Many gifts have been bequeathed to me in this lifetime. Along with having all of my muscles and organs in functioning shape and order, I experienced a serious illness when I was younger, so my health is given thanksgiving in an informed way. My immediate and extended family are people with whom I enjoy spending my time and who I hold with great admiration. And, Lord, do I have friends.
There's one in particular from middle school that I've been thinking of lately with more affection than usual. I remember meeting my mother at the end of a school day in the autumn of our first year in the town we had just moved to (where my folks still live). As I buckled my seat belt, I looked out the passenger window and I remember seeing my to-be friend, Liz, walking down the sidewalk. She was wearing blue jeans and a grey t-shirt with maroon lettering on it and was tucking her dark blond hair behind her left ear. I was flooded with, what I recognize now as, love.
Have you ever met someone and understood straight away that you've known them before? Like déjà vu, I couldn't put my finger on it, but there was a recognition -- a feeling that I had watched her tuck her hair behind her ear a thousand times before. I have a loose set of spiritual beliefs that before we come into our physical bodies, we make agreements with other spirits to meet them down the road for any host of reasons -- to learn patience, forgiveness, generosity, how to have fun. Through Liz, I learned about cooperation (three-legged races), restraint (love and writing), the deliciousness of reading a thoughtful Christmas gift (MFK Fisher's How To Cook A Wolf) from a dear friend, still together after all of this time.
Fisher makes classy, sassy and bold statements about food in times of both war and peace throughout the pages, including in the chapter "How to Boil Water", in which she ventures to say that minestrone "is the most satisfying soup for people who are hungry, as well as for those who are tired or worried or in debt or in a moderate amount of pain or in love or in robust health or any kind of business huggermuggery." She recalls a friend, Mrs. Mazza, once writing, "A plate of this pottage...with grated Romano, served with crisp garlicked sour-dough bread, a salad and a glass of wine, and I have dined."
With the lingering and wearisome snow, orchestrating a cozy minestrone-inspired Italian stew to simmer on the stove this past Sunday afternoon seemed appropriate. A glorious sweetness was achieved by allowing the stew to leisurely reduce and the fennel added a pervasive liquorish whisper without the weightiness of Italian sausage (which you can certainly go ahead and add if you'd like). Like the spirits with whom we are to engage during a lifetime, there are a host of ingredients that can carry this stew to special places -- be daring but caring.
Tuscan Tomato, Chic Pea, Fennel and Toasted Bread Stew with Rustic Sage Pesto
inspired by Yotam Ottolenghi
Stay away from broccoli or cabbage but anything else is fair game. I especially encourage torn bread that's been toasted -- but cooked rice or noodles, added at the last minute, are wonderful, too. Sage pesto can be made if you have the ingredients on hand but store bought, jarred basil pesto with a few chopped sage leaves thrown in is just as good and more reminiscent of the warmer months.
4 c of torn bread
1/2 t dried oregano
1/2 t dried sage
1 large onion, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
1 fennel bulb, halved lengthwise and cut into 1" cubes
1/2 c olive oil
1 large carrot, sliced at a diagonal
3 celery stalks, sliced at a diagonal
1/4 t sea salt
3 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
1 T tomato paste
1 c white wine (dry is best)
1 32 oz can of whole tomatoes, roughly chopped
2 t cane sugar (or sucanant or maple syrup)
4 1/2 c lightly salted vegetable stock (or chicken or beef)
3/4 t sea salt
6 cranks from the peppermill
2 c cooked chic peas (fresh or rinsed if from a can)
sage pesto for garnish, of 1/2 clove garlic, 1/2 c toasted nut, 4 T fresh sage or 1 T dried sage, 1/2 t maple syrup, 1/4 sea salt *
Preheat the oven to 325F and toss the bread in 3 T olive oil, a pinch of salt, oregano and dried sage. Place in the oven for 20 minutes or until mostly dry.
Meanwhile over medium heat, add the remaining oil to a heavy bottomed pot along with the onions. Let them begin to caramelize for about ten minutes, stirring occasionally, before adding the fennel. Stir to coat with the olive oil and let cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the carrots and celery and let cook for another 5 minutes.
Remove the toasted bread from the oven (turn it off, too) and set aside for future use.
Add the garlic, tomato paste, white wine, chopped tomatoes along with their juices and sweetener. Bring to a cheerful simmer for 3 minutes before adding the stock. Bring to a boil, cover and reduce to a gentle simmer for 30 minutes.
As the stew simmers, have a hand at the pesto. If it's jarred you can fiddle with it by adding more herbs, a squeeze of lemon, more garlic or a smidge of maple syrup. If you're making it from scratch, just mash up the ingredients with a mortar and pestle or a sharp knife and a cutting board, until moderately smooth in texture, tasting until you're satisfied with the flavors.*
When you're ready to serve the stew, add the toasted bread and simmer for few minutes before ladling the stew into bowls and garnishing with the sage pesto. And Mrs. Mazza is right about the glass of wine and a side salad.
Yields: dinner for 4
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 45 minutes