Boggy

I've been spending some time lately researching purloo (or as often pilau, or any of numerous other spellings), that Southern category of composed rice dishes descending from the Persian pilau and bearing numerous influences, from African to French to Spanish. Purloo (usually pronounced per-low, or in the case of pilau, pi-low) is one of the South's oldest culinary cornerstones; in The Carolina Rice Kitchen: The African Connection, the food historian Karen Hess cited mid-18th-century references as earliest documentation of the dish but wrote she was "convinced that pilau was a feature of South Carolina cookery practically from the beginning," when it flourished in the rice-producing coastal Southeast. Purloos appear in countless variation, from versions containing chicken and little else, to shellfish-focused iterations with or without vegetables, to tomato-stained red rice to hoppin' john. What they all share is a common technique, in which long-grained rice simmers in a precise amount of broth until every bit has been absorbed and the grains of rice stand collectively fluffy and individually distinct and intact. Making one correctly, which entails allowing the rice to cook, undisturbed, without prodding or editing, is both a clear demonstration of skill and something of an act of faith. Translating the faith into confidence is something I'm still working to master. But I don't really want to get too far into purloo here now, except to offer it as contrast for another related dish that I much prefer, both to cook and to eat: the bog.

If you hold the purloo up as an ideal in rice cookery (and many do), you might consider the bog as purloo's less refined, less polished sibling. Its name certainly hints at no elegance or pretense, although a devoted bog fan could make a good argument that it can present plenty of the former. A bog is prepared in much the same way as a purloo, but with more liquid; the grains become more saturated, and while they are not cooked until they lose their integrity, neither do they hold much back. My grandmother's preparation of chicken and rice, though cooked in north Florida instead of South Carolina, the bog's supposed home grounds, bore more resemblance to a bog than a purloo, its grains swollen and saturated, the starch from the rice having thickened the broth into something very nearly like a gravy. A bog is not thoroughly soupy, but neither is it nearly dry, and I think this middle ground is why I, with my enthusiastic appetite for sauced, gravied, or brothy things, find bogs more compelling to eat. As important, I find them more relaxing to cook, and with their wider margins of error, easier to correct or modify. Not that making a bog should be gone at carelessly—the rice shouldn't cook so long that the grains are falling apart, and there shouldn't be so much liquid that the dish teeters into soup. But it is a fairly forgiving dish to make, and unless you're really not paying attention, it's more apt to turn out well than not. I like this reassurance, whether I'm serving a crowd or just the couple of us.

And yet, after all of that, I'm not going to provide a recipe for a bog. This is all just a roundabout of context for how I so often approach dinner, which is with a bog in mind. I start with a heavy pot, add some fat, a few aromatics to warm and bloom, and then a grain to roll around for a minute or two. I'll add enough water or broth to cover by a little, and simmer everything until the grains are saturated and plump, the broth has thickened a bit, and there's only a little liquid left behind. Then I'll add a few more ingredients I want to cook only barely, and let the whole pot steep for a few minutes more, while everything composes itself into a whole. You could call it a very thick soup, which I suppose it is, but with my regional bias I also tend to call it boggy. Here's one example.

Boggy quinoa with curry leaves, sprouted mung beans, and mustard greens

Serves 2

4 teaspoons peanut oil (not toasted) or extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds

10–15 curry leaves

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

few grinds black pepper

small handful celery leaves, chopped

1/2 cup quinoa

1 1/2 cups water

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

2/3 cup sprouted mung beans (see note below)

1 small bunch young mustard or arugula greens, cut into ribbons or torn

Warm oil in a small Dutch oven or other heavy pot over medium-low heat until warm. Add fennel seeds, curry leaves, turmeric, and a few grinds of black pepper and warm for a minute or two, until fragrant. Add celery leaves, and stir until wilted. Add quinoa (rinsed and drained), stir well, cover with 1 1/2 cups water and 1/2 teaspoon salt, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pot, and simmer until the quinoa has expanded and is fully tender, about 15 minutes. Add mung beans and greens, and simmer until the greens are just tender, about 5 minutes. Allow to stand for a few moments more. Season with additional salt and pepper to taste and serve.

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To sprout mung beans without a sprouting kit, pour 1 cup of mung beans into a large glass jar and cover with cool water. Cover the jar with a double thickness of cheesecloth, secured with a rubber band, and soak for 8 hours or overnight. Drain the beans through the cheesecloth, then refill with water and rinse them by swishing the water in the jar and draining again. Prop the jar up at an angle where it can continue to drain (as on the edge of a large, wide bowl), and leave for another 8 hours. Rinse and drain the beans again, and repeat as necessary, rinsing more frequently if the beans are drying out, until sprouts appear. Store in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to four days.

Still flowering

I should be pulling up all of my greens about now. The soil is warming up, the plants are growing weedy, the tomatoes and field peas need to go in the ground. Next weekend, I'll do it. We're raising the level of the beds up and adding in another. Every year, greedy for more yield, I plant everything a little too close together in unwitting sabotage and watch as the plants strain against each other, craning toward space and light. This year we're making more room for them to stretch their limbs and breathe. In the meantime, I'm clipping as many of the greens' flowering shoots as we can eat, adding them to soups and sautes, braising them simply. This last method tends to be how I prep them most of the time—with a little olive oil, sea salt, black pepper or red chile, and a bit of water to keep them plump and juicy. I serve them in little bowls with their pot liquor, and we'll eat them before a meal, with a fork or maybe just fingers, giving them undivided attention.

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Lately, I remembered this: whenever my grandmother fixed a pot of creamed corn with dinner (supper in her parlance), my granddad's habit was corn first: he would ladle enough onto a plate to spread to its brims, and approach it with a piece of cornbread in one hand and a spoon in the other—two corn derivatives uninterrupted by other flavors. Only after this plate was clear would he would move on to the rest of the dishes on the table. I think of him sometimes, with my little bowl of greens in front of me, transfixed by their flavor.

There is something truly compelling about the warmth and generosity of a well-composed vegetable plate. In the best cases, there is a harmony and synergy of flavors and textures that can exceed the sum of the individual components. Even in average circumstances, the abundance of so many different dishes seems to bring a built-in fulfillment to the fore. But a meal like that—or any meal composed of multiple dishes, served simultaneously—is also a little about multi-tasking. It's almost impossible to really focus your attention on any one of those individual dishes with so many others competing for it—that's not really the point. It's a bit stodgy and completely out of sync with the family-style service that seems to dominate these days, but I usually course out our meals. It allows me to let my focus linger, appreciate the depths of something without something else pulling at my sleeve. Always, the greens come first.

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Quick-braised flowering greens (radish, collard, mustard, cabbage, turnip, rapini)

For two people, wash and trim about 1/2 pound of flowering greens. Separate any small leaves and leave whole; you can tear larger leaves into pieces. Cut shoots and florets into bite-sized pieces. Keep a bit of water at hand. Heat a large, wide, heavy pot with a lid (a deep-sided saute pan or Dutch oven both work well) over medium heat, and pour in about a tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil. When it's hot (but not smoking) and easily glosses the bottom of the pan, add a few grinds of black pepper, and then the greens. They will sizzle and begin to wilt instantly; stir them well, sprinkle with a pinch of sea salt, and add about a 1/4 cup of water. Cover the pot, and cook for a few minutes, until the greens are just tender. Lift the lid periodically to make sure the bottom of the pan is covered in thin layer of liquid and that the greens are steaming nicely. If they seem to be drying out, add a bit more water. When they are just tender, taste again for seasoning and add salt or pepper as desired, cover the pot, and rest off the heat for 5 minutes or longer. Remove to bowls and pour any remaining liquid in the pan over the greens. These are lovely hot, warm, or at room temperature.

Flowering gifts

Last fall, I planted rows upon rows of greens—mustards, collards, radishes, turnips, chard, escarole, rapini. I staggered them to maximize space, nestled the little seedlings with burlap covers, tucked them into a hoop house, and watched them struggle to gain footing. As usual, I had planted too late in the season, unwilling to pull up the still-producing tomatoes and cowpeas from the ground (golden globes still clutching their stems!!) and make room for the next season's plantings. But they were cozy enough to survive, and all the wet, cold months that followed, they grew almost imperceptibly, half awake, sleepily producing. And then suddenly, in March, with more daylight than darkness and something like warmth creeping in, they began to unfurl, sending out leaves with the fervor of someone who has a busy day ahead and accidentally slept in. Gardening offers almost nothing in the way of guarantees, but here is at least one certainty: overwintered greens will flower in the spring. 

Typically labeled "raab" at farmers markets for their likeness to broccoli raab (a misnomer—raab deriving from cime di rape, Italian for rapini, cime meaning tops and rape meaning turnips) and sold in sweet bouquets, they are both the previous season's sign-off (the plant's last gasp as it goes to seed) and a marker of the one to come. They deliver all of the flavor and character of their mature leaves with more sweetness and delicacy, our reward for all the sugar the plant stored over the cold months just passed. In early spring, they are pure antidote to the earthbound flavors of winter and a jolt of inspiration in the kitchen. 

Before I grew my own, I would buy practically one bunch per day of the week that they were in season, usually for 3-5 weeks in early spring. Now that I do, unburdened as I am by strict planting schedules, I harvest from them from the time they start flowering in early March until I put the tomatoes and cowpeas in the ground in later May. Very lightly braised, in a skillet with olive oil and a little water, they cook to exquisitely tender in minutes, leaving a few glorious tablespoons of pot liquor behind. Besides that, I add them to soups, stir them into brothy or porridge-like rice and grain dishes, even roast them, on occasion. But they are tender enough to eat raw, and I often find that a grain salad is just the right home.

The recipe that follows serves two, but it can be doubled, or tripled, or whatever you need. 

Rye berry salad with flowering arugula, favas, carrots, and lemon-harissa dressing

2/3 cup rye berries

5 cups water

2 medium-size carrots

1 pound fava beans in their pods

2 large handful flowering greens (florets and small leaves), preferably arugula (or substitute whole young arugula leaves or more mature leaves, chopped)

1 tablespoon pumpkin seeds, toasted

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 tablespoon prepared harissa

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

3/4 teaspoon sea salt, plus additional to taste

Rinse and drain the rye berries. In a small, heavy pot with a lid, combine the rye berries, 1/4 teaspoon salt and 5 cups water. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and cook at a low boil, partly covered, until the grains are tender but still a little chewy, about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Turn off the heat and rest for 15 minutes, drain well, and allow to cool. (If you soak the rye overnight it will take considerably less time to cook.)

Shell the fava beans, and drop them into a small pot of boiling water. Cook for 2-3 minutes, drain, and flush with cold water. When the beans are cool, slip them out of their skins and set aside.

Combine the cooled rye berries (making sure they are well drained) in a medium-sized bowl with the carrots, favas, arugula and pumpkin seeds. In a small bowl, dissolve the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt in the lemon juice, whisk in the harissa, then whisk in the extra-virgin olive oil until emulsified. Pour over the farro and vegetables and combine well. Serve.

(Alternately, dress the salad—except for the pumpkin seeds and arugula—and stir those ingredients in just before serving.)

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Iced tea, fennel version

When I first made this tea, I was still living in Washington, D.C., and for the second year in a row, the temperature had reached 90 degrees in May. The scrappy portable air conditioners in our little 1930s, very poorly insulated, rented bungalow couldn't keep up with the demand, and the temperature in the house stayed in the mid to high 80s until nearly October. A breeze could make the back patio comfortable in the evening, as long as you had a free hand to whack away the mosquitoes, but by 8 am the next morning, leaving the house felt like walking into a steam bath.

At the time, we had loads of beautiful fennel at the market, and I was trying to give those beautiful, spruce-colored fronds some purpose. I'd been candying the stems, using the stems and fronds to infuse a syrup (good with prosecco), adding the fronds to salsa verde and pesto. But using them to infuse iced tea was the keeper.

My mom didn't make much iced tea, but when we drove down from our house in Georgia to visit my grandparents at their farm in North Florida, tea was always one possible answer for "what are you having to drink with dinner?" My grandmother spared no sugar in that tea, and yet it never tasted too sweet to me.

Cut forward many years, and while I still have a taste for ultra-sweet tea, in things sugary I aim for moderation. Steeping fennel fronds in freshly brewed black tea creates an illusion of sweetness without quite so much added sugar, and the fragrant anise flavor harmonizes beautifully with the tea's woodsy character. As far as non-alcoholic thirst-quenchers go, it's enchanting.

That sweltering D.C. summer I made this tea as long as the fennel lasted, through early summer, then picked up again when it came back in the early fall. A peculiarity of the Pacific Northwest is that in the warmest, driest part of the year, when the air feels hot enough to keep a pitcher of tea on hand, fennel is still coming out of the ground and looking fine. In other parts of the country, where the fennel harvest reasonably retires for, at the least, July and August, finding the fronds for this tea may be a shoulder season excursion (or a supermarket one, although supermarket fennel tends to be lacking in the luxuriously long, fragrant fronds that give this tea its flavor).

An alternative, though I haven't tried it, might be to infuse a large batch of simple syrup with the fronds when you have them, using it to sweeten the tea in the heat of the season when the cooler-season crops have taken their seasonal bow.

Then again, a hot day is no prerequisite for making (or drinking) this tea. Just keep it chilled, hold the ice.

Fennel tea

8 cups water

1/2 cup loose-leaf black tea (I use Reishi's Ceylon black tea)

2 fennel stems with ample fronds, cut into thirds

1/2 cup sugar

In a large pot, bring 8 cups water to a boil. Add tea, steep 4–5 minutes (or according to package instructions). Avoid oversteeping, which can create a not-so-refreshing bitterness. Drain the tea through a fine-mesh strainer into another large pot or bowl. Add fennel fronds and steep 20–30 minutes. Remove fronds, strain tea again through a fine-mesh strainer (into the original pot or a glass storage jar) and add sugar, stirring to dissolve thoroughly. Cool completely, then serve over ice. Tea will keep in the refrigerator for about 1 week.

Summer staple

When we moved to Seattle two years ago from the mid-Atlantic, the biggest adjustment for me, beyond the expected dissonance of losing close contact with family and friends, was learning the local growing seasons. My internal clock is tied to what's coming out of the ground. So after years of growing up and living in the Southeast, then the Mid-Atlantic, whose growing season is only marginally different from its zones farther South, my sense of time of year was rather fixed on what grows when in those places. I recognized March and April for its bitter chicories, June for its first tomatoes, and July for its heaps of peppers and eggplant, November for its brassicas and leaves in every shade of green.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, in the middle of July, I am recalibrating. Even with this year's atypically hot weather, which has made our lush region feel like California, July means fava beans, broccoli, spring peas, escarole and radicchio, tiny artichokes, the first zucchini with their blossoms. This is both a luxury—we'll have those zucchini blossoms into September, and the artichokes and the favas for nearly as long—and disorienting. Around this time back East, we'd be making a lot of panzanella—day-old bread, torn into ruffled pieces, jumbled with a cut mix of tomatoes, onions, and herbs, soaked through with vinaigrette. The stale bread takes up the dressing like a sponge, its texture turning springy, juicy, a little chewy, like a sultry answer to a crouton. I know of few better canvasses for good tomatoes, and their acidity, right about now, is what I crave.

We are still a few weeks out from solid tomato season here, so in the meantime, I am compromising with what is here a more seasonally appropriate bread salad, using small, tender favas, the last of the garlic scapes, the first cherry tomatoes trickling in, and plenty of deep green parsley, mint, and purslane. Using the same approach—day-old, untoasted bread plus vinaigrette—keeps the texture succulent, and the cherry tomatoes, used sparingly, provide enough extra acidity to bring me into the right season. Feel free to vary the ingredients below as you see fit. The idea, in part, is to illustrate how very versatile bread salad can be. Use whatever produce or herbs you have or love in combination, whatever bread you have on hand—provided it has a good sturdy crumb and isn't too fresh.

Bread Salad with Favas, Garlic Scapes, Sungold Tomatoes, and Herbs

5 ounces day-old bread, tough crust removed

3/4 pound fava beans, blanched for 3-4 minutes, flushed with cool water, and slipped from their skins

2 garlic scapes, thinly sliced, blanched for 15 seconds and flushed with cool water

1 1/3 cups purslane

1/2 small red onion, minced

3-4 large sprigs parsley, chopped

1-2 sprigs mint, cut into fine slivers

heaping 1/4 pint sungold tomatoes (about 10), quartered

3 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar

sea salt and black pepper to taste

Tear the bread into bite-sized pieces. Alternately, you could use a knife, but I prefer the craggy uneveness that tearing produces. Combine the bread in a large bowl with the purslane, scapes, favas, onion, herbs, and tomatoes. Whisk the olive oil and vinegar until emulsified and season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour over the bread and vegetables and, using your hands, combine thoroughly. Serve immediately or rest for 5-10 minutes beforehand.

Panzanella

For those of you already flush with tomatoes this summer. The measurements here, of course, are a guide—use more tomatoes, if you prefer, or less onion. Add capers—I usually do—or thinly sliced garlic scapes, or additional herbs, like marjoram. Sub sherry vinegar for red wine. As long as your ingredients are top-notch, it will be stellar.

10 ounces day-old bread, tough crust removed

1 1/4 pounds tomatoes, preferably a mix of heirlooms and cherry tomatoes

1/4 cup finely chopped red onion

1/4 cup chopped parsley

3 T. finely slivered basil

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 T. plus 2 t. red wine vinegar

sea salt and pepper to taste

Roughly tear the bread into bite-sized pieces. Cut the cherry tomatoes into halves or quarters, and cut the larger tomatoes into wedges or chunks. Combine the tomatoes in a large bowl with the onion, basil, and parsley. In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, and salt and pepper to taste. Add the bread to the bowl with the tomatoes; then pour the vinaigrette over all. Use your hands to toss gently, making sure the bread is well coated with the dressing. Rest for 5 minutes before serving.

Serves 4