The Way We Stir


You will be happy to know, I’m sure, that the chocolate came out of my jeans. I gave them a quick scrub over the utility sink, then plunked them into the washing machine with hot water, and poof, like magic, the disaster disappeared. I would have sat on a chocolate truffle sooner, had I known it could make my laundry room smell like Willy Wonka’s without considerably altering my wardrobe.

I think it worked because I was patient. I didn’t come right home and start scraping the stuff off, see. First, I folded those second-hand Sevens neatly and balanced them on top of our bedroom door, where they cured for a few days, airing out a bit in the breeze. Only then, when it got annoying to always have the dog sitting in the doorway, gazing up at them with a soft stream of spittle sliding out the side of her mouth, did I take them downstairs.

That is patience. It’s something my fortuneteller recommended.

Ah, yes, I have a fortuneteller now. Did leave that part out? I met her in West Virginia, in a gilded room with another guy looking for guidance and entertainment. She’s a woman with The Gift. (They shall both remain nameless, lest the Internets affect said powers, but for the record, they’re both food writers.)

Really, she reads runes. (I hadn’t heard of them either. It’s not quite fortunetelling. More like forecasting.) My understanding is limited, but runes are essentially ancient glyphs, descendents of the Greek alphabet and precursors to the modern letter. In the old days, centuries or so ago, runes spread across Europe with Christianity, and soothsayers, so said my runereader, used the glyphs as a divination tool, primarily for agricultural purposes. You know, when do we plant the corn?

These days, when you have your runes read, it’s a little more whimsy and mystique, a little less practicality. She asked me to think of an issue in my life, and explained that I’d pull three stones from her sparkly bag, each of which would be marked with a symbol. I’d set them symbol-side down on the table, then read them, right to left, by flipping them over one at a time. As I turned them, she leafed through her little divination book, and I was enlightened.

It was almost that easy. First, I thought really hard and scrabbled my tiles out onto the table. In the spot designated to describe the present, I flipped a Fehu, symbol of wealth and cattle. It’s a sign of hope and plenty, success and happiness. Next, a stone predicted action for the present: Tiwaz, the warrior rune, represents a willingness to self-sacrifice and the ability to know where one’s true strengths lie. My “future” tile was Kenaz, reversed, meaning lack of creativity and false hope.

It doesn’t matter what I was thinking about. Not to you, anyway, because to me, it all made an obscene amount of sense, the way she told my story, even my future, through these stones. She leveled me with a soft gaze, and said “Jess, I recommend you go home, and get a little sticky note. Write the word “patience” on it, and stick it to your computer.” And while I knew that even she saw the whole thing as some sort of parlor game, that in no way was I to go home and expect to turn wealthy or cattle-like or into Xena: Warrior Princess, I did feel a larger meaning in her words.

So here it is, the new mantra I’m working with this week: Patience.

On Saturday, I took it into the kitchen. I found myself wishing I had my fortuneteller there again, that her kaleidoscopic little bag could tell me what to make for dinner, but the point of the whole reading, I think, is to trust your instinct. How else could she be so accurate?

So I stared. Just opened the refrigerator door, squatted down in front of it, the way you do when the refrigerating half is on the bottom of the operation and your back gets tired from leaning in, and waited. My husband muttered something about the energy bill, but a few minutes later, there it was in the pot, a big white tangle of unscented nothingness, destined to become rich, sweet onion-fennel jam.

The hallmark of caramelized onions is the patience required to make them. Hopped up high on the memory of my last tart, I toasted fennel seeds in oil, sliced onions until I cried (I don’t care how sharp my knife is – I always cry), and tossed in a mangled mass of fennel. (Really. If you’re going to melt fennel and onions right past the caramelized stage and into jam, how could it matter if the pieces look perfect?)

Then, I was patient. I puttered and stirred, made a phone call, and stirred while I talked, made a grocery list, and stirred, never leaving the kitchen. What I didn’t do – and what I hate doing – is the housewide stirring dance, the body-slamming hip-hop piece I’ve gotten too good at. It goes stirinthekitchen-typeintheoffice-stir-type-screamattheclock-run-scrape-stir-stir-type. There’s nothing melodic or hypnotic about stirring like that, and really, I find it much more fun to cook to a more mellow, consistent beat.

When we got hungry, the jam was still busy jamming, so I pulled the pot off the heat and joined friends for dinner. The next day, I kept stirring.

Making onion fennel jam

Eventually, after the onions and fennel became indistinguishable from one another and the house filled with their candied, earthy fragrance, I decided the last of the vegetables’ liquids had simmered away. I dunked hearty, whole-grain bread into the toaster, and piled the mahogany mass into a glass jar. We smeared the jam onto the toast for lunch, and I licked it right off the spoon, wondering if a food could taste like time.

I felt a little grateful for my jam – not in the sense of saying grace, but because for once, I’d been able to stand there at the stove, more or less, and just stir. Patiently.

When I write recipes, I use a certain vocabulary: Stir frequently. Stir continuously. Stir vigorously. New, to me, is this: Stir patiently.

Caramelized Onion-Fennel Jam

Caramelized Onion-Fennel Jam with Patience (PDF)
It isn’t imperative that you cut the onions and fennel perfectly here, or that you actually moor yourself above the pot to stir constantly, but the further this sweet, fragrant jam cooks down, the stickier it gets, so don’t forget about it. Smear it on toast or sandwiches, or if you’re feeling daring, scoop it onto vanilla or olive oil ice cream for dessert.

TIME: 2 1/2 hours, start to finish
MAKES: about 2 1/2 cups

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
3 very large onions (about 3 pounds), halved and sliced 1/4” thick
2 fennel bulbs (about 1 pound, trimmed), cored and sliced 1/4” thick
1 teaspoon sea salt, plus more, to taste
Freshly ground pepper

Note: I save my fennel fronds – the tops – and stir them into things, chopped like dill, wherever a soft, fragrant herb seems appropriate.

Heat a large, heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. When hot, add the oil, then the fennel seeds, and stir for 30 to 45 seconds, until toasted and fragrant. Add the onions, fennel, 1 teaspoon salt, and a bit of freshly ground pepper. Stir to lift the fennel seeds off the bottom of the pot. Cover and cook for 30 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes or so, then uncover, reduce heat to low, and continue to cook, stirring patiently, for another 1 1/2 to 2 hours. The jam is done when the onions and fennel are a rich brown color and almost all the liquid has evaporated from the pan. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve warm, or keep in the refrigerator, in an airtight container, up to 2 weeks.


Filed under appetizers, gluten-free, recipe, vegetarian

7 responses to “The Way We Stir

  1. Meg

    I always MEAN to save the fennel fronds, but then I end up forgetting, chucking them, and regretting it. It sounds as if this jam might go quite well on a piece of cheese (like a manchego, maybe?), but since you’ve tasted it and I haven’t, what do you think?

  2. YES, this jam would be awesome on a piece of cheese. I just smeared it on ciabatta with a few slabs of Cirrus, a local Camembert-style cheese from Mt. Townsend Creamery, but it would be great mixed with bleu cheese and walnuts, like a bruschetta topping, or stuffed into a chicken breast with goat cheese . . .the possibilities are endless!

    Save your fronds – I got a plan up my sleeve.

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  4. SAWII

    I have runes at my house whenever you need an update on your future!

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  7. kate

    ‘stir patiently’…THIS will be my new mantra for as long as I can patiently and mindfully keep it in the forefront of my thoughts. patience and mindfulness…there’s some connection between these, isn’t there? stir our thoughts patiently (and maybe we’d nag our spouse less frequently, or hurt feelings less often). I like it Jess, thank you!

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