I’m getting tired of reading the news anxiously each morning, tired of bad behavior everywhere, tired of witnessing fear and loathing and oppression, tired of politics. It’s a rough time. But, though some days I want very simple food, I’m not tired of cooking.
I’m also not tired of going to the farmers’ market, or of spending time in kitchen. I don’t tire of cooking pasta, warming garlic in olive oil or making toast. I still get excited when a bite of food tastes inordinately good. I still want to make a salad and put on a pot of beans. And there’s still comfort in watching the seasons change.
I do understand the concept of kitchen burnout, more so with the doubled-up stress of the pandemic and the holidays, but the act of cooking and the ritual of sharing food can be relaxing, grounding and positive.
Think of this menu as a fun one to cook, maybe in a week or so. It’s easy enough to prepare for a special weeknight, though, of course, each of the dishes can stand alone, too.
There was beautiful fennel at one farmer’s stand the other day. Now is the time for it. It does well in cool temperate zones, growing slowly, feathery fronds swaying. Chilly weather accentuates the fennel’s sweetness and anise perfume. Cutting into the bulb reveals its crisp, pale celadon center.
Thinly sliced, it makes a most refreshing salad. Fennel dressed with anchovy, lemon juice, green olives and fruity olive oil is a combination I’ll never tire of. Don’t be afraid of the anchovy; rinsing and blotting the fillets tames the harshness.
If you happen to have a preserved lemon or two on hand, a bit of the salty chopped rind adds depth. This makes a zesty, welcoming first course — or a fine salad to eat for lunch. Dress it just before serving, so the sliced fennel stays crisp. It may seem silly to smash and pit your own green olives, but the shape looks better and they taste meatier that way. (In any case, please, don’t cut pitted olives crosswise into little round slices.)
The fish man had haddock, cod and hake for sale (I went for the cod) and shiny black mussels from Prince Edward Island. I thought they should marry. The fish could marinate in a mixture of cilantro, cumin and coriander, a clever Moroccan custom. Steamed together, the mussels would contribute their briny juices to the broth. Enhanced with a dab of spicy harissa, the resulting stew, served in big bowls, was deeply flavorful. Was it tiresome? Not at all — it was dreamy.
You may not want a real dessert after this meal. I’d be happy with a bowl of tangerines and a juicy pomegranate, or a scoop of ice cream, but why resist an olive oil walnut cake, just a little slice? You can absolutely bake the cake in advance. It actually keeps well for several days, and seems to improve with age, in fact. Your choice: elegant dessert or perfect breakfast.
Extra-virgin olive oil gives the cake richness and a tender crumb. There’s also an orange syrup to drench it with, best done on the day it’s served. A spoonful of crème fraîche or yogurt and a topping of bright red pomegranate seeds make the cake a festive sight.
So, no, I’m not tired of cooking. In truth, somehow, preparing a good meal — or one good dish — is invigorating.