So my affair with agnolotti is apparently not over. A few beets and the remainder of the zucchini from my recent co-op box left me thinking of a way to use them up and use them together, and a ravioli seemed the natural solution. A quick search on Google confirmed that, as multiple hits for beet ravioli came back. While at first I thought I would just slice the zucchini to serve with the agnolotti, I soon remembered Marc Vetri mentioning zucchini as a substitute for the corn in the crema recipe I used for my steelhead trout. It was the perfect sauce for a beet ravioli with poppy seeds that I found on the Food Republic website, a recipe that they got from the CIA’s book “Pasta.” I made a few adjustments and used my own egg pasta recipe, and things turned out pretty well. A decent 2011 Pio Cesare Arneis played nice as a companion.
This recipe calls for braising the beets instead of roasting them to get them tender enough to blend. The method is to first sauté a diced medium yellow onion with 4 chopped sage leaves in 2 ounces of unsalted butter. When the onions become tender (about 4 minutes while stirring occasionally), you add 1 1/2 pounds of peeled and diced beets along with 1/2 cup water to the sauté pan, bring to a simmer, cover, and cook until tender. This took longer than the recipe for me, around 40 minutes. But the results were great. I let the vegetables cool a bit before blending, and to prevent having an overly wet pasta filling, I drained the blended mixture in a sieve lined with cheesecloth.
This step also kept me from having to use bread crumbs to potentially thicken the filling, as the recipe suggests. Another ingredient I left out of the filling was the egg yolks. I just went with the 3/4 cup grated Parmesan, 1/2 cup fresh ricotta, 1/2 tsp finely grated orange zest, and kosher salt and white pepper to taste. Those ingredients were added to the beet mixture and combined in a bowl with a wooden spoon.
I made egg pasta sheets, doubling my recipe. With a batch this size, I used my stand mixer with a paddle and then the dough hook before finishing the kneading by hand. Folding the agnolotti is getting a little easier with practice, but it is still a time consuming process. I set the cut agnolotti on lined baking pans, sprinkle with semolina, and put in the freezer to harden before transferring to ziplock bags to be stored in the freezer for later use.
For the sauce, I used 3 cups peeled and diced zucchini sautéed with half of a diced onion in 2 tbsp olive oil, stirring often until tender. Next, I added 1 cup water and 1 cup heavy cream to the pan, brought the mixture to a simmer, and cooked covered for 10 minutes. The mixture is blended with a tbsp olive oil and seasoned with sea salt and white pepper. I also prepared asparagus by trimming and blanching it. All of these can be made in advance, storing the sauce and asparagus in the fridge and the agnolotti in the freezer. When ready to cook, get a pot of salted boiling water going for the agnolotti, and put about 1/2 cup (or more if you like) of the sauce per serving in a sauté pan over medium-low heat with asparagus tips (again, use an amount to your liking). Cook the agnolotti until they float, drain, and then add them to the sauce and asparagus, carefully coating them. You don’t want the delicate pasta to tear. I served the agnolotti sprinkled with poppy seeds, and a little remainder of the pasta filling and freshly chopped sage in olive oil and freshly cracked black pepper as a garnish on the side of the dish with flake sea salt. The addition of the sage oil as a garnish helped to add a little more herbaceousness to this sweet-tending ravioli.
In cooking, I often take inspiration from failure. This was the case for a recent dinner I made in celebration and thanks for my brother being in town to show his documentary film and to meet with my students. The menu that I composed arose from my love of reacting to what looks fresh at the market and also my obsession with transforming previous debacles into successes. The culprit this time was a terrible dish of pan-seared sea scallops with a lifeless rutabaga purée that I cooked for Holly and myself a few weeks ago. Why rutabagas? It was a whim. Unfortunately, the purée was seriously lacking in flavor and its texture was off. The scallops were prepared fine, but I realized that I only ever seem to pan-sear them and line them up on a plate with some sauce. The way I used them was a failure of imagination. Deciding to cook a meal for my brother gave me the opportunity to get revenge on those culinary flops.
I have a friend who gives a kind of motivational lecture about writing poetry in which he insists that you have to permit yourself to fail spectacularly in order to create poems that have vitality and urgency. Of course this is for the drafting process, where you perform the work of risk and error that will eventually lead to the finished poem. It’s a hard analogy to make with cooking if we take a single meal as the comparison. When I screw up a meal, I may be able to adjust and salvage as I go along, but if not, the meal’s a bust. The “drafts” I create in cooking are those previous meals with all their successes and disasters that eventually inform new dishes, new menus. It’s important for me to have these trials and errors, and not only because repetition helps in training for technique. They are also essential to developing your palate and culinary repertoire.
Maybe the analogy here is closer to what I heard another poet say recently about his creative process. He said that he likes to think of writing poems as something similar to the “Danger Room” of the X-Men comics. You’ve got to treat a draft as a place where you can safely practice your powers without the fear that you’ll irrevocably ruin the world around you. I wouldn’t recommend approaching every meal in this way, but it is important for me to have those in-between meals, those experiments and spectacular failures that end in exciting transformations.
My desire for a new way of preparing scallops led to poaching, although I have to admit that a crudo crossed my mind first. The rutabaga purée became a rutabaga-celery root-bleu cheese purée. Definitely an improvement.
The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo just left town, and in honor of its exodus, I cooked a batch of chili. It’s a version I’ve been making that is inspired by living in Texas, but it is definitely not “Texas chili” by any purist’s standards. In a roundabout way, it was Texas barbecue that opened my mind to the possibilities for chili, more specifically the benefits of slow-cooked beef. I’m a Midwesterner, so I have some experience with the provincial oddities and kitsch that accompany state fairs. Even so, I was still surprised at the spectacles and excesses of the rodeo. My initiation to the rodeo actually happened with a surprise. Years ago, on a Saturday morning, I woke to what I thought was a maniac loose on the street, screaming beneath my window. However, when I pulled up the blinds, I saw a stream of riders on horses and wagons, while an emcee in cowboy gear announced their names through a microphone. It was then I discovered I was living at the epicenter of the rodeo parade route.
The biggest surprises were still in store for me when I actually attended the rodeo. The runner-up has to be the chicken fried bacon, a delicacy out of Yoakum and Snook, Texas. Yes, I did eat it gratefully. But the blue-ribbon surprise goes to mutton bustin, an honorable tradition of putting toddlers in hockey helmets and life jackets and then placing them on sheep to see how long the kids can hold on while the sheep run. I remember a lot of tears and a lot of bewildered joy.
Moving to Texas was full of cultural discoveries like these, many of them inspiring ambivalence like my rodeo experiences did, yet, there were some unequivocally enjoyable surprises, like breakfast tacos and Texas barbecue. In Minnesota, if Mexican food was served for breakfast, it was usually some version of a bland flour tortilla rolled around eggs and cheese, dolloped with store bought salsa. Barbecue meant bratwurst and hamburgers if you were at home or the cabin. If you went out to eat, you might get pork ribs or chicken. I didn’t even know what beef brisket was before moving to Houston, and I regret all of those lost years. Same goes for real tortillas, flour or corn, and the genius of mixing eggs, salty meats, and cheese together to serve with those tortillas for breakfast.
Searching around for chili recipes a few years ago, I landed on the controversy over Texas chili, which some aficionados claim must be chunks of beef with chili paste made from dried chilies. Tomatoes usually aren’t welcome; beans, never. Looking at pictures made me think of chopped brisket, or my other favorite slow-cooked cut, the short rib. Since I’m an outsider and don’t need to be a Texas chili zealot, I could experiment. Giada De Laurentiis has a recipe for short rib chili that appealed to me, and it suggested serving it with polenta, which just made me think of Frito chili pie, so I had to try her version. I’ve since tweaked the recipe, substituting Young’s Double Chocolate Stout for the instant espresso coffee and dried chipoltes for canned, plus skipping her use of chocolate and adding tomato purée. I serve the chili with regular creamy polenta and spicy coleslaw.
“‘Yes…’ that peculiar / affirmative. ‘Yes…’ / A sharp, indrawn breath, / half groan, half acceptance, / that means ‘Life’s like that.…’” So Elizabeth Bishop describes a habit of speech from Nova Scotia in her poem “The Moose,” and it’s true. This particular verbal gesture, this custom of saying “yes” as if swallowing it, or it’s consuming you, and not necessarily a response to any question, but simply a way to let the person you are speaking with know that you’re listening, that you’re with them, you’re there, this peculiar “yes” was one of the surprises for me when I visited the province. I was also surprised to see a moose, multiple moose, in fact, but unlike Bishop’s moose, the ones I saw were on Cape Breton. The biggest shock was not the discovery of a “sweet / sensation of joy” at the encounter with the “grand, otherworldly,” and curious creatures. No, it was the herd of not-so-brilliant humans getting out of their cars and playing paparazzi, and being just as reckless to everyone involved, beasts and bystanders included. We had come to Nova Scotia to visit Holly’s relatives, but with the additional intentions of seeing the place Bishop had mapped so descriptively in her many Nova Scotian poems and to learn to like eating fish. More precisely, cooked fish. To help with that, we booked a few days at the end of our trip in the south end of Nova Scotia at the Trout Point Lodge. This idyllic, luxury hotel specializes in local seafood, with preparations paying homage to the Acadian history of the province. It’s a beautiful retreat, perched along a river surrounded by woods, and the wonderful flowers and vegetables from the gardens will end up on your table.
“From narrow provinces / of fish and bread and tea, / home of the long tides” is how Bishop opens “The Moose,” with that generative, propagating, localizing preposition, “From,” and the poem begins its cinematic sweep. Like a tracking shot in a movie, a single sentence carries us across a landscape over six stanzas, telescoping down from a bird’s-eye view to join a journey in progress, where “a bus journeys west,” the main clause of the sentence that finally arrives after we’ve been held in suspension for twenty-five lines. It’s a breathtaking sentence, and though Bishop travels west, presumably from her childhood home of Great Village, following along an inlet of the Bay of Fundy and tributaries, “where if the river / enters or retreats / in a wall of brown foam / depends on if it meets / the bay coming in / the bay not at home,” before she turns north to New Brunswick and her moose, Holly and I travelled west, too, but then south, on the North Atlantic Ocean side. While the Trout Point Lodge fish-fest didn’t quite take, I did learn a little something about the Acadian style of cooking, particularly some techniques for incorporating the holy trinity of onion-celery-green pepper with your roux in making gumbo. Yet the biggest culinary surprise on that trip to the province “of fish and bread and tea” was the Cape Breton tea biscuit. Every home we stayed at had their own version of this tasty cross between a flaky, buttery biscuit and a scone. The relatives who graciously opened their doors and guest-rooms to us also generously made Cape Breton tea biscuits to have in the morning with jam and butter and coffee. I devoured them gratefully over our conversations around the table. Morning can have its own form of “dreamy divagation,” and the scene on Bishop’s bus is a social one not distant from the hearth or family table, hosting its talk of “names being mentioned, / things cleared up finally; / what he said, what she said, who got pensioned; // deaths, deaths and sicknesses; / the year he remarried; / the year (something) happened.” When I discovered the biscuits at the ubiquitous Tim Hortons as we drove across Nova Scotia, I couldn’t resist them.
The first thing we did once getting back on the main road to Halifax after our stay at the Trout Point Lodge was to stop at Tim Hortons where I purchased a few of their ham and cheese variety. When we returned home, I decided to test my ineptitude with baking by making these biscuits for myself. I was craving them. I was able to get some help from the family, fitting for the spirit of these biscuits. I’ve been making these biscuits ever since. Modified a little from the family secrets, here is the recipe.
Cape Breton Tea Biscuits:
2 cups flour
2 1/2 tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
1/2 cup cold, unsalted butter
1 cup buttermilk, or substituted with 1 cup skim and a tbsp. cider vinegar
Sift the dry ingredients together and place in food processor. Add chilled butter (I place mine in the freezer for about 30 minutes), and pulse 8-10 times to combine. Remove mixture to large bowl and add the milk. Combine, but don’t over-mix. Roll out on a floured surface, and cut out biscuits with a round cookie cutter. Bake on a lined, rimmed sheet at 425 °F for 10-12 minutes. Cool on rack. This makes about a dozen biscuits.
When I was over halfway through writing the poems for my first book, I had the opportunity to participate in a reading, and I chose a selection of what I considered at the time to be my best—or at least favorite—work. A mentor of mine was in the crowd, and afterwards when everyone was hanging out and complimenting the readers, as happens at those things, he had some nice words to say to me, and then mischievously added, “a very avian reading.” Um, so it turns out I wrote a lot about birds.
I’m sure on some level I was aware of it, but I wasn’t painfully aware of it until that moment. I didn’t—and don’t—regret the flocks, the bevies, the congresses and murders and murmurations of birds populating those poems. I needed them at the time. Which is another way of saying they were an obsession. They had become for me a way of talking about some of the themes of that book. Birds were a vocabulary I adopted (and, yes, perhaps a rather conventional or at least traditional one) to express the transactions between an interior life and the external world, for the challenge of trying to capture a present tense that is always winging into the next present moment, for the anxiety over this here mortal coil, and the nostalgia for something transcendent. And in my aesthetics at the time—a kind of meditative poem that makes excursions into a representational report of the world around its lyric speakers—those birds made perfect sense. Yet, once I was aware of that reliance, I had to make the decision to keep trying to perfect and rejuvenate that vocabulary or to move on if I felt it was merely habit at that point. I moved on.
To put things into perspective, here’s a little obsessive inventory. In The Currency, the word “bird” or bird-related terms, including species names and words like “feather” and “wing,” appear twenty-eight times. In my new manuscript, which is nearing its final stages before publication, such words only appear fifteen times, and eight of those occur in a single poem, the most recent one I’ve written for the book. The words “bird” and “birds” were used thirteen times in writing The Currency, but in the five years since I finished it, I’ve called on those words only four times for Pax Americana. Part of this shift was a conscious reaction against complacency, but it’s more complicated than that. With new obsessions, I needed to find new symbols in order to communicate.
Here’s some additional counting: in The Currency, there are eighteen references to visual art. In Pax Americana, there are four. The Currency alludes to three films (and I mean “films” with all its pretentious baggage). Pax Americana alludes to or directly names seven “movies,” seven television shows (with multiple nods to Joss Whedon, Alias, and HBO series), news casts, and a YouTube video. Writing (in the form of poems, letters, philosophical and biographical texts, etc.) comes up sixteen times in The Currency, but there are forty-four references in Pax Americana (including a Wikipedia entry). It appears that I’m still using poetry as an interpretive act, but I seem more interested in how we organize our lives into language than I am in finding those meanings in the tableaux of paintings. I also find I’m reaching towards a larger range of experience.
Obsessions are often the working out of an idea, and they last until the vitality of that search settles into habit. An obsession in a poem can also be the way a poem is made. Every poem is an expression of what a poem can be. Eventually, you might just be writing a poem because, well, that is how you know a poem is made. If you’re honest with yourself as a poet, you’ll ask why you’re making a poem the way you are. When you stop being able to answer that question compellingly, it is probably time to look elsewhere for a new set of images, symbols, and structures, so a new vocabulary.
I’ve been thinking about cooking lately in these same terms. It’s as if the dishes I’m cooking and the ingredients and methods I’m using are a vocabulary for me to express what a dish can and should be. The notion of “should be” is an ever-evolving one. What seems necessary today won’t necessarily be so tomorrow. Sometimes I land on a preparation or flavor that I enjoy so much or that has a potential that has eluded me, and so I obsessively use it. Experimenting. Tweaking. Until it becomes a routine. Just a tired iteration. There was a time when what signified a side dish was a pile of roasted carrots and parsnips. Then, there was the age of the Brussels sprouts. For a while, purées of English peas cropped up regularly. For the past three weeks, I can’t stop making ginger scallion noodles. Besides, it would be a shame to let these leftover ingredients in the fridge go to waste.
Obsessions in cooking, along with their leftovers, can attract new discoveries, like a planet accruing satellites. The vegetables remaining from Valentine’s dinner sent me off to Nippan Daido Japanese Market in west Houston. They also encouraged me to try my hand at making a dessert. Thanks to the Eggs on Sunday blog, that dessert attempt was a success, and I now have something in my repertoire to complete an entire meal, from first course to last.
For Christmas, I received David Chang’s Momofuku cookbook. It’s a beautiful object in its own right, with its clean cover and nice heft, its great photos, and the book’s packed with incredible and inventive recipes and cooking tips. It also contains a compelling narrative, a memoir-ish, manifesto-esque meditation on craft and ambition, on tradition and innovation, and David Chang projects an ethos of unpretentious dedication to making relentlessly tasty food. What he says about his take on ramen could be a mantra for the book: “the most important thing is that you make it delicious, not that you make it exact.”
I could transpose William Carlos Williams’s dictum—“If it ain’t a pleasure, it ain’t a poem”—into the question: “If it ain’t delicious, why are you making it?” What connects the best crepe I ever ate, the savory Cuban at the Flip Happy Crepes Airstream trailer in Austin, and the best meal I ever ate, one at Grant Achatz’s Alinea? They were both ridiculously delicious. I rarely visit New York, but last year on a brief trip (like 36-hours brief), I ate at David Chang’s Má Pêche, and the food didn’t have to sacrifice tastiness to be inventive. I’ve spent the last month hoping I’ll be infused with some of that inspired cooking by experimenting with the Momofuku cookbook.
I can’t claim to have the attention span to work from cookbooks or to strictly follow recipes. Usually, I just use them for hints about technique and handling ingredients or for flavor combinations, but I don’t go off script because I think I’m exercising my right to be creative, à la Billy Madison drawing a blue duck because he’s never seen a blue duck. There are the more practical impediments of not having all of the necessary equipment or ingredients that come with the amateur home-cook’s kitchen and pantry. To get anything done, you’ve got to adjust. You’ve got to react to what you have. Or as David Chang reminds us, “Be resourceful.”
There’s a challenge in that, and that challenge is actually the source of innovation and creativity for me. This is much the same for poems as it is for cooking. The challenge can be local to the circumstances of preparing a specific meal or working with a particular bit of language; however, it may be more global, such as the tension between the new and the old, innovation and tradition.
Of course, a very immediate reason for innovation is novelty. We hate being bored. Surprise and whimsy are valuable for enjoyment, for being reawakened to the substance, the fact of something, whether it’s food or language. Roman Jakobson said of literary language that it is “organized violence committed on ordinary speech,” which is not because poets are sadists. Rather, literary uses of language can rejuvenate language’s meaning-making potential. To arrive at that requires that you challenge your and your readers’ assumptions.
David Chang is not afraid to question his assumptions. I love what he says about his transformation of traditional dashi—a broth infused with katsuo-bushi (dried fish flakes) and konbu (kelp)—into bacon dashi, which substitutes smokey bacon for the smokey fish flakes. Chang writes, “We respect tradition and we revere many traditional flavor profiles, but we do not subscribe to the idea that there’s one set of blueprints and everyone should follow. I think that in the questioning of basic assumptions—about how we cook and why we cook with what we do—is when a lot of the coolest cooking happens.” He didn’t have to completely reinvent the notion of dashi, but he did question the purpose and composition of it. The result of that willingness to question himself is this versatile and flavorful iteration of dashi. According to Chang’s narrative, it was a lack of available katsuo-bushi that led him to his innovation, but the solution is one that makes sense not only for him but for the American kitchen where bacon holds a consistent if not fanatical place. Bacon dashi seems so spontaneous but inevitable.
This kind of innovation holds sympathies with my thinking about the creative process in general. The appearance of something new and exciting in poetry doesn’t appear from nothing and doesn’t have to be completely unrecognizable when it arrives. I wouldn’t question my assumptions about what makes a poem a poem by presenting you with a toaster. The following Kenneth Burke quote has been helpful to me in thinking about innovation. He had this to say about John Dewey’s ideas on novelty in art and philosophical pragmatism: “The artist says, in substance: ‘I make the exhortation in the terms of what has already been accepted. Once these terms are accepted, I can go a little beyond them. But I shall argue only for my addition, and assume the rest. If people believe eight, I can recommend nine; I can do so by the manipulation of their eightish assumptions; I need not justify my nine by arguing for one.’” David Chang’s bacon dashi seems to me like a good example of manipulating some eightish assumptions.
Yet, when innovating, food still needs to be delicious, and a poem still needs to move you.