Food for Hard Times


Greens used to be the vegetable of the poor. My Depression-scarred grandparents adored them and passed that love on to me. In the fall, my grandfather plowed up our vegetable garden and sowed the field in turnips. By early November, we would have not only turnips, which kept for months, but also the turnip greens. My grandmother would preserve them by cleaning, blanching, and freezing them, so they too would be available throughout the winter. We also relied on collards, which are in season right now. (We got some lovely batches in the last few deliveries of our CSA.)

Greens make me think of my grandparents, and I’ve been wanting to talk to them a lot lately: “Are you as worried as in 1929 as I am now? Do you think this is going to be as bad?” This morning I woke up and actually thought I should give them a call, then realized they aren’t available anymore. All I can do now is cook the foods they ate when times were hard–even if they now show up in stores whose prices would have sent my grandparents into apoplectic shock.

I’ve shared one recipe for greens on this blog (Hulga’s Vegetarian Collard Greens), but was shocked in perusing my archives that I haven’t featured more. So here’s one from last week that will give you something to do with your fall vegetables.

Butternut Squash and Collards with Penne (2 large servings)

1/2 pound penne pasta
1 medium butternut squash (can substitute any fall squash, including pumpkin), stem removed, halved lengthwise, and seeds scooped out, plus 1 tsp. olive oil for roasting
3 cups collards with stems, chopped (turnip greens, mustard greens, or kale would probably work too)
1 tbsp. olive oil or 1 cup chicken stock for sauteeing
1 large onion, quartered and sliced thin
4 large cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp. crushed red pepper (add more or less to taste)
2 – 3 cups chicken stock
Salt to taste
Grated Parmesan cheese for serving
NOTE: Save seeds from squash to roast, either for garnish or a snack

1. Preheat oven to 350. Baste halved butternut squash with olive oil. Place cut side down on jelly roll pan or cookie sheet. Roast for 30 minutes or until soft.

2. Meanwhile, saute onion in olive oil or chicken broth in large skillet on medium high heat until translucent. Add garlic and stir. Add collards, crushed red pepper and salt. Turn heat to low and cover. Cook on low heat, stirring every 5 minutes or so, for about 15 minutes. Turn off heat and set aside, covered, until squash is done.

3. Put salted water on to boil and cook pasta according to package directions. Drain.

4. When squash is done, scoop out of skin and add to collard mix. Add 2 cups chicken stock. Stir together. Continue to add stock in small amounts until squash has reached consistency of thick tomato sauce. Mix with pasta in large bowl. Serve with grated parmesan cheese. Garnish with roasted butternut squash seeds if desired.

Roasted Butternut Squash Seeds

Preheat oven to 400. Rinse squash seeds and remove most of flesh. Spread out between two cloth towels and pat dry. Place in small bowl. Add 1 tsp. olive oil, salt to taste, and stir. Spread on jelly roll pan or cookie sheet and roast for 15 minutes or until lightly brown.

So Much Going On . . .

I have been so busy trying to put together a panel today on sustainable agriculture at Duke Divinity School, which employs me, that I did not even think to publicize it in this blog. It was a lively discussion about how better to feed the poor in this country while improving our agricultural practices. The upshot: We need policies to fight poverty, not just food banks to plug up the holes that exist. And we need to develop economies that will make healthy, fresh foods available to all, not just those who can afford to buy local, organic produce.

Panelists were Mark Winne, author of Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty, and Divinity faculty members Norman Wirzba and Ellen Davis, both of whom write on ecology, agriculture, and the Bible. (Ellen’s new book, Scripture, Culture, Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, will be out next month.) These are authors worth reading, and a subject worth discussing, especially in the land of Whole Paycheck.

Love at First Sight

The Federal may now have a rival for first place in our culinary hearts. We met our new love at the end of a couple of hours spent looking at houses yesterday. (We continue to labor under the delusion that we can afford to keep our still-unsold house in Atlanta and buy one here too.) Too tired to cook, we stumbled into Rockwood Filling Station (2512 University Drive), Durham’s new “Neapolitan Pizzeria.”
We were seated outside in the warm night under the full moon. I was happy despite being a sartorial wreck, clad in not terribly clean flip flops, jeans, and a tank top, with my wispy, flyaway hair pulled back in a ponytail. The only consolation was that the jeans were my skinny ones, which are comfortable now for the first time in 8 months.
The menu was promising–an array of pizzas much like those you see in Italy, which you would certainly hope for and expect in a place that bills itself as authentically Italian. And then our waiter came to tell us about the specials.
“First off, we have arancini, which are fried risotto balls . . . .”
I couldn’t believe my ears. “Arancini?” I said. “That’s kind of unusual. Isn’t that a Sicilian dish?”
My waiter seemed pleased and no doubt surprised at this remark from the poorly dressed woman with the bad hair. He smiled. “You win the prize! You’re the first person tonight who knew that.”
I went on, ever the good student eager to show the teacher that I knew the answer but pretending I was talking to Fred. “Yes, ‘arancini’ is Italian for ‘oranges.’ They’re called that because the fried risotto gives them a dimpled appearance like the outside of an orange.”
“That’s right,” the waiter said.
I waited expectantly for the “prize.” A free martini would be ideal, but a gold star would do. None being offered, I made do with the arancini themselves.
They were prize enough. I’ve been eager to sample this dish since my friend Rocco, my expert on all things Italian, told me about them on a trip to Rome a few years back. But I never saw them on the menu then or in a subsequent trip back to Italy, and never in the U.S.
This being my first time with arancini, I can’t say how they would compare to what you’d get in Palermo. But these were wonderful–crispy and tender all at once, like a perfect hush puppy, if hush puppies were lumpy and made with cheese. These had mozzarella and a few other things that neither Fred nor I can remember; we ate them too fast. They were served with a spicy marinara sauce, which nicely offset their creaminess.
My entree was the pizza special–arugula, truffle oil and Parmesan, done perfectly. There was so much arugula it kept falling off and just enough truffle oil to offer its indescribably rich and heady undertone without overwhelming everything else. We also threw caution and weight watching to the winds and ordered fried calamari, which included some whole ones with their tender little tentacles as well as the typical rings. The breading was delicate and crisp, flavorful without being spicy. Poor Fred, who ordered it despite my harrumphing about how fattening it would be, ended up getting very little.
We were also pleased by the mid-range prices. Our meal, including one glass of wine and one beer, was $44 with tip. Of course, if we do end up buying one of these houses, we’ll never be able to eat out again.
P.S. I’m a bit late on the Rockwood review bandwagon. Carpe Durham and Delicious Durham have already posted entries that have generated a lot of comments. But whatever kinks were there in the first few weeks, I think they’ve started to work themselves out.


My confidence as a cook was somewhat restored last night when I used my Ranney Ranch soup bones in what I can only call Un-Split Pea Soup. (I don’t offer a recipe, though, because while the beef was good, the recipe itself still needs work.) These tasty little morsels consist of a bone (obviously) surrounded by about three inches of meat. This time I kept it simple–searing the soup bones in a little olive oil, sauteeing with onion, adding garlic and then soup ingredients. The smell of the meat cooking in the pot was heady, with a slight undertone of something else–cloves, perhaps, or New Mexico grasses, or maybe just a memory of home.

I also discovered that the ranch offers a recipe for arm steak on their web site. It does not call for smothering the meat in bad barbecue sauce.

As for the Un-Split Peas: These were acquired on our trip to Food World (home of the mysterious and delicious little peppers I have yet to identify). I was excited to try them. They were labeled “whole dried peas,” and they consisted of small, yellowish-green pods that I imagined would puff up slightly, like black-eyed peas, and might make an interesting addition to a salad.

It’s probably pointless to go on. You know how the story went–the slowly dawning realization during cooking that the pods looked an awful lot like peas, only dried; the wonder at how quickly they were softening; and the final burst of insight upon tasting them: “Whole dried peas. Oh yes. Split peas, only . . . not split.”

Culinary Disasters

Our rut continues, but even in the midst of our doldrums, we have lost a collective 27 pounds–14 for Fred, 13 for me. The reason may lie in some spectacular culinary failures in the last couple of weeks, which go a long way toward keeping portion sizes under control.

The worst resulted in the sad destruction of a pound or so of arm steak from Ranney Ranch, owned by a colleague from Duke. Ranney Ranch raises “grass-finished” beef, and having grown up on a beef cattle farm, I was looking forward to trying it. But from there, things went downhill.

As far as cooking arm steak is concerned, I had the same amount of experience as someone who’d never accidentally stepped in a “manure pile” by accident. (It happens, you could say.) I suspect that this cut ended up as “ground beef” (which my grandfather adored) when we sent out our own calves to the slaughterhouse. So I was left to scour the internet for cooking ideas, just like anyone else.

My research led me to conclude that a long marinade or braising was the cooking method of choice, since arm steak tends to be tough. As usual, I had no patience with the idea of marinading overnight, so braising it was. Knowing that Ranney Ranch is in New Mexico, I also thought that Mexican spices would be appropriate.

If I’d left it at that, things might have been okay. But after adding chipotle, and salt and pepper, and vinegar (to reduce the gamey taste of the meat, I theorized), and then deciding to throw in tomato, and chili powder, and cumin, and coriander, and brown sugar, and God only knows what else, and then searing it on both sides, and then cooking not quite long enough because it was approaching 9:30 p.m., we were left with some tough meat floating in a sea of what amounted to mediocre barbecue sauce.

I have since learned that grass-finished beef is best cooked simply so that the flavor will stand out. Unfortunately I’m out of arm steak.

In a Rut

Many thanks to those of you who have offered restaurant suggestions to include in our next Barbecue Taste Off. We are looking forward to trying them.

The Taste Off has been the bright spot in the bleak landscape of our culinary life. Cooking has degenerated to a sad post-work effort to get food on the table before we fall into bed at 10. Our meals consist of various combinations of onions, garlic, and random vegetables sauteed in olive oil and chicken stock served over pasta. We are, however, in the middle of an interesting experiment to determine the effects of eating a chicken roasted after thawing on a countertop for twelve hours on a warmish day. So far, we’ve had nothing to match the raw seafood consumed in London on our honeymoon, which demonstrated the depths of our commitment to each other “in sickness and in health.”

I blame fall. We continue to receive tomatoes, eggplant, and cucumbers from our CSA, but the thrill has worn off as the flavors pale with the waning of the sun. We’re in that liminal space between the heady delights of peaches and the rich flavors of butternut squash. We’re in that sad, brief time when we realize how achingly beautiful and painfully short life really is.

Even the cicadas are nearly gone.