There’s something at once heartbreaking and wonderful about a dish, steeped in a history and a culture, that is snatched away from its roots and planted in foreign soil. Whenever something leaves its home terroir, it abandons some of its essence. Deposited in a new soil, it finds new fodder on which to feed, a different quality of sunlight shining down on its leaves and new bees and birds supping on their nectar. And when it blossoms anew, we often find new colors, flavors and textures vying for our attention.
In every city we’ve lived, from every lover we’ve embraced, from the mothers and grandmothers’ hands who nourished us in our youths, we’ve borrowed, begged and stolen dishes, recipes and tastes. Some are simple and prosaic, like buttered noodles with fresh chopped parsley (my roommate Amy from our days in Providence), others are complex, unctuous and expensive (my Mom’s cassoulet that she perfected when we were in Munich), while others have to be tasted to be desired (my dad’s delicious peanut butter, bacon and mayo sandwich that he grew up on as a kid in Chicago).
Every time we recreate a dish from our past, we’re not just throwing together ingredients, we’re magicians, conjuring up fragments of memories, symphonies of senses, the warm touches of departed love ones. We’re repainting classical pieces of art, acts of innocuous transgression. Ultimately, the final dish incorporates different ingredients and techniques and is cooked at different temperatures in different equipment; it’s never the same.
Entire cuisines, most notably Italian and Chinese, went through this process of assimilation in America. Entire systems of preparation were transformed in the hands of immigrants who found totally foreign ingredients and palates stateside — but still craved the same basics they grew up on.
Julia Child, James Beard and Alice Waters paved the way for home gourmands by tweaking and reinterpreting classical cuisine, often with the use of simple, humble, seasonal ingredients. They made welling up over a saucepan of roux that reminds you of Grandma’s farm in Indiana seem vaguely less than clinically insane; they made sipping wine while vigorously whisking said roux seem de rigueur; they elevated a simply prepared macaroni dish to a transcendental experience worthy of pathos, Strauss and hours of Freudian analysis.
Below, check out Stephen’s recipe for Rice and Beans — one of our all-time Willcox-Repsher classics. The dish is inspired by his late mother, who made a ridiculously rich and delicious Chicken Divan when he was growing up. He loved it so much, it eventually supplanted even pizza on his all-time birthday dinner request list as a kid. When he went to law school and I was attempting to support us on my laughable salary, we spent a lot of our time eating this delicious, but decidedly less rich and expensive (goodbye boneless chicken breast, cream of mushroom soup, cream of chicken soup, wads of cheese, cups of mayo) but equally delicious (hello kidney beans, dark raisins, fresh dill, lime juice, mere cup or so of mayo) version. I also threw in my favorite Black Bean recipe, which reminds me of all of the church picnics I went to growing up; it’s highly tweakable depending on your mood and the season and the exact number of hours you think it’s going to spend sweating in the sun. Oh, and here’s a link to the recipe for Chicken Croquetas (it’s Joshua Whigman’s recipe).
Stephen’s Rice and Beans
Makes 6 huge servings
- 1 1/2 cups Jasmine rice, rinsed in cold water
- 1 TBSP olive oil
- 3 cups water
- salt, to taste
- 2 15.5 ounce cans red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
- 1/2 cup dark raisins (dried cherries, golden raisins and dried cranberries are also lovely additions)
- one lime, juiced
- 3 TBSP curry powder
- 1/2 TBSP dill, fresh if possible
- 1 cup mayo (no low-fat; if fat is a concern, sub in some low-fat sour cream, but keep at least 1/2 cup of mayo)
- Add rice, cold water, olive oil and salt, to taste, in a large pot. Bring to boil, reduce to simmer, cover. Cook for about 30 minutes, or until the water is absorbed. Resist the urge to peek at the rice until at least 30 minutes have elapsed.
- Toss rice with dried fruit / raisins and beans.
- Mix the rest of the ingredients in a small bowl, toss over rice mix and serve. This keeps in the fridge for up to a week.
Nutritional breakdown for Stephen’s Rice and Beans: About 575 calories and 26 grams of fat. Excellent source of protein and fiber (especially if you use brown Jasmine rice), a bit high in saturated fat (the delicious mayo).
Cost breakdown for Stephen’s Rice and Beans: About $1 a serving.
Verdict / In the Future: This dish is a total crowd pleaser, even for people who hate spicy curries (generally, Stephen avoids it like the plague). The different textures and pops of flavor are addictive and surprisingly complex, considering how straight-forward and simple it is to prepare.
Kathleen’s Black Bean Salad
Makes 4 generous servings
- 1 1/2 cup dried black beans
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 garlic cloves, divided
- 3 sprigs fresh thyme
- salt and pepper, to taste
- 1/3 cup olive oil, divided
- 2 large carrots, peeled and diced
- 4 large stalks celery, peeled if you’re feeling fussy, sliced thin
- 2 tsp chili powder, divided
- 1 tsp adobo powder
- One juiced lemon
- 1 ounce ricotta salata, shaved with vegetable peeler
- 2 scallions, sliced thin, white and light green parts only
- 2 TBSP fresh marjoram, chiffonade
- Soak beans in cold, salted water overnight; about 3 TBSP of salt and 3 quarts of water.
- Preheat oven to 250 degrees.
- Drain and rinse beans. Cover with cold water in Dutch oven. Add bay leaf, one unpeeled clove garlic, sprigs thyme, salt to taste. Cover and put in oven. Cook until tender, about 1-2 hours. Drain beans and discard bay leaf, garlic, thyme.
- Warm 1 TBSP olive oil in sautee pan. Add onion, salt, cook over medium heat until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add carrots, cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Add celery, 1 tsp chili powder, adobo and cook until softened. Add salt and pepper to taste.
- Add lemon juice and garlic clove, salt and pepper to small food processor and blend for 30 seconds. Add remaining oil, blend until it emulsifies.
- Toss beans, vegetables while warm with vinaigrette. Garnish with chopped scallions and herbs and serve.
Nutritional breakdown for Kathleen’s Black Bean Salad: About 350 calories per serving and 20 grams of fat, mostly unsaturated. Excellent source of protein, fiber, folate, molybdenum. Black beans help regulate blood sugar levels, cardiovascular health and, of course, the digestive tract.
Cost breakdown for Kathleen’s Black Bean Salad: About $1.00 a serving.
Verdict / In the Future: I sub out the spices, herbs and vegetables for whatever I have on hand — but I almost always have onions, carrots and celery, so I often use that trio. Parmesan, Pecorino, Feta and other hard, salty cheeses are great subs as well, but I’d avoid soft and stinky cheeses.