Leafing through

Writing is slow.  And it’s difficult.  I learned this when I was first considering authorship (I wanted to write young adult novels, and then I wanted to write fantasy novels, and then I wanted to write The Great American Novel.  And then I decided to go to graduate school).  Yet I forget this with dependable, routine frequency, and then when I sit down to write something, I’m astounded and dismayed when it turns out to be challenging.

But cooking is often fast.  And it’s not all that difficult, if you’re paying attention.  So it’s funny that I seem compelled to combine the two.  Something that is over so quickly – created in half an hour, consumed in another – takes me a week to contemplate and fit words to.  And this surprises me, for some reason.  It’s synesthetic, really.  Taking the products of senses and forcing them into words is neither easy nor accurate.  And yet if we’re going to write about food, that’s what must be done…

“Poach broccoli rabe or stemmed greens like collard leaves, then drain and chop. Combine with chopped water chestnuts and diced mushrooms in a skillet with sesame or peanut oil, minced garlic and hot pepper flakes. Cook until vegetables soften and dry a bit.”

I permitted myself a few shortcuts this week, purchasing already-sliced water chestnuts and a big sack of greens from Trader Joe’s.


1 16 oz. bag mixed cooking greens

1 small can sliced water chestnuts

2 cups chopped mushrooms

¼ cup vegetable oil

2 TB sesame oil

4-6 cloves garlic, finely minced

½ tsp red pepper flakes, or to taste

2 TB soy sauce, or to taste

I heated up a pot full of salted water and dumped in the greens when the water came to a boil.  They only took a few minutes to cook, and when the thickest stems were just crisp tender, I declared them done and drained the pot, leaving the leaves in a colander so they could drip as dry as possible.

In a large skillet, I heated up the oil while I chopped mushrooms.  I think sesame oil has a very strong flavor and it sometimes burns, and since mushrooms tend to absorb quite a bit, I thought I’d give them a mixture to sizzle in.  When their color had darkened and they had given up their moisture, I tossed in the sliced water chestnuts and the garlic.

I’ve gotten into a bad habit of turning away from the stove lately, assuming things will take longer than they do (perhaps misapplying to the kitchen what I’ve learned so grudgingly about writing?) and returning to the smell of char, so I was careful to add my cooked, drained greens only moments after tossing the garlic around the pan.  Then I tossed on some red pepper flakes and gave the skillet a vigorous stir.

Because I served this with my favorite tofu recipe, I didn’t expect the greens to need any extra salt, but when N. and I tasted we realized it was missing something.  The simple addition of a few splashes of soy sauce rounded things out perfectly.  The greens had a tender crunch that is becoming one of my favorite textures; it’s the barest resistance against the teeth and then a soft chewiness that fills your mouth – I don’t know how to properly describe it.  The water chestnuts, on the other hand, scream with texture and crispness, though they don’t taste like much.  The mushrooms offer up such rich deep flavor that I almost didn’t need to textural contrast of the water chestnuts.  If I made this again I might leave them out.  The soft tender slipperiness of the cooked vegetables made this a dish with such comfort and familiarity that I could have eaten the whole pot on my own.   Easily.  Quickly.  Nothing like writing.

If writing is slow, for me, eating is like reading.  Both are acts of consumption: the words leap into your brain from the page and you must digest them to find their meaning.  The food slips into your mouth and lends flavor, nutrition, sustenance.

I’ve always done both more quickly than I should.  But when it tastes so good, what else can you do?

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