Ricki Cooks the Book – Tender

IMG_1930So I got Tender: A Cook and His Vegetable Patch, by Nigel Slater, last year, and it is lovely. It’s divided into chapters by vegetable and has beautiful pictures of vegetables in and out of the dirt and in and out of their dishes. Each chapter opens with a little dissertation on the vegetable, and then there is a section on growing that vegetable, “A (vegetable) in the garden,” with helpful hints and annotated list of favored varieties, and a section on cooking that vegetable, “A (vegetable) in the kitchen,” with a few paragraphs on what to do with the vegetable, followed by a list of its best pairings, and then a list of helpful hints and suggestions. Then each vegetable gets a few recipes, and then on to the next.

But the best part about Nigel Slater is his prose. He’s so evocative, so delightfully descriptive, and so poetic, that it elevates even the concept of cooking and gardening, not to the latest third-wave feminist, privileged white girl trend (and look, I know, I AM  third-wave feminist privileged white girl), nor to some sort of quasi-libertarian hipster-mustache-tattoo-post-90s-masculinity thing (and I say this having eaten at Blokes and Birds on Friday), but to high art. Like, for instance, I have no love of the celery root, but here’s what he says:  “Knobbly, whiskery, and impenetrable, its roots curled around its feet like a viper’s nest . . .” Like, hot damn.

What about this comment on health-food stores?

To this day I wouldn’t go anywhere else for my lentils and beans, though I can live without the crystals and self-help manuals. There is something endlessly reassuring about their rows of cell0phane-encased dates and haricot beans, their dried nuggets of cranberry, and jars of organic peanut butter. And where else can you get a incense stick when you need one?”

Love, is what I’m saying. Love this man.

So what I ended up making, from this 600+ page tome, is:

A light touch for meatballs

That’s not a typo; all the recipe titles are like that.

Here’s how he starts:

Late spring, 2007. Six small beets, round as golf balls and not much bigger, arrive in a thick brown paper bag, its edges sewn together with string. The air of moist Riverford soil and sweet roots wafts up as the bag is torn open, but the day is leaden with damp and cold and I have rarely felt less like eating a beet salad.

Good lord, y’all.

So these are meatballs made of lamb, beets, and cracked wheat. Weird. And delicious. As usual, I offer the recipe, with my changes/commentary.

Ingredients:

fine or medium cracked wheat – 1/2 cup (75 g) (Available from bulk bins at Whole Foods as well as health food stores, I imagine.)

raw beets – 9 oz (250 g) (Don’t bother paying more for the pretty ones for this recipe. It’s all being grated up.)

a small to medium onion (I didn’t realize I didn’t have any, so I used some shallots.)

ground lamb – 14 oz (I might have gotten a whole pound; I can’t remember saying “14 oz” to the butcher, as that would have made me feel like an idiot.) (Oh, and don’t get to the store and be like, “That’s how much lamb costs?! Never mind, I’ll just make it with beef.” The lamb flavor is important here.)

garlic – 2 large cloves, or even 3, crushed (Seriously. 2-3 cloves? I put in a whole head. Maybe, like, 2/3 of head. Probably a whole one.)

chopped dill – 2 heaping tablespoons (Okay, so here’s what happened. I bought fresh dill from Whole Foods. Even though I don’t like dill. Because Nigel Slater said dill and I wanted to trust him. But I seriously hate dill. By the time I got it home, it had stunk up everything in my grocery bag. Then everything in my fridge. The smell was making me nauseated. So I tossed the dill. I feel terribly wasteful but I really couldn’t take it. So no dill in my recipe.)

parsley – a small handful, chopped (I always use flat-leaf. You can do as you see fit.)

a little peanut oil

For the dressing:

cucumber – about 1/3 of a medium one

mint – the leaves from 4 or 5 sprigs, chopped

capers – a tablespoon (He didn’t say to, but I chopped these, too. I thought that would be better.)

yogurt – 1/2 cup (200 g) (I hope I don’t need to explain, but this means plain yogurt. Greek or Finnish if you like. But no, like strawberry or banana.)

Directions:

1. Put cracked wheat in a boil, pour over enough boiling water to cover, then set aside to swell. (Okay, so, typing this, I see now that he did say “boiling”. My water was not boiling. Which is perhaps why my cracked wheat didn’t swell as prettily as it did in his picture. Maybe it would have tasted lighter if it had.)

2. Peel beets and onions and grate them coarsely into a large bowl. (So, a) You need to know that peeling your standard red beets is a messy business. Don’t wear white. Don’t smear your hands on your clothes. Wash your hands thoroughly afterwards. b) “Coarse grating” = “the large holes on the box grater”. c) I didn’t use onion, so I just chopped my shallots. But I like in general the practice of grating onions.)

3. Add ground lamb, dill (if using), parsley, and “a generous grinding” of s&p.

4. Squeeze water from cracked wheat with your hands (Yes, kind of gross) and add to meat. Mix everything thoroughly and then form into patties about the size of a flattened golf ball. Cover with plastic wrap and chill for 1 hour.

5. Preheat oven to 350F. Make dressing by grating the cucumber coarsely (big holes on the box grater). Leave in a colander for a half-hour, sprinkled with salt. Squeeze dry, then mix with mint, capers, and yogurt. Season with salt and pepper. (I’d totally add lemon to this next time. Just saying.)

6. Lightly brown the patties in peanut oil in a skillet on each side. (I may have over-browned some of them.) Lift into baking dish and finish in the oven for 15-20 minutes. (Mine took 20.) Note: The red of the beets will make it tough to tell if the meatballs are done by look. You’ll have to taste. Which will be such torture.

So then you serve the patties with the cucumber yogurt dip and it’s super-delicious. It’s a light meal or a heavy snack. I would totally make them again. And Jason loved them.

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