I’m back in the kitchen.
Mind you, l’espace cuisine in my little artist’s studio in coastal California is more like a sailboat’s galley. It’s decidedly a one-person space. The cooking alcove—which closes off behind folding wooden doors—does have a certain charm, and it feels very Old World to me. The impression is generated not only by the snug dimensions but the narrow, Euro-style gas stove/cooker similar to what I had in France, and the way-too-small-to-be-American fridge; it’s also the old-fashioned wood cabinets, low beamed ceiling, the two vintage art-deco glass shades shaped like tulip bulbs, and the stained glass doors of the dish cupboard. If I wasn’t looking out at a New World landscape, I could almost be back somewhere in Europe. Almost.
It’s a cozy little space. There are moments when working at the small tiled counter between the sink and the stove, feeling cramped, that I almost feel like I am back at culinary school in Paris and trying to create the day’s cuisine (or patisserie). Except that I’m not elbow to elbow with fellow students in chef’s jackets, all wearing our silly caps and cravate tied around our perspiring necks—and the kitchen temperature is not sweltering hot from ten ovens ablaze. Also, there’s no pressure to get my creation done right or in a certain (read, French) way. Too, there’s the fact that I’m looking out a window to an ocean view framed by gracefully windswept evergreens.
Honestly, the small gas range with its four burners is a thing of joy for me. In my nomadic wanderings and rented houses, I have long since resigned my fate where ovens are concerned, and I’ve suffered through far too many electric cookers, new and old. I detest them all, even the modern flat ones. All things being equal, I’ll always choose the house/kitchen with the gas range, thank you.
As if it were not good fortune enough to be in this charming little sanctuary for a stretch of my journey, it has a gas stove, and I’m generally inspired to cook something on it daily.
The other day, after a long morning spent working on ‘Book 2’ and then several hours seeing bodywork clients, I came home feeling utterly tired and hungry, which is seldom a good combination for inspiration of any sort. I had intended to do some grocery shopping after work but when that moment finally arrived, I decided that I simply wasn’t up to the task. I trusted that I could rummage around and put something together at home with a few odds and ends.
The day had been misty and cool, a definite note of autumn in the air, and as evening descended in soft tones and hues, I decided that I wanted something warm and comforting. Opening the storage cupboard, I considered the various glass storage jars of grains, pulses, beans, and whatnot. Briefly I eyed the three usual contenders: quinoa, millet, and buckwheat—all of which are seeds rather than grains, alkalizing for the body rather than acid-forming, and in the Ayurvedic healing approach, each of them warming and balancing for a cool and damp Kapha constitution such as mine. I sighed, uninspired. Behind the front row, pushed up close against the stone ground polenta, the plump, pearly arborio rice softly called out, You want risotto.
Rich, warm, creamy and comforting, the classic rice dish always seems like perfect cool weather fare to me. I pulled the jar from behind the others and set it on the diminutive countertop.
I opened the fridge to see what sort of options might be to hand, and to be sure that I had an onion. There is usually a knob of Parmesan to be found (along with a wedge or two of various cheeses). There is always butter in the house, and wine—a lingering effect of attending culinary school in Paris. Nigel Slater, my favorite British cookery author writes in one of his dear-to-my-heart cookbooks, “I get a bit twitchy if there’s not wine in the house.” Amen, Nigel, but I’ll still chalk it up to living in France.
I considered the stock or broth required and hesitated. I haven’t cooked a chicken since being in this recently acquired studio, so there was no proper stock. At home in Hawaii, I’ve got homemade chicken broth in the freezer, a stash that gets replenished regularly. Not here. A couple of organic vegetable bouillon cubes would have to suffice. (For the record, only the veggie ones are any good; the others taste artificial and impart an unwelcome, cloying flavor to any dish. Please don’t bother with them.) A risotto cooked with veggie stock, even one made from scratch at home, never quite has the unctuous, velvety satin finish of one crafted with a proper chicken broth. Tired and hungry, I decided there was no sense being fussy or proud about the stock (I’ll save that for something else, somewhere). Veggie cubes so be it. Sorted.
In autumn, I’m fond of a nice butternut squash risotto, sometimes spiked with pungent sage. Or a risotto of roasted beets. I‘ve been known to roast butternut and beets both, separately, and then either combine them in the finished dish or split the nearly cooked rice into two pots, adding beets to one and squash to the other, and serving the ensuing crimson and golden risottos side by side in a dish, which looks stunning. Alas that I had neither of those good things in my empty kitchen. I peered once more into the barren wasteland of the fridge, as if something might magically appear to give my meager risotto any extra pizazz. No such luck. Empty is… empty.
Sitting lonely on the top shelf of the fridge, however, was the squat, hinged-lid glass jar with the remainder of the Moroccan green charmoula from two evenings before—a bold, gutsy sauce of garlic, capers, anchovy, toasted cumin, black pepper, a pinch of cayenne, olive oil, and fresh green herbs that I had pounded up using my Provençal mortar and pestle. (The North African sauce had topped a nice piece of pan-fried local rockfish, alongside some fresh green beans.) I considered it for a moment, tasting the flavors in my mind, and decided, why not. Risotto in our house stopped being anything close to ‘traditional’ at least fifteen years ago, and given that we don’t eat pasta, I value the classic rice dish for its versatility and ability to gracefully incorporate a wide range of ingredients (not necessarily all at the same time)—even if what finds its way into the pot is seldom ‘classic’.
I put on some music by a favorite female jazz vocalist, lit the various pillar candles on the stone hearth, then stepped back into l’espace cuisine and poured a glass of white wine for myself. I plunked a couple bouillon cubes into several cups of water to bring to the boil, set the bamboo cutting board on the small counter space and chopped the lone, organic onion that had been lurking forlornly in the fridge drawer. Cut into tidy squares, I tipped it into the pan where a bit of olive oil and a small pat of butter were warming, and a pleasant sizzle and familiar, enticing aroma rose up to greet my senses.
After the onion softened to a glistening translucence, I added the arborio (carnaroli makes far better risotto but have difficulty finding any that is organic). Stirring for a minute or two to coat the grains with the hot oil and butter, I added a gurgling, happy slosh of the Oregon Pinot Gris, and as the rice absorbed the wine, I settled contentedly into the easy ritual of adding a ladle full of broth, one at a time, stirring each until it is absorbed before adding the next.
I’ve done this for so many years, making risotto in a wide variety of pots and pans and kitchens, there is something deeply comforting, calming, even meditative about it. When my mate and I have resided in cooler, temperate locales, risotto has often been a weekly supper in the cold months of the year. It is a dish so deeply ingrained in my bodymind that it requires almost no conscious thought, yet still deserves my attention and care—appreciating the goodness of each element that goes into the pot, scattering quiet blessings over the steaming surface as I work, and stirring them in.
Feeling a genuine tiredness in my body, I grated the lump of Parmesan and gazed out the little porthole of window, noting the shifting hues of the sky and the cove’s waters as evening descended. A long day already, it seemed, but comforting to be in the kitchen preparing a simple supper to feed my bodysoul in a welcoming, nourishing manner.
On a whim, I turned from stirring the rice and opened the spice cupboard. Peering inside at the few, select offerings I keep on hand, I flirted briefly with adding a good dash of pimenton ahumado, my favorite Spanish smoked paprika (they range in heat and pungency), for a hint of intrigue alongside the herby charmoula. What caught my eye instead was the small jar of Spanish saffron threads. I tossed a good pinch of the precious russet stamens into the hot rice, where they quickly began to bleed their glorious golden hue, and that indescribable, hypnotic and ancient scent that is azafran rose up to seduce me.
When the bright yellow, fragrant grains had absorbed all the broth and its texture was right, I dumped in the grated Parmesan, a small knob of butter, and then four heaping tablespoons—all that remained—of the herb charmoula, and stirred it all together. The golden rice was flecked with green and with the alchemy of heat, the garlic and other ingredients in the Moroccan sauce offered up another intoxicating Mediterranean aroma to swirl with that of the saffron.
I transferred a good amount of creamy rice to one of the deep French bowls I have here at the cottage, and dusted it with a wee bit of the Parmesan. Gathering a soup spoon and linen napkin, I carried my meal and cutlery outdoors to the little rusting bistro table in front of the cottage. I made a quick return for a light jacket and my current favorite scarf, along with my glass of wine, and then sat down to my simple meal steaming fragrantly before me.
The flashing sea rolled and churned in a timeless low chant, its briny scent wafting through the shapely trees, and I opened all my senses wide to the quiet evening around me. Counting my blessings. Missing my partner and dogs. Appreciating the fresh air and beauty that enfolds me here, content in my cherished solitude, and oh so ready for a bit of supper at the end of a long day.
Tasting the risotto, my eyes rolled back in my head. Oh la la, it was just that good—the subtle but exotic note of the saffron underscoring the herb flavors of the charmoula, coupled with the creamy warmth of the rice. Bold and lusty, like a culinary hustler. I ate it slowly, savoring each mouthful, marveling once again that a meal so modest, frugal even, could be so deeply satisfying. And though it was an entirely different taste, setting, and season, the gustatory moment was somehow not unlike the one I experienced a few months earlier with the fresh goodness from the roadside stand, and shared in “A Bowl of Peas” (click the title to read; opens in a new window).
How do we feed the soul? It’s an ongoing question and exploration in these posts—and my own life. I have written repeatedly about the act of cooking itself (you can find those posts jumbled under the ‘Slow Food’ category of the archive), how being in the kitchen can offer its own soulful nourishment even apart from the actual food. Most of us tend to view preparing a meal as a necessary task rather than a creative ritual, or wish that someone else would do it for us, especially when we are tired and uninspired. Yet choosing to commit to an act that nourishes us in some primary way, whether literal or metaphorical, is a keystone for a life of deeper meaning, appreciation, and contentment.
Maybe cooking isn’t one of those ‘rituals’ for you, gentle reader, but here’s hoping that you find something in your day, even when you are weary and lackluster—perhaps most especially then—that opens your senses and feeds your bodysoul in some deep, essential manner. We can exist on very little (and most of us have way too much), but only when we are nourished do we thrive. Let your focus be on nourishment… and savoring. Like gratitude, it can transform your moment and the day.
Whenever possible, may you share with that goodness with others. If we touch just one life in a positive fashion, made someone else’s day a bit brighter through what we bring and offer, we have succeeded in a key aspect of life’s journey—and if bodymind and senses are open in the process of that giving, we move closer to a deep state of ensoulment. And grace.
May we all be fed on such a deep level.