Slow and Simple Cooking
Watching a video of Alice Waters preparing a vegetarian lunch, I was most impressed by her pleasure in the process. She seemed to enjoy every moment and phase of the food preparation, from selecting and appreciating each vegetable, then peeling, cutting or chopping her selections for cooking, and once they were cooked, gently plating them as steam rose from the platter.
When I remarked on this to a friend, he added that even before preparing a meal, selecting the best local ingredients for each dish was essential. When you use prime ingredients, he told me, their natural flavors can often be enough to create a delicious dish. “Sometimes,” he added, “I focus on preparing dishes with three ingredients only.”
I’m going to try that, I thought as I listened, receiving his statement as both a challenge and an opportunity. I remembered when writing “Small,” spending one evening close to Thanksgiving preparing only the cranberry sauce for the holiday meal. While I usually fussed and fumed attempting to polish off the stuffing, sweet potato casserole and cranberry sauce all at once, spilling ingredients, tripping over my own feet as I ran from one counter to the stove to the fridge and back again, when I focused on the single dish, my experience had been like a chamber music performance, slow and graceful moments, revelatory surprises and harmony.
With all this in mind, last night I decided to prepare Swiss chard with fresh and canned fire-roasted tomatoes and onions. I first chopped and sautéed a small onion until it began to caramelize, watching as the onion pieces went from opaque to translucent and then to a light brown. When the onion was nearly ready, I quartered a handful of cherry tomatoes and popped them into the pan. Then, while the tomatoes began cooking down, I separated the leaves of the chard from the center stems, cubed the stems, chopped the leaves, and tossed them onto the other ingredients.
When the bottom chard leaves began to wilt, I turned the wilted leaves to the top of the pile, noticing how the heat had already begun deepening their green. As I continued turning the chard, I began scraping the tomatoes along, which had by now begun to decompose; and the onions, which were now a lovely deep caramel color. Already, what had once been three separate ingredients had begun to meld into something other than the individual components.
Once the chard was all wilted, I stirred in a half can of chopped fire-roasted tomatoes, which quickly released a great deal of liquid into the pan. While I usually would have raised the flame to boil away the excess liquid, this time I kept the heat to a simmer, stirring the pan’s contents every once in a while to make certain all ingredients cooked evenly.
As I did this, I watched all the colors deepen, the fire-engine red of the tomatoes to a crimson red, the bright green of the chard leaves to a pine green. As the colors deepened, the sauce thickened, but while I usually consider the dish finished after a few minutes of thickening, last night I continued cooking, stirring occasionally and tasting for flavor. As the sauce continued to thicken, I added a bit of salt to enhance the richness of the emerging flavor. By now, the tomatoes were exquisitely sweet, while the chard had taken on some of the sweetness.
The rest of the dinner was now ready, but I wanted to stay with the chard as long as possible, slow cooking to elicit the deepest flavor, while making certain it didn’t burn.. I watched for the occasional bubble to rise to the surface, then pop, and occasionally I scraped the bottom of the pan to avoid burning.
Finally, the sauce thick and velvety, the stems retaining a hint of crunch, the deep-green chard leaves peeking out from the sea of crimson, the dish was ready. As I mounded it into a ceramic bowl for serving, I felt as if I had just spent a half hour meditating. And thanks to Covid 19, which offered me the time to slow cook, I had.