Dust flies everywhere when I mow the lawn. It does, at least, when it hasn’t rained for a month and I give in to the convenience of ridding the lawn of dandelion seedpods by taking the mower for one noisy half-hour spin.
Every year I think I’ll live up to our “Pesticide-Free Zone” sign in the yard by gouging weeds from the lawn, using nothing but elbow grease and a dandelion weeder. Though we abide by the sign’s proclamation, the question is whether we do it well. This year, like every year before, the lawn and the strips of grass that buffer the space between the sidewalk and the curb were sprung with a sea of calamitous, puffy seed heads by the end of August.
I didn’t even try to mitigate the neglect by transferring the seedpods gingerly to a plastic bag. I ran over them with a lawnmower instead, spraying myself with dry dirt in the process, and the lawn with ten thousand seeds. Ah, well. As the saying goes, sometimes done is better than good.
Sometimes, but not always. A quick-and-dirty grilled cheese sandwich has its place. But a good slogan for chores shouldn’t be applied to minestrone or puff pastry. Cooking is best when it can inhabit the moment. Fully, like dough expanding to fill the bowl.
In her memoir, The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry, Kathleen Flinn learns to cook by diving, paring knife first, into her studies at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. Starting out, she’s intimidated, pained by her inability to properly fillet a fish. But as her story progresses, she concentrates more, worries less. She learns through the physical acts of slicing and skinning. At one point she lugs a bunch of ingredients home and makes puff pastry until she can feel the rightness of the dough in her hands, confident that it will turn out every time. By the time she’s cooking for her final exam, she’s “striving for Zen” while other students crack under the pressure. This is the kind of cook, and the kind of person, I’d like to be.
Flinn discovers a flip side of intensive personal effort when she’s confronted with massive quantities of wholesale food during a visit to Rungis, the 570-acre Paris market, prompting her to ruminate on excess and the art of paying attention:
In some way, vast quantities render themselves meaningless. It reminds me of a folktale: An emperor walks with his court through many fields of roses until they come to a barren spot. There, he sees one rose. ‘It’s the most beautiful rose I’ve ever seen!’ the emperor cries. Those walking with him point out that he’d just been through a field of similar roses. ‘Yes, but this one I can see.’
An ability to home in on one important thing – one rose on the edge of a dusty hack job of a lawn, the absence of salt in a pot of broth – makes it possible to live a moment. Too much distraction and I’m stuck in the morass, trying too hard to make it all work. When I read that Flinn no longer worried about her puff pastry, it was the turning point in the book for me. That is what it takes to excel, I thought. It’s practice, yes, but also a mindset that allows a person to settle in and try. It’s the luxury of losing fear to the point that you aren’t aware of its absence. And that’s a good way to enter into pastry, a walk in the woods or celery soup from scratch.
Creamy celery soup
The giant, leafy bunches of celery available this week
caught my eye. This soup is a dairy-free version I made
to satiate my carnivore-turned-vegan husband. I made
the cashew cream the day before using a high-powered
blender, according to Tal Ronnen’s recipe.
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 bunch celery, stalks sliced to yield 2 heaping cups
1 carrot, sliced
2 large shallots, peeled and sliced
3 large cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup sherry
4¼ cups vegetable stock
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 large celery stalk top, leaves attached
2 bay leaves
2 Yukon Gold or other thin-skinned potatoes, diced, skin on
½ cup cashew cream
In a medium saucepan, warm olive oil over medium-low. Add celery and carrots and sauté for 5 minutes. Add shallots, stir well to coat and sauté the mixture for another 10 minutes until vegetables are limp but not brown. Stir often to keep the shallots from browning.
Push mixture to the side and add a little more oil to the empty side of the pan. Add garlic to oil, mix and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
Combine garlic and the rest of the vegetables in the pot, turn the heat to medium and add the sherry. Cook for two minutes, until sherry is almost evaporated.
Add stock, thyme, top of celery stalk, bay leaves and potatoes. Turn the heat to high and bring to a gentle boil. Turn the heat to low, cover and simmer until potatoes are soft, about 10 minutes. Taste and add salt, if needed.
Using a fork or set of tongs, remove celery stalk, thyme sprig and bay leaves from the pot. Purée the soup with an immersion blender (you can also transfer to a stand blender) until thick and smooth.
Stir in cashew cream and heat through. If the soup is too thick, add more broth until the consistency is right. Taste and correct the seasonings.
Spoon into bowls and garnish with a dollop of cashew cream, olive oil, sea salt and a fresh sprig of thyme.