There is often a solitude to writing. It's the delicate scratch of pen on paper, or the glowing hum of a computer screen, against all the noise and words rattling around my brain.
Before I get to that stage of quiet chaos however, I talk out my ideas. Sometimes to others but also to myself, in the car, driving around alone on errands and whatnot. When I used to commute to work daily, the 45-minutes-each-direction trip was often when I did my best thinking. The length of the journey gave me enough time to work around the stumbling blocks in the way of what I was trying to say. Hearing the words somehow made them come across differently — they were clearer, the thoughts fully realized. The only trouble with those drives is that 45 minutes worth of chatter was a lot to remember until I could get home record it all. What's more, is that I don't have those drives anymore.
Now I reply on the former option as my preference, working through ideas in collaboration. Speaking thoughts out loud when there's actually someone to hear them makes you seem less eccentric, true, but also makes the process that much more enjoyable, and more fruitful. There's the opportunity to learn from another's perspective, and that usually leads to something better. That better happens most often when I shut up and listen. In some cases, it can lead to soup.
My friend Aran, currently nominated for both a James Beard Award and Saveur Best Food Blog Award, is a stylist, photographer and writer, and the creator of the site Canelle et Vanille . You've surely heard of her work, and probably her book as well, since Small Plates and Sweets was released late last year with much-deserved accolades.
Aran is as giving as she is talented. And it is her generosity regarding not only her skill, but also her viewpoint, that sets her apart. Raised in the Basque Country, she grew up in her grandfather's pastry shop, and trained in culinary school. Later she moved to the United States, working in professional kitchens, and marrying. She now has two children, a boy and a girl. It was only relatively recently that Aran and her family began a gluten-free lifestyle, which inspired a new definition for her home cooking that she shared with her readers.
What that dietary change has brought is not a cold, prescriptive view on eating, and while the book is gluten free, it is not presented as a defining characteristic per se; rather her cooking style is rooted in a passionate desire to feed herself and others soulful, satisfying food, food that happens to be without wheat. Many of her dishes are naturally or classically gluten free, like macarons or her beef stew, and those that aren't use the same, fairly common, alternative flours repeatedly, so that it isn't difficult to source the ingredients or slowly build up a gluten-free pantry. It all amounts to a gentle introduction to Aran's way of living, one absolutely in the realm of doable for day-to-day meals.
What's more, her recipes are drop-dead gorgeous, full of colour and texture. They are refined and feminine, just like her, yet with a welcoming charm. Her heritage informs many of her tastes; there is a marmitako (a Basque fish stew) flavoured heavily with paprika, a couple of Spanish tortillas, her grandmother's robust garlic soup, and a classic arroz con leche perked up with lemon zest. As you'd imagine with her upbringing and schooling, she excels at desserts, but her savoury dishes have are often scene stealers.
The pea shoot pesto from her book is a particular example of that. It is straightforward, simple and lip-smackingly-good. Blended with almonds, and thick with Parmesan and olive oil, the pesto is intensely fresh; we've had it on soup, in an adapted take on her bocadillos, which my four-year-old declared "awesome" (page 111), and I had some on my eggs this morning alongside dollops of fresh ricotta. I honestly believe it could make cardboard taste good.
The soup into which we swirled that pesto was actually from the Winter chapter, even though the pesto was from Spring. (The book is divided into seasons, with sweet treats following the savoury small plates in each.) The soup was written with a different pesto, one spiky and sharp with dandelion greens. Our spring is dallying; there are blossoms, but still a need for cardigans and I'm drinking more hot tea than usual. It was because of these cold days that I found myself flipping between the two sections, vacillating between the wintry soup, a roasted leek and cauliflower one, and a creamy fennel and spinach from spring. I chose the former for my husband, and chose the pea pesto to acknowledge that it is, in fact, April.
I am hoping that Aran won't mind me taking that liberty, as it was her that made me think of it in the first place. Throughout Small Plates and Sweet Treats she mentions substitutions, and links recipes to others, in a chatty way that shows how her recipes are not meant to stand alone. As you spend time any time with the book, Aran's overarching skill with flavour combinations is obvious, and what's more is that it is harmonious. The chapters and dishes flow together seamlessly, making it easy to pick and choose based on whim, or interest, or fickle weather.
Small Plates and Sweet Treats is a gem. It inspires me to look at recipes in a new way, to cook outside my usual, and it is her brilliant use of a variety of grains and cereals that I've found myself incorporating into our routine, time and again. Aran imbues all her cooking with vibrancy, suggests pairings that had never occurred to me, and has particular opinions on something as simple as red beans, which makes me wonder if I have one too.
Hers is an inspiring voice, and one that I'm happy to have for company.
Thanks for all the conversations, friend. xo
ROASTED CAULIFLOWER + LEEK SOUP WITH PEA SHOOT + ALMOND PESTO
From the book Small Plates and Sweet Treats: My family's journey to gluten-free cooking (Little Brown and Company, 2012) by Aran Goyaga.
This soup is aromatic, supple, and mild in a way that is soothing — not at all bland. It has presence without demanding attention. Pea tendrils are the basis of the pesto, which is more than a garnish, rather an integral component as well. The raw, grassy shoots offset the mellow roasted vegetables, and the aroma of the fresh garlic in the sauce is brought out by the warmth of the soup. It makes for a bang up combination. As noted, this soup was originally served with a dandelion green and hazelnut pesto, and the pea shoot pesto was to dress ricotta gnocchi; for reference, the recipes appear on pages 99 and 156, respectively.
The recipe here is as written in the book, with my notes following after.
Serves 4 to 6
For the pea shoot and almond pesto
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1/3 cup (40 g) slivered almonds
- 2 cups (60 g) pea shoots, tough stalks removed and chopped
- 1 ounce (30 g) Parmesan cheese, finely grated
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup (125 ml) olive oil
For the roasted cauliflower and leek soup
- 1 medium cauliflower (1 pound or 450 g), cut into small florets
- 1/2 medium leek, cut into large rings
- 1 medium yellow onion, diced
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 medium russet potato, peeled and diced
- 3 cups (750 ml) chicken stock
- 1/2 cup (125 ml) unsweetened coconut milk
- 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
Make the pesto. Place the garlic and almonds in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until the almonds are finely chopped. Add the pea shoots and process into a paste. Add the Parmesan, salt, and pepper. Pulse one more time. Add the olive oil in a slight stream while the processor is on and process until a smooth paste forms. Scrape down the sides and mix well.
TIP: If pea shoots are not available, watercress or spinach would be a great substitute. The pesto can be made in advance. It will keep in the refrigerator for up to 5 days or frozen for up to 1 month.
Make the soup.
- Preheat the oven to 375ºF (190ºC). Toss together the cauliflower, leek, onion, garlic, olive oil, and 1/2 teaspoon of the salt. Transfer to a baking sheet and roast for 25 minutes or until golden.
- Transfer the roasted vegetables to a large pot. Add the diced potato, chicken stock, coconut milk, thyme leaves, and remaining 1 teaspoon salt. Bring the liquid to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium, cover, and simmer for 10 minutes or until all the vegetables are tender.
- Purée the soup in a blender. Adjust the seasoning and serve with the pesto.
A few small things that I'm divulging out of honesty, not out of any conceit that you must follow suit —
- I used goat's milk instead of the coconut milk because we had some in the fridge. Its sharpness was lovely.
- The bunch of thyme I thought I had went missing, and so was left out. The pea shoot pesto packs such flavour, that the soup was still a knockout.
- I garnished the soup with chili oil.