Saturday, June 25, 2011

THE ALISON/DRAGONWAGON PROJECT: Spring Risotto of Artichoke, Lemon, Garlic and Mint

That blur? Not my photography skills. It's steam from this comforting risotto.
Today my sister's best friend from high school, Summer, died. She was 29. In fact, she had just turned 29 on the Summer Solstice, June 21.

Unlike many of us, Summer lived up to her name. My name means "little truthful one," and while I'm known for my frankness--and as a journalist, I seek the truth--sometimes I find it hard to nail down anything as true.

But this I know is true: Summer was bright and warm-hearted. A hug from Summer felt like sunlight.

I was on the road today, working on a story when I found out about Summer. I had planned on returning home at a decent hour, with the goal of making a soothing risotto out of a once-fresh (now-browning) artichoke, arborio rice, some squishy lemons, a fistful of mint leaves, a quarter bottle of leftover white wine and a few cloves of garlic stuck to the bottom of my produce drawer. But it was a steamy day in Georgia, and I returned home rather washed-out, heavy of heart.

I made the risotto anyway. 

You'll notice Crescent Dragonwagon of  "Passionate Vegetarian" dubbed this recipe a "Spring Risotto of Artichoke, Lemon, Garlic and Mint" (p. 488). I bought the ingredients two weeks ago when it was still spring. Now summertime, I felt a little bit like a failure throwing together these fading items. And I felt wasteful if I didn't.

Risotto is a dish that requires patience. There's a lot of stirring. Sometimes it seems as though the rice will never cook fully or get starchy enough. That I'm wasting my time. That it won't be worth the effort. And I don't own a pressure-cooker, so I couldn't try out Dragonwagon's method, which is O.K. because I operate under enormous pressure most of the time that cooking risotto forces me to slow down and meditate. And stir, stir, stir...

I remember "stirring the pot" with Summer back in high school, when I was a staunch Calvinist and she was what I considered a hippy-dippy Arminian. The difference, to anyone who's not aware, is completely trite, even in Christian theological circles. Outside of Christian circles, it's downright insane. Summer and I (and my sister) would bicker after school in her mother's history classroom, and finally, Summer settled the argument by saying we'd find out who was right someday when one of us got to heaven first.

Now it seems Summer's win is everyone's loss.

In the end, this spring risotto tasted Summery. The lemon and mint mingled almost to a mojito-like brightness, but the garlic brought it back to a savory center. I sipped a glass of the white wine that didn't all make it into the dish.

If I didn't live several states away, I'd love to pack up this dish and serve it up in lemony ladlefuls to Summer's family members, who probably in their grief couldn't stomach a bite.

But like most dishes, especially risotto, it's not about the plated result, but rather the process, the story, the journey. 

Summer's path through life was paved with lots of love and light. Her passing just a few days into the season doesn't need to be seen as a total loss or a bitter irony. We'll make of it what we can. We'll savor our memories, Summer after Summer.

Thursday, June 9, 2011


Is there a more perfect shade of orange?
You know those 100 calorie snack packs? Add this sweet potato to your rotation. A small to medium one is 100 calories or thereabouts.

Among the staple recipes in "Passionate Vegetarian" is Crescent Dragonwagon's Basic Baked Sweet Potato (p. 810). You can bake them in advance and repurpose their rich nutrition throughout your busy work week.

At least that's what I did today. I made my morning frittata, and while the oven was still hot, I grabbed two leftover sweet potatoes from pantry storage, rubbing them in oil, wrapped them in foil and baked them for about an hour at 400. 

I don't add butter and brown sugar, which would surely triple the calorie content, because these sweets are simply sweet enough. But these orange wonders don't just pack sugar carbs, they are also rich in dietary fiber and protein, Vitamin C. They're most known for having loads of Vitamin A.

For leftovers, I suggest tossing them as a final step in this Red Lentil Thai Chili. I discovered this recipe as part of the Boston Vegetarian Society's ad on the T. Don't cook the sweet potatoes along with the lentils. Just add them to the pot with the coconut milk at the end.

I also recommend using sweets as the filling in Dragonwagon's Jazzman's Pie (PV, p. 257). It's a vegetarian twist on the classic shepherd's pie, using sweet potatoes, tomatoes, a creole vegetable saute and a dark roux. I made this amazing, wintery pie a good year before I launched "The Alison/Dragonwagon Project." I'll have to make it again when the weather turns chilly and take some beauty shots. It looks and tastes like autumn. Not fall. Autumn.

Monday, June 6, 2011

THE ALISON/DRAGONWAGON PROJECT: Basic Baked Beets, Greek-Style Summer Squash

There are two types of people: Those who love beets, those who hate beets. But the gap between these two groups shouldn't be so great. In fact, there might not be a gap at all if roasted beets got to people's palates before pickled beets ruined them.

I say this because I used to be in the hating group. Both my parents bred an intense loathing of the vegetable into our family. The image of the fuchsia-staining, salad-bar variety of pickled beets is hard to overcome.

My first taste of unscathed beets was in Paris at a Lebanese food stand. They were chopped up in a wrap full of other roasted vegetables, doused in a yogurty dressing. I liked it, but never told my parents. I figured it could be a fluke. Or just Europe.

Years later...close to a decade later, I tasted the most delicious bit of beet seated proudly on a goat cheese cushion atop a raw round of summer squash. All three ingredients were acquired locally at a farm in Georgia. I gobbled up the amuse bouche. And again. And again. The beet flavor was unlike what I had remembered from childhood, though I never dared challenge what I had been taught about the purple devils. This time around it tasted like a parsnip, raspberry and sweet potato had a threesome.

Now that I have immersed myself in Crescent Dragonwagon's "Passionate Vegetarian," I am forced to make recipes that perhaps I would ordinarily skip over. Basic Baked Beets (PV, p. 701) is one of them. Olives will be another, eventually. Guest blogger, anyone?

Dragonwagon, too, waxes philosophical on beets. She loves them, but cautions against the jarred or canned "sad-sack, limpid purple ovals." Indeed.

Her method is simple: Fresh beets, stems removed, rubbed in olive oil, wrapped in foil, placed in baking dish, roasted at 350 degrees, 35 minutes to done.

I ate the whole bulb, skins and stub of stems. I sauteed the beet leaves with a little sesame oil, salt and pepper. I flanked the plate with some of Dragonwagon's Greek-Style Summer Squash (p. 799), also delicious, especially as I let the vibrant magenta beet juice marble the dish.

I shake my head at how closed-minded I was about beets in the first place. What had they ever done to me? My dislike was rooted in fear and ignorance, for to know beets is to love them.

I've been told the French use beet juice as a food coloring for strawberry milkshakes because of some restrictions on red dye. I have historically hated almost everything pink- or red-colored or flavored, conjuring images of Kool-Aid mustaches on bratty children. But who knows? Relishing a baked beet may be the first step to overcoming these childish hang-ups.

Now if I could only eat an olive without shuddering...