Home, Alone

January 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

The Olympic mountains, to the west of Seattle, catch the mid-afternoon glow. I’m in a cab speeding south, airport- and home-bound. The cloudy curtain lifts for the first time on this four day sojourn to reveal a postcard of a backdrop. The peaks are curiously flat and false, as though a tourist board or film crew had rolled them in just for that moment. Stay, they plead, propping up a Mount Rainier shaped scene ahead of us for maximum impact. But I’m ready to leave, stunning natural beauty and all; ready for home, for the new year to begin in earnest, and for soup.

Conference travel sometimes feels like an ever-changing set of backdrops in front of which I am supposed to act. Mostly it’s the one of the book exhibit, scene of jaw-cripplingly permanent smiles and nods and unparalleled enthusiasm. Don’t get me wrong: it’s the part of my job which I love the most: tossing around ideas, seeing work being tested out and refined, and then the excitement of a stack of a book hot-off-the-press getting the love and attention it deserves. But at the end of those long days I’m ready to unpin that identity along with my name badge. That’s when I head out to eat, alone.

Once you’re over the initial sheepishness of asking for a table for one that will almost inevitably be with you the first couple of times you do it, you might well be in for a dining alone treat. Solo diners are the stuff of which the dreams of maitre d’s are made: we slip into corners, pad out awkward gaps at bars, never sneer at the offer of the communal table. The reward? Walk ins at the hottest spots in town, gliding past open-mouthed lines of hipsters and foodies and the other dozens of people who thought a two hour wait for pizza was totally reasonable. Avec in Chicago, Mozza in LA, Walrus and the Carpenter in Seattle: a smug litany of solo successes. Nothing deserving of pity there.

When that craving for home hits, usually for me around the middle of the third day away, it’s rarely the aloneness that sets it off. It’s a yearning: for my own bed, for the small everyday things, and for cooking from my own kitchen. Such trifles: they are the intangible yet instantly recognizable sense of home. Soup is one such marker. Before I set off on this brief January trip I made a batch of a fridge-clearing soup. A soup of leeks and of celery, both of which have seen better days but which will be perfectly revived with a gentle saute in butter. To the pale green mix I add a handful of sunchokes – or Jerusalem artichokes as I would have known them from the UK had I ever eaten them there. The rhizomatic chokes bear a pleasing resemblance to the hefty lump of ginger that will later top the soup. And later was right – something about that day just didn’t call out for soup and I froze batches of the barely-green broth for a time when it would be better appreciated. Lunchtime today it is perfect. As the soup reheats, plopping languidly on the stove, I make a topping of crushed coriander seeds, pounded walnuts, and abundant matchsticks of the aforementioned ginger. I set my own table for one. The soup is mild with an almost fluffy texture: a duvet of a dish if ever there was one. The hot-water-bottle warmth of the ginger is just enough to enliven without disturbing the inherent calmness of the dish. Around me, pots overflow in the sink and three suitcases spill their contents into the hallway. There is nothing one-dimensional here.

Leek, Choke and Celery Soup
Adapted from my hero Nigel Slater’s Tender Vol 1 (link is to the combined US edition)

Yields about 4 servings

2-3 large leeks
40g/3 tbsp butter (or olive oil for a vegan version)
4 ribs of celery
400g/14oz sunchokes/Jerusalem artichokes
1 litre/4 cups water
a good handful of parsley, chopped

Walnut and ginger topping
1 tsp coriander seeds
30g walnuts (about a quarter cup)
30g lump of ginger
4 tsp groundnut oil (if you don’t have this to hand use any neutral oil like sunflower)

Discard the very toughest of the outer leaves of the leeks and then slice the white and pale green flesh into thin circles. Leeks often come with quite a bit of grit between the layers so be sure to rinse them well before using. I leave them to soak for a couple of minutes, give them a stir with my hand, then rinse and repeat once more. Melt the butter over a low to medium heat and then cook the leeks in the butter for around 15-20 minutes, until they are very soft. Do not let them colour – you will need to stir frequently and keep a good eye on them.

While the leeks cook, finely slice the celery and add it to the pan once the leeks are soft. Stir and allow to cook along with the leeks while you peel and dice the chokes. Add those to the pan along with the leeks and celery, stir to coat and mix well, and then cover the pot with a lid and allow the vegetables to sweat and soften, still without colouring. Add the water to the pan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer, partially cover the pan with a lid, and allow to bubble for about 25 minutes, or until the chokes are tender. Blend the soup with a hand blender or in batches in a blender or food processor. Keep warm while you make the topping, or cool and freeze portions at this point if you want to save some of the soup for another day.

When you are ready to eat the soup, make the topping. Grind the coriander to a powder with a pestle and mortar, then add the walnuts and give them a good pound, so they are broken and pulpy but not finely ground. Peel the ginger and slice into thin matchsticks. Heat the oil in a shallow pan, such as a saute pan, add the ginger and let it sizzle and fry for about 30 seconds, until it starts to brown and crisp. Add the walnuts and coriander, stir and let them sizzle briefly, then tip the mix onto kitchen paper to crisp.

Stir chopped parsley into the soup, ladle into bowls, then top each with a mound of the walnut and ginger mix.

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