I am not a vegetarian. Nor do I think I ever will be (again). For a few years in high school I didn’t eat meat. My favorite food at the time was avocado and sharp cheddar on a toasted sesame bagel. Topped with alfalfa sprouts. This was 1978, after all, and sprouts seemed like pretty innovative cuisine. I think I became a vegetarian because eating flesh struck me as quite disgusting. It also folded quite neatly into how I saw myself at the time: questioning authority, prodding the edges of respectability, taking a stand.
My grandmother, named Tappy – cosmopolitan, interested in politics and very direct – disapproved of the vegetarian diet. At mealtime she’d draw out the vowels and state the question, “Just having saa-lad, are you?” Followed by a scornful “tsk,” or an exasperated sigh. This came from a woman who remains, among the people I’ve known, my greatest culinary heroine. It was humiliating.
But the teenage rebel in me was stronger than the loyal granddaughter/student of fine living. I stuck to my guns and put up with her acid comments until senior year. One fine spring day, at a barbeque on the lawn of a rowing club in Cambridge, Mass, I abruptly stopped being a vegetarian. I ate a juicy, just-grilled hamburger. It was delicious.
Thirty years have passed. I have enjoyed foie gras, sweetbreads, pig’s knuckles, horsemeat, venison and duck and everything else imaginable. Meat is very much part of my diet. But I do find myself making more and more vegetable-grain-legume based meals. Influenced by a host of smart people such as Michael Pollan (read The Omnivore’s Dilemma if you haven’t), Alice Waters, Eric Schlossberg, the movie Food Inc., etc. along with a better understanding of the connection between what we eat and the health of our planet (and our bodies), I am fully on the bandwagon. If she were alive today, conversations with Tappy would be very invigorating indeed.
I like this recipe because it’s hearty and protein-filled and I get my greens fix. It’s quick to make and costs very little. The flakes of hot pepper make it lively. Serve with crusty bread and salad with a good vinaigrette, or as part of a composed plate with butternut squash gratin and roasted winter vegetables. If you’re short on time, use rinsed canned beans of good quality (I like Eden brand). If you’re organized, soak dried bean the night before and save some for another day, when you can make a white bean purée with garlic, to have on little toasts as an appetizer.
Kale with Cannellini Beans
Adapted only slightly from vegetarian guru Deborah Madison
One bunch of purple stem kale, stems and ribs removed
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 small onion, finely diced
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 large garlic cloves, minced
Pinch of red pepper flakes (or more to taste)
2 teaspoons finely chopped rosemary
½ cup dry white wine
1 1/3 cups cooked cannellini beans, rinsed well if cans
½ cup bread crumbs, freshly made and pan crisped in olive oil
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Cook the kale leaves in a pot of salted boiling water for 7 minutes, or until tender. Drain, reserving a little of the cooking water, and chop the leaves.
In a large skillet over a medium-low heat, sauté the onion in oil until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, red pepper flakes and rosemary, cooking for an additional 2 minutes. Add the wine and simmer until it’s reduced to a sauce. Add the beans, kale, and a little cooking water to keep the mixture loose. Heat through, taste for salt and season with pepper. Serve with a dusting of crispy breadcrumbs and grated Parmesan.