This ain't my week. The week before was pretty bad, too. And the week before that I had the consumption, or maybe just some terrible cold, and spent most of my time watching either The Real Housewives of New Jersey (the beastliness of those women is captivating!) or various PBS cooking shows on the WETA Create channel (TRHONJ's equally captivating polar opposite). Three weeks later, the hacking cough and general yuckiness still linger on, but at least my 10-hour-a-day TV habit has been cured.
All this time as an invalid, I still never lost my appetite. But despite watching so much Lidia, Julia, Jacques, and that smug but still likeable Chris Kimball and his mad scientist brigade, I've been in a cooking slump (with one exception, which I'll get to in a few paragraphs). Not that I haven't been inspired -- a few nights ago, for example, I decided on a whim to make corn tortillas. Rather, it's the talent and foresight that seem to be missing. Now, I don't own a tortilla press, and had never before considered buying one. That evening, though, plucky resourcefulness was all I thought I needed to get by.
To make corn tortillas, you just make a dough out of 1 part masa harina (similar to corn meal, and available at most grocery stores), three-quarter parts water, and a teaspoon or so of salt. Then you form the dough into smaller balls which you then flatten with a tortilla press. If you don't have a tortilla press, you resort to dangerous and bizarre techniques, such as setting the dough ball on a plastic-wrapped wooden cutting board and thwacking it as hard as you can with a cast-iron pan. The dough never gets flat enough, a hand bone possibly shatters, and the wooden cutting board most certainly shatters. Then your roommate suggests you use a rolling pin, and you marvel at your own stupidity. But, you discover, corn tortilla dough is too brittle for a rolling pin to be very helpful, and you wish you had thought to buy a $15 tortilla press on your last trip to Target or, better yet, made something more sensible to eat, like a sandwich.
But you forge ahead with a crazy look in your eyes. You are also very hungry at this point. So you heat the same cast iron pan you were earlier using as a weapon. The pan gets extremely hot, and the smoke alarm goes off, but you casually wave at it with a piece of your broken cutting board until it stops. You return to your first pancake-thick corn tortilla, which is frying away over a dry, excessive heat for about 30 seconds on each side. You remove it, take a small bite, and think to yourself, "Not bad, if you like your tortillas the consistency of matzoh."
You then fill your tortilla -- which, you are amazed to discover, actually bends -- with the pinto beans that have been sitting on the stove all this time. You think to yourself, "When it comes to legumes, I got mad skillz yo, these pinto beans gonna be the icing on this particle board, I mean tortilla." But, horrors! you take a bite and almost spit it out! You can't understand what went wrong. You had simmered the beans over low-medium heat for a couple hours. You had doused them in delicious spices and herbs like cumin, cayenne, bay leaf, and oregano. You added plenty of salt at the end. And still they taste terrible. You have no reasonable explanation, so you think to yourself again, for maybe the 15th time in three weeks, "Today just ain't my day."
In fact, the past three weeks have been so bad that you desperately search your recent memory for a silver lining, and stop on some delicious sauteed collard greens inspired by your favorite new cookbook, Vegan Soul Kitchen. The thought of this cookbook and its charming author, Bryant Terry, makes you so happy that you open it and turn to its first recipe (the only one you have yet to try), "Citrus Collards with Raisins Redux." You may be in a slump, but at least your arsenal now contains this dish, which has completely changed how you cook collards, and which you will keep going back to again and again.
Recipe: Bryant Terry's Winning Collard Greens
Adapted and renamed from Vegan Soul Kitchen. Makes two gigantic side dish servings. Consider serving it over rice and beans for a very fast, filling, and healthy meal. Also, save the stems from the collards -- Bryant (we're on a first-name basis) also taught me this -- and cut them into one- or two-inch pieces and saute them separately in olive oil and lemon juice till they're just tender. He refers to these cooked stems as "collard confetti." I like to add them to garlicky white beans and tomatoes. People mistake them for asparagus and have no idea they are usually meant for compost!
1 bunch (about 1 lb) collard greens, stems removed
2 T olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
juice and zest of half an orange
salt and pepper to taste
Stack a few collard leaves at a time, roll them up, and slice them into strips about an inch wide (this is also known as julienne). Do this with all the collards. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the garlic and saute for two minutes. Then add the raisins and collards and saute for another three minutes, stirring to make sure all the collards get cooked. Add the orange juice and zest and cook for just 15 seconds and remove from the heat. Add salt and pepper to taste.