I've been reading Alan Weisman's The World Without Us over the past few weeks. Usually, I breeze through books in a few hours flat, but I can only take a little bit of this one at a time. I read part of a chapter each night before bed, then close the book feeling slightly wide-eyed and totally desperate. It's tough to read this book without feeling that life on earth really is rather futile and pointless, and I'm sure I don't need to tell anyone that this isn't exactly a helpful attitude to have if you're trying to be a normal, functioning human being with hopes and dreams and goals (who wants to end up like George Sibley, after all?).
We drove out to a nature preserve on Long Island yesterday, past empty strip malls and prefab homes, down winding lanes and old stone walls. We ended up in a tiny 6-car parking lot where the air was light and clean and almost entirely quiet except for the very gentle wind in the trees and the occasional bird calling out and the usual hustle and bustle of chipmunks skittering over the moist earth and softly rotting leaves. We sat in our car with the doors open and ate sandwiches Ben had made, chewing quietly in order not to disturb the aural peace, then made our way through the grassy paths - hot underfoot from the strange October sun - to the cooler, darker, sun-dappled forest. Fallen tree trunks, covered in moss and lichen, blocked our path now and then, and the crackling twigs and leaves that heralded our arrival made birds and smaller animals flit away in a small flurry of movement. The forest smelled fresh and piney.
Our winding path led us to a grassy bluff overlooking the Long Island Sound. We took our shoes off and walked up and down the beach, picking up opalescent rocks, creamy-white quahog shells, and weathered sticks of driftwood. We watched seagulls feast on their lunch, dashing mussels on the rocks, diving underwater and coming back up with their beaks smacking, picking at little and not-so-little crabs. Regular gourmands, those gulls. The Sound was a deep, dark blue - the color of my great-aunt Luisa's silk wedding dress - and lapped at the shore soothingly. We passed a lone couple splayed out on a blanket fast asleep and I could almost feel the cool, wet sand under my shoulder blades as I watched them out of the corner of my eyes.
On our drive back home again I tried hard to hold onto the sounds of the ocean and the forest. But it's harder than you think, once winding bridle paths give way to turnpikes and local highways. Plus, Led Zeppelin was on the radio, and I can't ever turn off Led Zeppelin - it reminds me of Berlin and the people I grew up with, 8th grade dances on a ski trip in Austria and the absolutely glorious awkwardness of youth. Those are memories I've always got time for. The nature preserve fell further and further behind us, and we daydreamed about the day when we'll live by the ocean full-time - writing, making music, sipping tea. It's mostly an illusion, but these conversations move life forward, I suspect, keeping our gears oiled and running.
Forgive me, readers, but at home I took one look at my newspaper recipe files and turned away. I've read them through one too many times lately, can't seem to find the enthusiasm right now to make my way through another one just yet. Instead, I went to the fridge and poked through the various bags of CSA produce sitting in the crisper drawers, finding half a butternut squash, some crusty-looking beets, limpish kale, a dusty-brown head of garlic (well, that wasn't in the fridge) and a bundle of soft sage. Ben wandered in and wondered out loud if we shouldn't just order. I shooed him out again.
With Chez Panisse Vegetables open on the counter, I started roasting the beets for salad (page 44), cubing the butternut squash for risotto (page 282) and gently frying rosemary and garlic for the beans and kale (page 40). The beets sweetened and mellowed in the oven. I slipped off their thickish skins and sliced them thinly, then dressed them with nothing but flaky salt, olive oil and vinegar. The cubed squash simmered gently in sage-scented broth, while rice toasted in oil and butter and the onions grew translucent from the heat. The risotto, green-flecked and squash-studded, was sweet and faintly chewy - the squash toothsome and yielding. The crispy, fried sage leaves broke with the tiniest of crackles under the tines of our forks. The beans, canned, because life is sometimes not ready for dried, grew melting and stewy in their rosemary oil bath, and the chopped kale cooked down silkily around them. Drizzled with a greenish thread of fresh olive oil, the greens and beans were pleasingly herbal and earthy.
It was a good dinner, after a good day, despite the pinprick of melancholy I couldn't shake. The routine of preparing a meal and feeding the people you love: it never really gets old. That's part of what keeps us going, I suppose, routines and love and stupid, foolish hope that we won't really destroy the very thing that enables our existence.
Butternut Squash Risotto
Serves 6 to 8
1 medium butternut squash (about 1 pound)
24 sage leaves
Salt and pepper
7 to 8 cups chicken stock
1 medium onion
5 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup Parmigiano Reggiano, grated
1. Peel and clean the squash, then dice it into very small cubes. Put the diced squash in a heavy-bottomed pan with a few whole sage leaves, salt and 1 cup of the chicken stock. Bring to a simmer and cook until tender, but not too soft, about 5 to 10 minutes. Meanwhile, chop 6 sage leaves fine and cut the onion into small dice.
2. Heat the rest of the stock and hold at a low simmer. In another heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat 3 tablespoons of butter, add the chopped sage and cook for a minute or so; add the onion and continue to cook over medium heat until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the rice and a pinch of salt and cook over low heat for about 3 minutes, stirring often, until the rice has turned slightly translucent. Turn up the heat and pour in the white wine. When the wine has been absorbed, add just enough hot stock to cover the rice, stir well and reduce the heat.
3. Keep the rice at a gently simmer and continue to add more stock, a ladle or two at a time, letting each addition be absorbed by the rice. While the rice is cooking, saute the remaining sage leaves in butter until crisp.
4. After 15 minutes, the rice will be nearly cooked. Stir in the cooked squash, the rest of the butter and the cheese. Continue cooking for 3 to 5 minutes, stirring often. Taste for texture and consistency, adding more stock if necessary. Adjust the seasoning. When done, serve in warm bowls and garnish with crisp sage leaves, and more cheese if desired.