Humble Fare

Writing a dissertation is a humbling experience.  The quantities of research required, the demands on time and mental health, and finding out how much you don’t know about what is supposed to be your area of expertise are all staggering.  Most recently for me, comments from my adviser and a recollection of how comparatively little time I have to research, draft, write, and polish the thing have kept me all but scraping the earth with my forehead.

This week’s Bittman played into this humility topos:

“71. Add chopped scallions and chopped kalamata or other good black olives to cooked and drained white beans.  Dress with white wine vinegar, olive oil and fresh thyme, marjoram or oregano.” 

Not only did this sound refreshing, filling, and ridiculously easy, but it allowed me to work on another area of life in which I feel humbled: the garden.  With another reluctant spring almost over and me still questioning whether it ever arrived in the first place, I haven’t had as much time to devote to the brave little sprouts forcing their way through the cold chunks of clay and silently suffering slug attack as I would like.  One variety, however, needs no assistance from me.  Two years ago I planted some oregano in a square planter and set it next to the herb bed.  It thrived.  One year ago, we put in a sprinkler system and forgot to connect a dripper to the oregano’s box.  It died.  This year when I ventured out for the first time in March to see how things were looking, there was oregano everywhere except that box where it was originally planted.  This salad, then, seemed like the ideal way to start getting things back under control.  A few stalks uprooted is doubly productive: dinner for us, a more orderly space for the garden.  If only the dissertation were that easy!  I used:

1 16 oz. can white kidney beans, rinsed and drained

½ cup kalamata olives, roughly chopped

4 green onion stalks, chopped (I saved the white bulbs for another use)

2 TB chopped fresh oregano

2 TB white wine vinegar

2 TB olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

(¼ cup grated parmesan cheese)

While our smoked chicken sausages sizzled in a pan, I literally dumped all the ingredients into a bowl, tossed it lightly, and gave it a taste.  When using only Bittman’s suggested collection it seemed to be missing something, so I added a shower of cheese.  Sun dried tomatoes, or capers, or fresh tomatoes, or torn arugula, or even crisp crumbles of bacon, would also make nice additions.

The finished salad was simple and satisfying, and had all the right tastes and textures.  The beans were creamy and soft beneath their slightly taut skins, the olives were a blast of brine, the onions had just the right astringency, and the oregano lent a spicy, earthy warmth.  The parmesan was just that final sprinkle of richness and somehow bound things together.  Pushing outside of the suggested ingredients and adding one of my own took this from a decent side dish to a salad I want to make over and over, adjusting the seasonings and the aromatics and the herbs every time, so it is fresh and exciting with each new taste.

It’s funny that even humble fare, when you give it due consideration, has flashes of zesty tangy brightness: a bite of olive, a splash of vinegar, a crumble of parmesan.  It makes me feel warmer about the dissertation experience.  If this simple salad – creamy and earthy and nourishing and salty – can have glimpses of piquancy, perhaps my project can as well.  I just have to keep experimenting with my ingredients.

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