In the movie Ratatouille, a gaunt, unsmiling critic named Anton Ego who composes acidic notices in a coffin-shaped room and speaks in a parched baritone voice, represents a parody of an elitist critic. He is so steeped in criticism that his joy has become fossilized. Watching this movie a few years ago, I never expected to be inspired by a cartoon. And yet, there is one key moment in the film where its depth and recognition of the emotional power of a good meal elevates the movie beyond the expectation of its form. In it, the staunch and stuffy critic is moved to tears by the dish of ratatouille he eats. It reminds him of home, of his mother and his roots. The ability to transport people is one of the unique characteristics of food because it engages the senses of taste and smell. In my experience, the olfactory senses, more than the others, are directly and vividly connected to memory. Though the movie celebrates the passionate, sometimes aggressive pursuit of excellence, an impulse which I guess you could say inspired this blog, it was the ability to capture “home” that resonated with me the most. I’m not sure that the two, at least for me with cooking, are mutually exclusive.
Last night the dinner theme was created from that feeling. I hadn’t put much though into it, but I decided to try to bring my stuffed cabbage to grandma-level standards. Grandma gave me the step by step, but I found a similar recipe here. I substitute poultry for meat. I also decided to overcome my fear of ugly root vegetables and tried roasting golden and red beets, which are absolutely beautiful when cooked. This is my husband’s go-to comfort food. He grew up on chicken, lentils and beets or yucca. In order to be fair and prepare elements of both homes, I had to overcome the idea that root vegetables have dark magical powers. I always associate them with the witch’s brews, that in so many movies call for the root of a (insert some sort of vegetable) to cause all sorts of malice and personal destruction. Usually, it’s a manioc root, otherwise known as yucca, which I know for sure must be properly prepared before consumption. Improper preparation of yucca/cassava can leave enough residual cyanide to cause acute cyanide intoxication. My practical side knows that these roots are not only gorgeous once cooked, but also good for you.
The second part of this meal was a traditional peasant dish that I had in Cordoba, Spain and loved the concept of it. Sopa de Ajo, garlic soup, is made mostly out of old bread and calls for very few other ingredients. I use my mom’s recipe, but hers is very much like this garlic soup recipe. I decided to take my left over hurricane loaf and make a soup out of it. Little did I know how labor-intensive this whole meal would be.
I won’t give you a play by play, but there was a food processor involved, and when the recipe called for whisking, I have no idea what made me believe they meant an electric one. After a floor (and wall) scrubbing and an outfit change, I had gotten the soup under control, only to realize that red beets stain AND the skin doesn’t come off quite as easily as described, especially when they’re 375 degrees. No matter, the stuffed cabbage was heavenly. The only thing that could make it better would be if I had used real red meat instead of 99% lean turkey. But alas, we know more about heart health now than in grandma’s day. Just before midnight, though, we sat down to a soup made out of a loaf a bread (it calls for sweet Spanish paprika, definitely use smoked), almost peeled beets (“A, what’s wrong with that one? Why is it a different color over here?”), with the most beautiful colors and an equally sweet flavor, and a modern version of grandma’s stuffed cabbage. Just before midnight (on a work night no less), I brought us home.