31 August 2012

A good feeling

Last time we talked I couldn't stop mouthing off about how fruit is my siren, how all I can do is eating it fresh, except that I would also like to cook with it more, somewhat. To this end, I told you, I had taken some measures, that being I'd got myself one special book -- Nigel Slater's Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard. (Ten Speed Press, 2012). When I heard Jess mention it once, I was on the edge of my seat. When Jess spoke fondly of it twice, wheels got turning. I got the book weeks ago and not a day has passed by since that I wouldn't lose myself in its pages. 

I think Nigel Slater is a magician. For most of us an apple, for example, tastes like, um, an apple, right? We can tell if it's sweet or sour, no problem there, and with some effort we could even decipher scents of grass or honey in the apple bite. But Nigel Slater sees beyond that. He tastes this apple and senses it has the flavors of strawberry, walnut and nail polish(!!); in that apple he picks up the notes of nutmeg, aniseed or pineapple. Isn't it pretty spectacular? He is also a romantic, that Nigel Slater. Just check this out: "Cherries bring with them a certain frivolity, a carefree joy like hearing the far-off laughter of a child at play. Their appearance, in deepest summer, comes when life is often at its most untroubled. A bag of cherries is a bag of happiness" (p.171). Or this: "I catch my breath and stand quite motionless; a moment of quiet excitement. I feel as if there is a butterfly in my chest. There, two feet away, is the first catkin of spring, already heavy with yellow pollen and dangling like a lamb's tail from a bare, brittle twig" (p.315). Beautiful, isn't it? The book is filled with such gracefulness and delicacy to the fullest.

Aside being instructive and educative, cookbooks for me are kitchen windows into somebody else's story and culture. Through recipes and stories of others I get to know what's there. And while filling my head with information and treble inspiration all right, Nigel Slater's sentient and observant writing does something else: it makes me want to never stop paying attention to what's here, right around me. I want to see for myself what shade of yellow is canary yellow, to walk through a monastery orchard, to find a sea rock and remind myself what hue it is exactly, to hear that noise that comes from the corners of my mouth as I bite into a fresh and juicy peach...You see what I mean? I think it's special when a (cook)book inspirits you to look at where you are right now. Ripe does that in tenfold.

To say that each one of three hundred plus seasonal recipes this beautiful tome holds would yield blog-worthy results wouldn't be a far-fetched statement, not at all. But I had to start somewhere, and because I'm not impartial to it I started with tabbouleh. 

I was twenty-one and edging into my final year of college when, figuring out what I should be soon doing with my degree in English linguistics, I took a gap year and enrolled into the Au-pair program. For various reasons, I ended up in the Netherlands (the Hague), and for the year to come I was to take care of a lovely six-year-old girl in a single-parent family (a working mother). That year was supposed to be my coming of age of sorts, meaning not only that I was going to be completely on my own in a place far away from everything and everyone familiar, but also that I was now responsible for somebody else. That surely had to make me more mature, stronger, wiser, something, anything. That surely had to, and on some level it did, except only when I would step into my host family's kitchen, you know, to cook myself a meal. One day not too long after my arrival I thought to braise for my lunch white cabbage in tomato broth, with charred onions, laurel and all that, something I really liked, something that said home to me. I was standing by the kitchen stove stirring the cabbage when the mother walked in, her heels knocking urgent staccato on the black tiled floor, to say, her arm over her nose: It's shocking you can eat something like this; it smells foul. Did she just imply I eat shit? Lost for words on my side, I sheepishly smiled and kept stirring my food, deeply embarrassed and strangely hurt. Forward the tape and you'll see that other time over breakfast when I sat down with my plate of pan-fried potatoes leftover from the night before and her I can't believe you are eating this firing at me again, only now reaching somewhere deeper and making me feel so completely out of place.

And then there was ketchup. I liked to have it with everything, you see. Or better, I just liked to have it. A true fact: brain freeze from my necking heavily refrigerated ketchup straight from a bottle wasn't a foreign thing to me. So when my host mother said I've never seen anybody eating so much ketchup before, during a family meal, the words catching me in 'crime' as I was reaching for the stuff, to squirt some on rice, I recall, it just got me. And when I was repeatedly told it's plain stupid not to eat after 6pm, it got me even more, because I was twenty-one and stubborn and weight conscious and no-food-after 6pm was my thing then. It's then when I should have said something back, something like a friendly Your comments make me feel uncomfortable, to speak up for myself, for my bottle of ketchup, for my cabbage. Too fast to fold, I said nothing. Instead, I got into a habit of hiding what and when I would eat (yes sir, bad behavior). Which, given my sentiments, for the next eight months meant I would tiptoe down into the kitchen for breakfast (Weetabix, I got besotted by you!) and race against the clock to have dinner before everybody else, lunch being a dash in the neurotic sentence of my every day. In such developments, hunger soon got to thunderously and ceaselessly rumble in my every cell. And the irony is that I couldn't be any hungrier than then, what with all those wonderful, delicious, beautiful foods I hadn't known of before right under my nose at the farmer's markets (my first taste of avocado and leeks (!) and 'organic') and deli stores and ethnic supermarkets and pastry shops.

In the thick of it, I didn't see at all how things were spinning out of control. It pleased my eyes to see how much I thinned down (from eighty-five to forty-five kilos in less than six months), but I didn't pay much mind to how anxious of a weight gain I became (one apple, and I would be off to a gym, burning 'the fat'); how my hair started to suddenly falling out; how hungry indeed and drenched in fatigue I felt all the time. It was a shock when my host mother sat me down to say she is going to take me to a doctor to test me for anorexia, because she is afraid I'm hurting myself and need help, her face creased with concern. I'm not diseased, I cried, I need no doctor, no help, you are mistaken, no, I don't throw up my meals (I really didn't!), please everybody just leave me alone.

I so often wish none of that ever took place. I wish I didn't cause so much hurt and anxiety to my parents. Smashed to smithereens by what they saw -- a yellow-skinned skeleton; no exaggeration, that -- they stood there at the arrival gates frozen first, but coming to tears by the minute, my mother loudly and my father quietly so. What did you do to yourself, Anya? To which I just kept repeating, What's the big deal? I'm fine. The first weeks after I'd returned, my father, a man of a few words, didn't say much else on the subject; he only kept buying me bundles of bananas. I wish I hadn't scared my host mother like that. I wish I hadn't done such damage to myself. I hate to have been afflicted with an eating disorder. It absolutely sucks. They say anorexia never completely goes away, but I really don't know. It's been six years since then, and I want to think I'm through. Hey, I earn my keeps these days making pastries, eating my way through butter-loaded this or sugar-crammed that almost every day; how is that for a proof? Although, it hadn't quite been the battle with weight that sent me into a tailspin in the first place. My biggest problem of all had been the battle with self-confidence. It's my hidebound insecurity that had been standing squarely athwart on my way, taking good care I remain impressionable, and self-conscious, and that I listen really good to what others have to say about me. I'm wondering how much longer I'm going to battle that, though.

Towards the end of my stay, I went on a 24-hour trip to Brussels. The weather that summer day was chili-hot, uncomfortable. I was walking around town, shopping, and la la la, soaking in that beautiful city's air (rich in waffle scent), and the next thing I knew I was feeling weird, clammy. The feeling was that I had to eat something, all my bullshit notwithstanding. I made a pit stop at a nearby health food bar where I ordered smoked salmon tabbouleh. Strewn with raisins and cumin seeds, it was fresh, earthy and nutty. It was comforting and welcome. I loved it, for it was tasty. But what's more, I loved it because for a split, split, split second, the first time in so long, I didn't see food as a cunning agent of weight. It was a good feeling.
Peach and Mint Tabbouleh
Adapted from Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard by Nigel Slater
Yield: 4-6 servings

The charm of this dish is in a relationship between sweet and juicy fruitiness and zippy spiciness. One comes from the peaches, as you could have inferred; the other from the red chili. Theirs is not a tug-of-war game, because despite the obvious contrast there is no opposition: the chili just makes each mouthful sassier or something.

I am a person who can consume raw onion (thinly sliced) as a remedy for cold, which is just to say I am not an onion objector in no way or form. But I feel quite strongly against adding the onion to a dish if I want to keep it for later, what with the onion flavor becoming too pungent and unruly with time, its pleasant bite turning into the jaw clasp. Unless there are plans to finish the whole lot right away, add the onions only before serving, or skip them altogether, which I did.

I'm also a person who would like to be able to eat chillies, even the most fiery ones, by the handful. Alas, the nature didn't cut me fit enough for the job. But I still try and add extra chillies, seeds intact, whenever I can. Here I used two bird's eye chillies, instead of one, and left the seeds in, instead of out.

And a few more things...One, I cut down the amount of bulgur, the only reason being I like this tabbouleh better with the peach upfront, not the grain. Two: you absolutely need to get your hands on ripe peaches. It should give to your gentle touch but not be mushy. Yes, stay away from the mushy business. 

120 g (4 ounces) bulgur (I used medium-coarse type)
4 ripe peaches
1 or 2 hot red chillies, deseeded (or not)
6 bushy sprigs of mint, leaves only
2 large handfuls of cilantro leaves
2 large handfusl of parsley leaves
juice of 1 medium lemon
2 Tbsp olive oil
Salt, pepper

Put the bulgur in a bowl and pour just enough boiling water to cover; put a lid or a plate over the bowl to prevent the bulgur from drying and set aside.

Slice the peaches in half, remove the pits, dice the flesh and put in a mixing bowl. Finely chop the chili, coarsely chop the mint, cilantro and parsley, and add to the peaches. Add the lemon juice, olive oil, and salt and pepper. You will need a good grinding of both to balance the whole thing out.

Fluff up the bulgur with a fork and crumble into the peaches. Serve at room temperature. On its own, or with roasted or poached chicken, or fish, even.