By Gini Rainey
Today is a beautiful day in East Texas! The sky is blue, the temperature is cool, the leaves are turning – who could ask for anything more? We are nearly a week out from a Presidential election that apparently has turned a lot of people’s world up-side down, but thankfully, every morning the sun still comes up and life really does go on. That being said, there have been times when I wasn’t sure I would be able to survive an event and one that comes to mind was the first time I cooked a meal for my in-laws. Obviously this was early marriage, and our apartment in Houston wasn’t overly filled with kitchen gadgets. I remember that I cooked some sort of beef roast and had made some sort of potatoes to go with it. Naturally, one would make a nice gravy to go with said roast and potatoes, right? So, I made a gravy that wasn’t quite so nice – it tasted good, but with all the lumps, it wasn’t exactly something to be proud of. These days, if my gravy turned out like that, I would either use a whisk, my blender, or run it through a sieve, but back then the only thing I could come up with was, are you ready for this? Panty hose. Yup, ran that stuff through the toe and came up with a really nice and smooth gravy that my MIL complimented me on! Of course, she didn’t see my mad dash to the bedroom to retrieve said panty hose.
So, where is all of this heading? Well, I have this absolutely lovely cookbook of Nigella Lawson’s in front of me today. “Nigella Bites” was published in 2002 by Hyperion and is 244 pages of wonderful recipes and amazing photographs by Francesca Yorke. And where’s the connection between the personal life story and this cookbook, you might ask? Well, Nigella included a recipe for Pasta E Fagioli that calls for “1 knee-high hosiery” and she says that “it’s the first time I’ve included a knee-high hosiery sock among any list of ingredients! By all means bundle the rosemary and onion into cheesecloth if it makes you feel more satisfactorily homespun, but I am just not one of those efficiently traditional domestic types that keeps cheesecloths and muslins on hand.” So, when I saw this statement I finally no longer felt alone in my creative applications for the kitchen!
This book steps out of the usual boundaries as far as sections are concerned. With titles like “All-Day Breakfast,” “TV Dinners,” “Party Girl,” “Trashy,” and “Templefood,” you can be sure that Nigella is just as creative with her writing about food as she is cooking food. And while other cookbooks pretty much stick to one course or type of food per section, Nigella hits a little bit of everything in each section. As she says, “I’m not interested in pleasing food snobs or purists, or in eating just one type of food….but there is surely a place for a bit of kitsch in the kitchen.”
I must admit that I am strangely drawn to the “Trashy” section which contains recipes for “Ham in Coca-Cola,” “Watermelon Daiquiris,” “Fried Peanut Butter and Banana Sandwiches,” and “Deep-Fried Candy Bars with Pineapple,” to name a few. But, back to the Pasta E Fagioli and the way that Nigella writes her recipes, they read like a well-written novel. For example “Using the flat side of a large knife, press down on the whole garlic cloves so that their papery skins tear and begin to come away.” You could get totally engrossed reading a cookbook like this, while your family sits around with tummies growling. So, I’m going to share her recipe with you and try to make it brief. First, soak 3 cups of dried cranberry beans (pinto beans work well, also) in a large bowl of water for at least 6 hours – or overnight. Then drain, put into a large saucepan and add 5 cloves of smashed garlic. Take your knee-high hosiery sock (or square of muslin or cheesecloth) and put in 2 leafy sprigs of rosemary and one onion, peeled and quartered, tie off and add to beans. Cover with cold water, cover and bring to a boil, then turn heat down and simmer for an hour. When the beans are tender add salt to taste and remove the sock or muslin. Remove about a cup of beans and process in a blender along with a tablespoon of tomato paste and 1 ¼ cups of the bean-cooking liquid. Now add 3 tablespoons of olive oil to a small saucepan and add a minced or micro-planed clove of garlic and sauté until soft, but not colored and then add a sprig of finely chopped rosemary, cook for a scant minute and then add the liquidized soup/beans and cook for another minute or so and add back to the large pan of beans. Bring back to a boil and add 7 ounces of ditalini, tubetti, or any other small pasta tubes and cook according to package instructions. Serve with crusty French bread and fresh butter, and wow! What a great meal for a Sunday evening.