Our vegetable love
by Judith Newton
From The Joys of Cooking: A Love Story
Had we but world enough and time / This coyness, lady, were no crime / . . . My vegetable love should grow / Vaster than empires, and more slow. — Andrew Marvell, “To His Coy Mistress”
In Berkeley, in 1966, I moved in with the only man I’d ever wanted to marry, the man who’d told me, “I think I love you,” the one who’d said, on a San Francisco corner, that “If it weren’t for you I’d be homosexual.” Living as I had begun to live—with the only man I’d ever wanted—what could I do but spend long hours in the kitchen? Thanks to my childhood, it was the only sure way I knew to create and sustain a sense of home. I was aware, of course, that despite my mother’s cooking and baking, her marriage had been “difficult,” our family connection had been confined to holidays, and I, as one of her two children, had been miserable until I moved far away from home .
But I was prepared to elude this part of my heritage through a form of ritual practice. I would never cook as my mother had done. I would rely entirely upon cookbooks (which she never used), always serve vegetables (much neglected in her kitchen), and focus my energies on French cuisine (as foreign to her as France). Because our graduate student circle regarded Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking as the cookbook of the time-—monumental in its detail and breadth, seductive in the elegance of its dishes, demanding as only a master book had the right to be—it was with this book of books that I set out to cast a love spell on our daily lives, to grow our newly-fledged, still fragile love into a full-winged passion.
Since I cooked and Dick washed all the dishes, the labor involved in Mastering the Art was shared, while eating and rating the dishes became a serious form of mutual play. With Dick I began to have the daily dinners, the intimate sharing of our days, the lightness of heart that had been missing from my childhood. With Dick I had a family every day. But if cooking from Mastering the Art created a sense of home, it also made us feel that we were traveling through an exotic land, a land that lured me into acts with vegetables that seemed downright foreign and even counter to common sense.
Cucumbers, for example, which Dick and I knew to be cool and moist, might also be baked to good effect as long as they spent thirty minutes or more idling in a bath of vinegar, salt, and sugar. Lettuce, which we knew as crisp and somewhat bland, might be braised into a deep and bacony richness, if you had the patience and the time to truss and boil the lettuce heads, immerse them in a frigid rinse, fold them crosswise into “fat triangles,” and then braise them with bacon, onions, carrots, and stock for one and a half hours, afterwards reducing the braising liquid to a “syrup.” At this point, Dick observed, the lettuce had stopped being lettuce at all and had become something far more savory and wild.
One of our favorite recipes was Petit Pois Frais A La Francaise—fresh peas braised with lettuce, butter, and small onions. To produce this dish one must, once again, truss up the lettuce heads (all this tying up of things seemed very French to Dick). One then inverted a lid over the saucepan and filled it with ice so that the “cooking steam will condense and fall back onto the peas.” It was a dish made for paradise, if paradise had permitted cooking, and it was the only vegetable dish to receive our top rating: a coveted two stars.
Preparing vegetables, I had discovered, was an exacting art, almost as rigorous as closely reading Shakespeare, but the latter was a solitary occupation while cooking could be shared. If the peeling and the trussing were somewhat tedious, like puzzling over imagery involving light and dark, sitting down with Dick to fresh peas braised with onions, lettuce, and a load of butter was like attending a fine Shakespearean performance—one involving love, enchanted woods, and moonlight, and perhaps the dreams of a midsummer’s night.
Because our love was new, because Dick, at times, could seem arch and separate, and because I hadn’t quite forgotten that San Francisco corner, I wanted voluptuous flavor in the main courses I cooked. I wanted dishes that made love, plates that were prelapsarian. My two-star recipes for fish, which was cheap in 1966, involved endless variations of fillets poached in white wine and shallots, sometimes with mushrooms or julienned vegetables as well. The cooking liquids were boiled down to concentrate the flavor, added to a roux of butter and flour, and further enriched with egg yolk and heavy cream. The whole enticement might then be sprinkled with cheese and broiled until the sauce was brown and deeply rich.
Eggs were another cheap ingredient and, with practice, I became a skilled maker of soufflés. We grew to love the crispy tops and almost molten middles, rich with spinach, broccoli, or mushroom and always with lots of cheese. Since I owned a mixer, I might have quickly beaten the whites to form stiff peaks. But, under the spell of Mastering the Art, I employed the (strongly recommended) wire whip instead. Sometimes, to give my arm a rest, I’d call on Dick to help. A man who maintained a long list of composers by their birth-dates could appreciate the fact that beating must be at “the speed of two strokes per second with a vertical, circular motion for twenty-thirty seconds until the egg whites have begun to foam.” And he didn’t mind wearing an apron.
Standing in our kitchen, just big enough for two, I’d watch Dick going at the egg whites with the whip. I would be grating cheese or cooking shallots or poaching fish for a soufflé. I was having those happy moments in the kitchen which I’d never had with Mother. The window would be steamed and Dick would be making me laugh, and I would feel as if he were my twin, as if I had been joined to him in some wondrous early way, as if we had been separated at our births and found each other just in time for the happy ending.
Night after night Dick and I sat down to a princely dinner, to the spicy mildness of chicken and onions in curried cream, to steaks finished with wine and shallots or Madeira and mushrooms, or creamy, tarragon-spiced Béarnaise. We ate garlicky roasts of lamb, casseroles of braised pork with onions and potatoes, vegetable soups that took hours to simmer and that warmed the kitchen window against the cool spring air. We even dined upon the magnificence of Veau Prince Orlof, a tender loin of veal, sliced and layered with a rich and creamy mix of rice and onions, sautéed shallots and mushrooms, and a velvety sauce of butter, flour, stock, and cream. Just before serving, you poured another cup of sauce on top with loads of grated cheese and then you slipped the dreamy dish into the oven until the top began to bubble and turn brown. Talk about the poetry of seduction. I didn’t need the fanciful and laborious verse of Andrew Marvell. I had Julia Child.
Petits Pois Frais A La Francaise
(Peas Braised with Lettuce and Onions)
(Adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking)
Make this for someone you truly love.
1 ½ fresh heads of Boston lettuce (7-8 inches in diameter)
6 T butter
½ c. water
1 1/2 T sugar
½ tsp salt
1/8 tsp pepper
3 lbs. medium fresh green peas (3 c. shelled)
8 parsley stems tied with white string
12 green onion bulbs 1 inch in diameter
Or small white onions boiled for 5 minutes in salted water
Salt and pepper
2 T. softened butter
1. Remove wilted leaves, trim stems and wash lettuce heads carefully. Cut into quarters. Tie several loops of string around each quarter to keep the heads in shape.
2. Bring butter, water, and seasonings to a boil.
3. Add peas and toss to cover with liquid. Submerge parsley in the middle and arrange lettuce quarters over them. Baste with the liquid.
4. Pierce cross in the root ends of the onions and disperse among the lettuce quarters.
5. Invert a lid over the saucepan and fill it with ice cubes so that steam will condense and fall back on the peas.
6. Bring peas to boil and boil slowly for 20-30 minutes or until tender. During this period remove cover sand toss peas and lettuce to ensure even cooking. Replace ice cubes as needed.
7. When peas are tender, the cooking liquid should have almost entirely evaporated. Correct seasoning.
8. Discard parsley and strings. Toss peas and onions with butter just before serving. Place peas in vegetable dish and place lettuce around the edge. Serve right away.