HOW TO COOK A GRIMOIRE
by Catherine Harper
In college, I took a class on Hinduism as an elective. The class tended to be well-taught and informative, and only fleetingly inspiring, but one day there was a discussion of the rituals associated with the preparation and sharing of food. During this discussion, the professor said that the kitchen was the ritual center of the house. His words, about a tradition that I’d only approached academically, started something.
As I listened to the rest of the class, it was as if a half-remembered hearth, empty but for a few embers smoldering in the ashes, was fed by this idea and began to send up flames. I’d halfway known this about kitchens already, but I hadn’t put it into words. I’d been confused by the separation of the living room fireplace from the space where food was prepared, and the cramped, tiny, walled-off kitchens of apartments and rented houses; to my mind, the mantelpiece should be the house altar, even though I spent more time by the oven. I rushed home in delight and convinced my mother, at that time my landlord, to let me paint the stove with knotwork and elemental symbols.
For me, food lore has always paralleled my interests in magic. Of course, when I began my formal magical studies in my teens, witchery, which had plenty of room for kitchen magic, was the low art as far as I was concerned. I would not consciously have associated magic and cooking, though in retrospect those were my formative years in the culinary arts just as they were in those magical. My disregard for cooking mostly speaks of what I thought then of magic. Magic to me was something extraordinary, far removed from the tedious bits of every day life. Magic had everything to do with correspondences and ancient languages, and if around the edges I learned to bake a load of bread and make a decent broth, well, eating was necessary
Nowadays, magic to me is more about my relationship with the universe. I’d rather know the place I am right now than try going elsewhere, although I can’t tell you whether I’ve become more ambitious or less. In my garden, I try to learn the land, and the land becomes fruits and vegetables, cooked in the kitchen to be sweet or savory, which I share with my friends and family as they share with me, and which we all then eat and then make a part of ourselves. And shit. And someday die.
This interwoven relationship began early. When I was a child, it was interest in the medicinal and magical uses of herbs that led me to bring home the starts for my first herb garden, but the herbs themselves, oregano, chives, marjoram and mint, led me back into the kitchen. Around the time I set up my first altar, an arrangement of colored stones around two small cat figures, with a small bowl for offerings (I was in second grade), my mother started to let me spice salad dressings by taste. I opened the bottles of herbs and spices one by one, and rubbed the dried leaves of tarragon and basil between my fingers to release their smell. In those bottles were the elusive scents of faraway places. Even more, there was a mystery. Most people I knew were tied to books, from which they would recite as by rote the uses of the herbs. I wanted even then to know the herbs so intimately as to be able to part ways with the staid formulas of tradition and cook with no guides but smell, taste and my own creativity.
As my magic began to become codified to me, herbs were the earliest point of conscious overlap between that discipline and the culinary arts. Herbs are just really cool, and even as a teenager I could see that. Inspired by fiction, I started learning the names and uses of local plants, because my favorite characters always seemed to know that sort of thing. This left me with the start of a collection of books on wild plants and mushrooms and the occasional satisfaction of getting to say things like “oh, that’s wild chamomile” to schoolmates. Few of whom were impressed.
When I was in my mid-teens, I was introduced to my first herb shop, and I fell in love. Reckless, only partly considered love. I tended to choose herbs more by instinct than sense, half-remembering names like hawthorn, damiana, eyebright and yarrow from spells and folklore, but being just as likely to buy shepherd’s purse because I’d never heard of it, or Irish moss because it sounded interesting. I bought books on herbs, so I could learn the uses of the herbs I’d already gotten. I raided the library and took notes.
Luckily, around that time a black cat, my nascent herb cabinet and I moved out and into a room in a shared house, necessitating that I begin to acquire my own collection of culinary herbs and spices. In that house, I had my next herb garden, and somewhere between picking up a couple of different varieties of rosemary with the rue, learning about the magical properties of culinary herbs, the culinary properties of medicinal herbs and so on, the division in my mind between the esoteric and practical uses of these plants vanished.
Nowadays, having graduated from the 26 pots and planters outside of our last apartment to a place with a bit of land, I have three herb gardens, ranging from the formal circle garden outside the kitchen, to the heatloving front garden, to the isolated battlefield of invasive plants, where even now the soapwort and sweet woodruff are testing each other’s boundaries, while maintaining a somewhat more respectful relationship with the citadel of giant mullein. The collection has become defined mostly by what I use and what will survive our climate, although it tends to expand with the various bits and pieces I trip over that intrigue me. Herbs tend to be tough, easy to grow and in many cases perennial or self-seeding. If you are looking to try a bit of gardening and would like to try eating your own harvests, herbs are one of the best places to begin, and they open a tiny window onto a different kind of life, when food was a local thing and our tables were graced rather more directly with the fruits of our own labors.
A lot of my cooking, rather like a lot of my ritual, is a method by which I seek to connect myself with the world, to weave myself in closer to its past and future, tie myself to the land and the turning of the seasons, to in my own way reach for a connection with the divine and try, quietly, to create something sacred. Quite a lot of it seems to reach back toward the past. A rich past that hangs behind us like a shadow at sunset, longer than we are tall. There is a sense of continuity that I’m looking for in those past years that seem from this vantage point to have moved so quickly and changed so slowly, a contrast and ballast to our own rapidly changing world.
But I do not want to live in the past. Likewise, in my own kitchen, I do not try to recreate the past, but to reach back toward the knowledge it might have given me. This sense of the past has enriched my understanding of food. Limiting my use of ingredients by season or location has given me room to better appreciate each one and to understand their uses instead of being confused by the kaleidoscope of options available. I’ve also found myself motivated to look for ingredients that aren’t currently fashionable, and have discovered a neglected bounty of turnips, leeks, kasha, parsnips, grits, kale and okra, to name a few.
My own mother, a skilled cook who has no particular love of cooking, has teased me for my oxtail soup, a dish so old-fashioned that her mother must never have prepared it. And it is venerable dish, a dish I’d never tasted, and only the echo of a memory of it haunted some back corner of my mind. Yet it is a good winter soup, a soup that cooks for days, warming the cold kitchen and scenting the air. It is a thrifty way of cooking the nourishment out of meat and bones few people now even bother with, mixing them with onions and barley, ingredients cheap and plentiful even in winter, and making something warm and rich that can feed your family, friends and whoever else shows up for dinner. And it is a dish that tugs at my soul. In my mind, the iron pot I cook it in is an alembic, sitting upon the transformative fire in the heart of the kitchen, the heart of the house. And over days, the meat and bones are cooked and purified, and the pale watery broth become golden and rich both in physical and spiritual nourishment. A simple magic at the heart of living.
Other wells of inspiration spring from locations in my imagination rather than from any knowledge of the past. For a few years now, a lady of bees and honey has appeared from time to time in my dreams. I am not certain of her name, and know only fragments of her legends, yet I’ve been gradually learning more of bees and bee lore (to the benefit of my orchards, which were suffering a lack of pollinators). Now, I bake moist honey-colored cakes as part of my tribute to her, joining candles, dried herbs and stalks of ripe wheat.
Similarly, a great wellspring of my cooking is the Mediterranean, perhaps because some of my finest ever experiences of food happened while I was in Turkey. Yet, while I love to recreate what I have eaten, I also cook dishes that seem to come from that land but by some less obvious route, things that entered my skin with the sun, the hills and the dry fertility of the land, so unlike the wet mossy abundance of home. Only a few weeks ago, as the sun became noticeably lower in the sky and everything became tinted with gold, I was seized by a another hunger for something I had never tasted, something that turned out to be figs, eggplant and lamb baked in a sauce of caramelized onions, red wine and pomegranate juice. In some part of my imagination, there are olive groves, a latticework sunshade all grown over with grapevines for eating under in the summer, and in the evenings jasmine flowers release their scent into the air.
Other connections I find in my food are social, ideas growing out of my community. I’m not really that much of a gardener, though I’m trying to be a better one, and on the partially wooded acre we have we can only grow a fraction of our food. What doesn’t come out of our own gardens we buy, and I try to be aware of the buying. I hold a lot to the environmentalist mottoes of local, organic and seasonal, but my reasons go beyond the physical environment. Part of what I’m looking for is a spiritual connection to the food. If I grow the food myself, I have worked with it and the land that it has grown in from its beginnings as seeds. Lacking that, food that is grown locally is at least subject to the rhythms of the land and seasons I live with myself, and food that is grown locally is for the most part seasonal. But even beyond the connection to the land, a lot of what connects me to food spiritually is how it ties people together.
So I try to be aware of the people involved with the food I buy. This is also just a generally good practice, because they know about the food, and often have good ideas. I’ve gotten in the habit of talking with the butchers and produce clerks in the groceries I frequent. When I was first dabbling in the culinary arts, they gave me some of my best recipes. These days, it has become a more even exchange, but always beneficial.
More interesting yet are the produce stands and farmer’s markets that let you get even closer to the growers – and the food’s better, too, once you get used to the ungainly shapes and less polished-looking presentation. My husband complains whenever we go to the farmer’s market together because I have to gossip with everyone before I can buy our food. For me, it doesn’t taste as good without the gossip, and how can I know that this is a really good day for beets, but not such a good day for beans, without it?
And even better than the open markets are places like the garden of my neighbors, from which they sell salad greens, tomatoes, squash, beans and herbs right among the plants themselves. I envy them as gardeners, and pepper them with questions each time I drop by. It isn’t just about information. As food can tie us closer to the land, it also ties us closer to people, in many directions.
Bread is another cooking connection that is partly a social thing for me. I started learning bread with a couple of friends from recipes in a book that I’d borrowed from my mother when I moved out on my own. Bread is a wonderful thing in a large household, because even mediocre bread is superb fresh from the oven, and in a large household it is all eaten up before it has a chance to cool. So when I moved into a shared house, I thought I was a good baker. There were more books, and more of me not following recipes. And because good bakers aren’t that common, and until recently most bread wasn’t that great, while I was in college and making holiday loaves for the neighbors, I also thought I was a good baker.
Then, as I became introduced to really good artisan breads, I started to realize that I could buy bread that tasted better to me than any bread I made. I became despondent, and only baked bread on occasion, usually to dip in soup, even when friends encouraged me to again take up the flour and mixing bowl, and return to my kneading board.
Obviously I was lost without a clue, without more experienced bakers to turn to. But my dear friend, lover and circle mate provided the clue I needed, in the form of a well-chosen book as a birthday present (the book being The Village Baker). Now bread is once again part of the weekly rhythm. The book in question has not so much supplied me with recipes, but it discussed techniques and gave me the skills to let me get the loft and crumb I had been looking for.
For you nonbakers, loft is the amount of air trapped in bubbles in the rising loaf; greater loft means a larger, lighter loaf. Crumb refers to the bread’s texture, the amount of elasticity and springiness in the dough, which makes the bread chewier and less crumbly. Loft and crumb are bound up together, because without enough elasticity in the dough, the bubbles will burst instead of being trapped inside the bread, and your loaf will sink like a pricked tire.
Bread, at its heart, is a food more simple and mystical than a pot of oxtail soup, more deeply felt than haggis to a Scot. The honorific “lady” is derived from a word meaning “maker of bread,” reflecting the respect that task was once given. Stripped away from the frippery we tend to deck our breads in, bread is flour, water, yeast, technique, time and an oven, and usually a bit of salt.
At the beginning of bread, and here I mean its beginning historically rather than the beginning of any particular loaf, there is porridge, a mixture of meal made from soaking grains mixed with boiling water, rather like oatmeal. This is usually how I start my breads now, in part because it seems particularly suited to many of the hand-ground grains I use. Freshground flour acts rather differently than commercial flour. And of course, if you grind it yourself, you are no longer limited to the few flours that are sold commercially, and can make flour from any grain, nut or other suitable substance that strikes your fancy.
Even better, The Village Baker gave me some insight into the ways of wild yeast, and the different methods of courting and maintaining it. After years of thinking that yeast was something that came in small jars or packets, of enriching bread with butter and eggs, it is liberating to know that wild yeast enables you to stop with flour and water. Wild yeast is everywhere, and if you leave porridge sitting out for a few days, stirring occasionally, it will eventually start to bubble, and from there can be mixed with more flour to make a good bread dough. This is, admittedly, easier if you have been doing some brewing or baking in the vicinity recently – there is always yeast around, but it’s nice to have a fair bit of it in the air if you want a good culture. A natural fermentation loaf, one leavened from wild yeast, rises slowly, and is something you make over days, but it rises of its own accord and makes a chewier, more flavorful, better keeping bread than anything made with commercial yeast. The yeast itself is unseen and amazing, something invisible and transformative that changes the material world under your hands
When you begin to make bread regularly, it becomes social in another direction, because if you make it you might as well make several loaves. Even if you are grinding the grain yourself it isn’t much more work to make many than just one, and you’ll have more than you can eat. Especially if you like fresh bread, for then you will make it often. When you get into the rhythm of bread-making, especially a slow bread which you tend to only once a day and do not need to watch too carefully in its risings, the baking itself becomes relatively little work.
But you have the work, then, of giving your excess away. It is a joyous work, but more difficult than you might think, because most people are overly impressed with fresh-baked bread. While the admiration is fun, too much gratitude is a burden for everyone, and people will often not believe that you have more than you can possibly eat. It is also a good practice to collect recipes for bread pudding, bread salads and other uses for stale bread, because you will have stale bread, despite your best efforts.
Sharing food and eating with others is in the most general sense an art. Many different times have had their own rules of hospitality, though when I try to study these rules I sometimes feel as though we have preserved only their shadows. “At these times you must offer food,” the rules say, “and offer it to these people. At these times you may accept, at these times you decline. And having shared food, these are the obligations and relations between you.” One set of rules I learned from my mother, though not always the logic behind them. Another, often contradictory set I learned from an aunt, and stray bits and pieces that are obviously not even part of the same picture from friends, co-workers and other people. I’m not very good at muddling through all these rules and coming up with graceful interpretations in the face of disparate, often conflicting desires.
But the sharing of food with people, feeding people and being fed, is sacred. I am not good at rules, I am not good at following the map through these woods, but sometimes I can feel a path under my feet. When I give people food I have prepared for them – and this is the easy part – in some way I am giving a part of myself; the work and care I put into the food and all the ties that are between me and it are now between me and the person who eats as well. I don’t think I can lie with food, but I can give, and it is an easy sort of giving, for I love to cook and have plenty.
Accepting food is a little harder, although I enjoy eating what friends have made and appreciate their love, skill and kindness. I will not eat the food made by someone who I know bears me ill-will, nor will I accept food from someone whom I dislike nor willingly share a table with either such person. There is an intimacy in eating that needs to be respected, and to sup with an enemy seems to be a kind of lie, to pretend friendship where there is none. To set aside enmity and share a meal well, that is another thing altogether, and it can be a good when we can rise to it.
There are many rituals that have revolve around food in my life, sometimes intentionally and sometimes creeping around the edges. As for many people, candles and the good glasses mark a “nice” dinner at our house, which is distinguished for us more by the ritual surrounding it than the food served. Mushrooms and other wild food are a blessing, and should be shared and enjoyed rather than hoarded when found in any quantity. To me, they’re a signal to take a bit of time for mirth – I often stumble across a patch accidentally while I am rushing to do something else. There they are, glorious morels growing next to the optometrist’s hedge, boletes under a row of birch trees at work, thimble berries along the side of the road. So I try to give the them party they demand, calling over friends to taste this unexpected treat.
The selection of food is also threaded with ritual for me, though it means I spend more time on the road and gathering than I might prefer. I keep my eyes open, waiting for the day that soft ripe peaches, scenting the air and covering my hands with their juices, first come across the mountains to be sold along the roadside, another turning in my private calendar. In a few weeks, my peach trees will bear their first fruit. Later there are apples, then the local winter squash as we sink towards winter.
My favorite foods are those that meet some internal measure of reality. Sometimes these are the foods of the season, other times those of the regions, sometimes the odd-looking of imperfect specimens. I love the fruits and vegetables that still carry their scents with them. I can bury my nose in a basket of zucchini or fresh picked tomatoes and smell a reminder of the plant that bore them and the earth that nurtured them. I like to find my food still with specks of the dirt it lived in upon it.
Foods that pretend to be something other than what they are, on the other hand, need to be treated with caution. Non-fat cream cheese, fake butter or sugar, ice milk that is too heavily stabilized to melt and their ilk often seem to me to feed the body poorly and the spirit hardly at all. I can be pleased and content with a salad of fresh tender greens and vegetables or a succulent sliced pear, but that which pretends to richness it does not deliver seems to mock me with its own illusory nature and remind me mostly of what I am denied.
Beyond the cycle of the seasons, there are other rhythms that will suggest and shape the food on your table if you listen to them. Plain simple food, inexpensive and seasonal without rich things like meat, eggs or butter, is for new moons; eat it quietly, by yourself or with a few others and appreciate its austerity. Full moons, on the other hand, are for feasting on the bounty of the season, whether that bounty is from the orchards and gardens, the well-stocked winter pantry or the fruit stand down the way. A good time for a little richness, intense flavor and variety. A good time for something special, though not something so heavy that will leave you half-asleep early in the evening.
Rain calls for food that is soothing and homey, that makes you glad to be indoors, sun for food that can be packed well and doesn’t need to be cooked, that carries with it the sweetness and bounty that the sun gives us. Snow calls for foods that cook slowly, so that the stove that heats them heats the house, and food cooked over a fire if you have a fire that can be used thusly. Such foods are the easy, quick foods, but they needn’t be complicated or take that much tending, and where would you rather be on a snowy day anyway than within smell’s reach of the kitchen, basking in its warmth?
There is rhythm and ritual, also, in the making of food. I’ll work a long day, and come home to a risen bowl full of bread that needs to be punched down, kneaded and formed into loaves. For me, the making falls into patterns as calming as a warm bath before bed, patterns that spread throughout our house and shape the days of those of us who live within it in ways the physical walls that shelter us do not. Chop this, sauté that, cover the pan and let it simmer, and work on the next dish while it cooks. Quiet work of hands, time and memory. Remembering Kim, the kitchen teacher at my high school, showing me how to chop tomatoes without letting the seeds pour out of them and slide across the cutting board. Ed breaking off a piece of dough small enough for me to knead with my six-year-old hands. The queer almost-memory of someone’s hands placing a red, smoke-stained covered dish into a dark oven. Children near my old job selling green beans from their own garden at a table by the sidewalk.
In the late evenings or early mornings, when I am tired, dozing by the oven waiting for the bread to be done, I can almost see the strands of a web, reaching from me to them and them to me, and from all of us to the land and back, the gardens, the trees of the orchard, the spices and their dreams of distant lands, the ripening squash that knows the turning of the seasons in a way that I cannot. A web of millions of strands, new threads arching and reaching and tying us deeper, closer, back to the earth.
Oxtail Soup+ 1-2 pounds oxtails+ 1 large onion, chopped+ 3 large cloves garlic+ 1 1/2 cup barley+ SaltOptional+ Red wine+ Worcestershire sauce+ Dried mushrooms+ Bay leaf+ Chopped carrot and/or celery
Place the oxtails in a large thick bottomed pot (a thick bottomed pot will make up for a burner that isn’t even or doesn’t go quite low enough – extra water will make up for either, but a thick bottom is best). Cover them with enough water that they can float a little. If they are forced to remain in contact with the bottom of the pan while being cooked, they’ll burn. Bring water to boil, reduce heat to a simmer, cover and cook for about two days.
Check the soup a few times a day, adding water if necessary, and keep the heat on the low side overnight, or if you’ll be gone for more than a few hours. After two days or thereabouts, the broth will turn a rich gold color (this effect can be enhanced by throwing in a small onion, quartered, with the skin still on – remove this onion when you debone the oxtails). Sometime not too long after the broth has darkened, you should debone the oxtails. Be careful – the bones tend to separate into smaller pieces and hide.
About an hour before you want to eat the soup, add your chopped onion and the barley. At this time, you can start thinking about other flavoring ingredients you might want to add. A little red wine and Worcestershire sauce is common. I’ll sometimes throw in some dried wild mushrooms – boletes are particularly nice for this. A bay leaf can be nice (curry leaf isn’t bad either). I usually don’t add more vegetables to this soup because part of what I like is the relative austerity of the dish, but they do give a more complex flavor. Salt and pepper to taste.
After the barley has plumped up (let it get nice and plump; it will thicken the broth), the soup’s ready to eat. Serve with some crusty bread to wipe the bowl clean.
Honey Cake+ 1/2 cup honey+ 1 egg, beaten+ 1/4 cup butter, softened+ 1 1/2 cup all-purpose flour+ 1 teaspoon baking powder+ 1/2 teaspoon baking soda+ 1/4 teaspoon salt+ 1 cup hot water+ Flavoring, optional
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream together honey and butter. Mix in egg. Slowly mix in dry ingredients, and then bit by bit mix in the hot water until you have a smooth batter. Add flavoring if you wish. (I usually use fiori di sicilia, which is vanilla and citrus – a bit of vanilla extract and lemon zest would probably do nicely. A splash of rosewater or a pinch of cinnamon would also work.)
Pour into a loaf pan, or an eight-inch cake pan, cupcake pans, or what have you. Bake for about half an hour, or until the top is firm when tapped lightly.
Baked Figs and Eggplant+ One large onion+ Several small, or one large, eggplant+ Lamb chops (optional)+ Several fresh figs+ Garlic+ Pomegranate juice+ Red wine+ Olive oil
To make sauce: Caramelize the onion in a bit of olive oil. Do this thoroughly – the onion bits shouldn’t be burnt, but they should be nice and brown, and it will take a while. When the onion is caramelized, add two to four cloves of pressed or minced garlic, half a cup of pomegranate juice (or four tablespoons pomegranate paste and a bit of water), a good glug of wine and salt to taste.
To assemble dish: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. If the eggplant is large, or the skin tough, peel and quarter it. Sear any cut or peeled edges of the eggplant in a frying pan, and likewise sear the lamb chops if lamb chops are being used. Clean and halve the figs. Arrange the eggplant, lamb and figs in a casserole – they can be more than one layer deep, but should fit together as closely as possible. Pour the sauce over the rest of the ingredients, cover and bake for about 45 minutes or until the eggplant is very tender.