 g (1/2 oz.) dried porcini mushrooms
2-3 Tbsp olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
3 Tbsp tomato paste
3 * 400 g (15 oz.) cans white beans (e.g., cannellini, butter beans, or lima beans), rinsed
1 * 400 g (15 oz.) can whole peeled tomatoes in juice, slightly crushed
500 ml (2 cups) vegetable stock or water
2 bay leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Fresh herbs for garnish (optional)

1. In a bowl, soak the mushrooms in 1 L (4 cups) boiling water, about 20 minutes. With a slotted spoon, remove the mushrooms to a cutting board; chop finely. Slowly pour the soaking liquid into a large measuring vessel until you have 750 ml (3 cups), taking extra care to leave any sediment in the bottom of the bowl; chuck away the sediment. Set the soaking liquid along with the mushrooms aside.

2. Over medium flame, heat the oil in a large heavy-bottomed pot. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until fragrant, about 4 minutes. Dump in the tomato paste, and keep cooking for another 2 minutes. Add the mushrooms, soaking liquid, beans, tomatoes, vegetable stock, and bay leaves; bring to a gentle boil. Scale the heat down to medium-low, and cook, partially covered and stirring occasionally, for 30-50 minutes, or until the beans are very tender and the cooking liquids get thicker. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Sprinkle with some fresh herbs (the choice is yours; I went with fresh basil) before serving, but that is optional.