This post could be subtitled, "Only Tastes Good if You Live Near a Farm," or "What we Made Our Parents for Anniversary Dinner," or "Tamar Adler Would Approve," or "Italians Do This All the Time, I Promise."
Back in May, we stayed at an agriturismo near Bologna where I ended up ordering the same thing for dinner every night: il piatto del verdurone. Not Alessandra's velvety ricotta tortelloni, not the fried goose egg, not the rosemary roast pork. Every night, I re-ordered the vegetable plate. These vegetables had been harvested from their farm that morning, boiled or baked, then doused in olive oil and salt. No herbs, no crumbled fried prosciutto, no garlic even. Asparagus: boil, oil, salt. Beets: boil, oil, salt. Zucchini: bake, oil, salt. So on and so forth. A to Z.
I plowed through three dinners' worth of vegetables, each night feeling the exact same sense of disbelief. How can these be so delicious? What did they do to them? What magic is at work to make boiled vegetables taste so good? But I think there wasn't any magic. I mean, the punchline to this story isn't a surprise. So choose whatever tagline you prefer: Buy Local/Know Your Farmer/Eat Seasonally. (Now make whatever face you make whenever you've said something blindingly obvious but true nevertheless.)
What still astounds me, however, is how good a vegetable can taste when it tastes like itself.
When a beet tastes sweet and a little bit minerally, so tender it glides against your teeth? That's delicious. When a potato is creamy and buttery without the addition of cream and butter, but because it simply is? That, too, is delicious.
I often forget that when I treat something with genuine respect, it reveals itself in beautiful ways. But respect is no simple matter! It can actually take a bit of work. It means finding honest vegetables grown by farmers or friends, paying for them without resentment, using them within a day or two, and cooking them with care. Does that sound like no big deal? For this dinner, it meant signing up for the CSA months ahead of time and paying a few hundred dollars up front. It meant juggling our Tuesday afternoon schedules and asking Kevin to leave work a few minutes early so he could make it out to the farm to do the pick up. It meant committing to cook what was fresh in our fridge the next day instead of getting take out. So in truth, respecting my food happens much more rarely than I'd like.
My normal is more like this: drive five blocks to the No Frills grocer to buy the California broccoli that's on special for a dollar a pound, forget said broccoli in the fridge for a couple weeks, then perform a rescue operation by cutting off everything that looks a little sad and drowning the rest in salt/garlic/cheese/lemon/anchovies, then roast the hell out of it in the oven and hope for the best. Too often, my dinners are the product of busy lives, inattention, and a broken food system.
In truth, I think that respecting food often requires either sacrifice (time, money, effort, knowledge) or privilege (the luxury of time, money, effort, knowledge). But when those things are available, and I spend an hour trimming and washing my produce, when I have olive oil in my cupboard from a friend of a friend, when I've read Adler's book An Everlasting Meal and her philosophy on warm, freshly boiled vegetables, then I get a dinner like in the photo.
And even as I wish they were more normal, these rare, lovely dinners spark my imagination for how life could be: respectful to the eaters, the farmers, the vegetables, indeed, to Creation. Dinner was merely boiled in a pot of salted water and served with oil and bread, but halfway through his meal, Kevin looked up from his plate and grinned. In between bites of silken beet greens and freshly dug potatoes, he declared, "Let's boil EVERYTHING."