Oh, it seems like it’s been forever since we talked. I mean, since last week, things have happened.
I watched an entire football game, for goodness’ sake. Me, anchored to the couch by my neighbor’s pulled pork sandwiches and those cursed, blessed salami-cream cheese rolls. (Try it: Roll genoa salami around a baton of cream cheese. That’s it. But buy a limited amount of salami, because you will eat all you make.)
I read a book, a moving, educating, inspiring page-turner of a story, called Three Cups of Tea, which filled my heart with a feeling I haven’t had for a long time: It’s that warming sensation you get when you find out someone’s doing something really, really good for humanity, and that maybe you should pitch in, too. (If Super Tuesday’s got you down, give it a read.)
I was also introduced to pulla, a family of cardamom-scented Finnish pastries filled with quark and fruit, and made no fewer than 48 of them in the quest for the right recipe. We’re talking 48 hand-sized Danishes. Only, pulla are Finnish, so you can’t call them Danishes. For some reason the Danes got the jump on the Finns in the pastry department, which is too bad. I think it would make much more sense to call those dense, doughy gems Finnishes instead of Danishes. Because, really, what do you do? You finish them. But apparently pastry history isn’t rewritten to fit American writers’ preferences the same way political history is sometimes, so I’m out of luck. Finnish Danish it is.
Anyway, when I sat down at this here computer, I was going to tell you how healthy I’ve been, Finnish pastry and salami comas aside. Last week, I had arugula and chickpea salad for lunch all week, and mornings have been filled with oatmeal and smoothies and Grape Nuts, my rediscovered favorite. Yogurt and quinoa and wheat berries and greens have all been strong players in this here household, and I’ve been going to the gym, and all that does a body good.
But then I remembered that I’ve been sick, too, these last few days. Stuffy and sniffly, woozy and cold, just plain sick.
Oh, you say. That’s too bad.
It’s not, though. It’s the first time I’ve been sick in four years. I’ve felt rotten, for sure – sore, or tired, or nauseous, or achy, or all of the above, but since I launched into a regimen of immunosuppressants in late 2003, I’ve been too darn suppressed to show the symptoms of the common cold. No cough for four years, except the occasional snarf. It has felt downright inhuman, not to cough.
But I’ve lowered los drogues enough for my real, unfuckedwith immune system to shine through for the first time in four years, and you know what? It’s still alive. (Sniff.)
It’s emancipating, really. I don’t expect you to understand, but there’s a soft, blanketing comfort I’ve felt, just in the wanting for chicken soup. Just reaching for a Kleenex, like a normal person.
But what was I saying? Oh, yes. Healthy. I wanted to tell you about being healthy. But then there was the pulled pork, and the salami rolls, which means that my perceived health kick is . . .well, hogwash. Especially considering that I’ve also been yearning to tell you about my three little pigs. Three former pigs, actually, but they might as well be alive, for all the squealing they incite around here, stuffy nose and all.
The weekend before last, I was serenaded by the smell of sausage at Wooly Pigs‘ stand at the farmers’ market, and came home with a $16 pound of bacon.
I’d picked it up, knowing it would be at least double the cost of grocery store bacon, and probably more than my prized Skagit River Ranch bacon, and handed it over before the $16 price tag knocked the air out of me. But by the time I started breathing again, I’d already put the bacon in my bag. Talk about commitment.
Thankfully, it was worth it, every last penny. Bacon this good deserves an altar. And as we savored it, piece by glistening piece, I developed a fantasy about actually saving the earth by eating pork so rich that you only really need a piece or so. Needing less bacon equals needing fewer pigs, equals ranching less land, equals growing more trees, equals . . .but waitjustadarnsecond, that sounds a lot like the path to vegetarianism. Who am I kidding? I really just like bacon. But it was a good fantasy while it lasted.
Little piggie #2 came in the form of jam:
Yup, bacon jam: the unholy concentration of a pig’s worth of bacon into a jar that fits in the palm of my hand. It’s made by the guys at Skillet, and it makes one hell of a spread for a golden, cheesy panino piled with leftover sauteed kale. It’s Marmite for America’s palate, and I am an addict.
Piggie #3 came from that trip to Salumi, in the form of four 1/4″ thick pinwheels of pancetta:
Their thick, silky fat ribbons queued up patiently in the fridge, curled tight, waiting their turn to bounce around in the pan.
Just when I realized I’d drowned myself in a lust for all products porcine (wait – did I forget to mention I tasted Landjaeger for the first time recently?), I realized I’d planned two consecutive dinner parties with friends who didn’t eat pork.
For a minute, yes. I’d made such a long list of things to do with the pork products in my refrigerator that I’d developed tunnel vision.
But pig wasn’t the only thing I’d picked up at the market – there were turnips, a celery root, carrots, and parsnips, waiting patiently for their turn in the oven, and that fat stash of fingerling potatoes from the fall, and a tangle of thyme in the bottom drawer. I roasted the root vegetables to a golden, crispy brown, stewed them up in a rich, fragrant dried mushroom broth, and made a vegetarian stew.
There, I thought, satisfied. I am capable of living without pork.
By the time our friends arrived, the stew was rich and earthy, just the sort of comfort a storm-rattled Seattleite needs in early February. But as I was topping the stew with puff pastry to turn each bowl into a bottomless root vegetable pot pie, I cracked. Out came the pancetta, and the knife, and a hot pan. I seared up a two thick slices’ worth of diced pancetta, and secreted them into the meat eaters’ bowls.
So pick your own adventure: Make vegetarian pot pies, as below, or spike them with squealer. Either way, you’ll have a darn good dinner.
It’s a doozy of a shopping list, but when it all comes together, with a rainbow of roasted root vegetables tucked into a rich mushroom broth, topped with Parmesan-flecked puff pastry, it’s worth it. The stew itself takes some time to put together, but you can make it a day or two ahead and warm it to room temperature on the stove before sliding the bowls into the oven. And if the idea of a vegetarian pot pie doesn’t sit well with you, stir a quarter pound of diced, cooked pancetta into the stew when you add the roasted root vegetables to the pot.
TIME: 1 hour active time
MAKES: 4 servings
1 ounce dried assorted wild mushrooms
5 cups boiling water
3/4 pound celery root (1 medium), peeled
1/2 pound turnips (2 medium), peeled
2 carrots, peeled
2 parsnips, peeled
1/2 pound fingerling potatoes, scrubbed
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 large shallots, thinly sliced
1 large leek, finely chopped (or 1 bunch baby leeks)
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
8 ounces sliced crimini mushrooms
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons cornstarch
Tabasco, Cholula, or other pepper sauce, to taste (optional)
1/2 package (1 sheet from a 17-ounce box) puff pastry, thawed in refrigerator
1 egg white, whisked with 1 teaspoon water to blend
1 1/2 cups finely grated Parmesan cheese
Place the dried mushrooms in a medium bowl, add boiling water, and set aside to soak.
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper, and set aside.
Chop the next five ingredients into 1” pieces and transfer to a large bowl. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, and season with salt, pepper, and the thyme.
Mix to blend, and roast on the prepared baking sheet for 30 to 40 minutes, until browned and soft. Set aside, and reduce the oven temperature to 400 degrees.
Heat a large, heavy-bottomed soup pot over medium heat. Add the remaining tablespoon of oil and the butter. When the butter has melted, add the shallots and leek, season with salt and pepper, and cook until soft, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. Add garlic and sliced crimini mushrooms and season again, then cook, covered, for 5 minutes, or until the mushrooms have given off their liquid.
Meanwhile, scoop rehydrated mushrooms out of the water, saving the mushroom broth. Finely chop the mushrooms, and add to the soup pot. Cook and stir another few minutes, until no liquid remains on the bottom of the pot. Add the flour, and cook and stir until a brown patina forms on the bottom of the pan, another minute or two. Increase heat to high and begin adding the mushroom broth a cup at a time, stirring and allowing the broth to come to a simmer and thicken between additions. When all the broth has been added, whisk the cream and the cornstarch together until smooth, then add to the broth, stirring until the liquid comes back to a simmer. Add the root vegetables, simmer for 3 minutes, and season to taste with salt, pepper, and a few drops of the pepper sauce. (The goal here is to boost flavor, not to actually make the pot pie spicy.)
To bake, divide the stew between 4 large or 6 smaller ovenproof bowls arranged on a baking sheet. Cut the puff pastry sheet into 9 squares, trimming off the wrinkled parts where the pastry was folded (you will need the second sheet of pastry if you’re using 6 smaller bowls). Brush each square with some of the blended egg white, and shower with a layer of Parmesan cheese.
Place 2 pastry squares on each bowl, allowing the pastry to hang off the edges of the bowl, and bake 25 to 30 minutes, until the pastry is puffed and golden and the stew is bubbly. Serve warm.
Note: If you let the pastry overlap in the center, as shown below, it won’t puff as well – try not to let the layers overlap.