This Crappy Kitchen: Kelly in Elkins, WV

Crappy kitchens. We've all had them (and if you haven't, sweetheart, then props to you). Nearly every lifestyle magazine or website glorifies the concept of a fully-loaded deluxe kitchen; we see profiles of famous chefs or writers or designers and their glorious, airy kitchens with top-end appliances and cookbooks arranged just so. Inevitably, these chefs and writers and designers have more resources to pull from in creating their dream kitchens than we mere humans. 

The argument is that glossy magazine spreads appeal to our own dreams--if we can't enjoy a clean, spacious kitchen of our own, at least we can do it vicariously--but I don't buy it. I want tips on living with the kitchen I have now, not ideas on how to set up the kitchen I'll never get. 

Earlier this week, food writer Debbie Koenig came clean in a blog post that went a little viral. In it, she points out that food writers, by projecting a buffed-and-polished version of their lives, let readers down by delivering something unreasonable and unattainable. "I don’t think we’re ashamed of these parts of our lives, necessarily, just that in order to capture attention, we chase a notion of unrealistic beauty," she writes. "That leads to cookbooks and food blogs as staged and Photoshopped as the models in Vogue."

I'm sick of Vogue model kitchens. So, with that in mind, I invite us--you!--to share your crappy kitchens with others who likewise cope with crappy kitchens. I hope this occasional series of short videos will inspire you to embrace what is real, and vent about what is crappy. First up: my lifelong friend Kelly. Back in February, I stayed at her rental house in Elkins, WV. Kelly is usually a very expressive, energetic person, and that she's somewhat subdued here is quite telling. She hated that kitchen. The video quality here is not great, perhaps in keeping with the theme, but you'll get the idea.

Happy ending: Kelly married her boyfriend, and they now live in a house way out in the woods. Their kitchen is still not ideal, but it's warm and welcoming, and its few cabinets are easily accessible. My heart goes out to the occupants of Kelly's old place, which is a cute little house, if you eat exclusively instant ramen and instant oatmeal.

Please share your crappy kitchen woes below. And maybe we'll feature your kitchen next on This Crappy Kitchen! 

Indian-Style Green Beans and Potatoes

For years I've been all geared up about pressure cooking, so when I finally got to teach a Modern Pressure Cooking Workshop this past weekend, I was over the moon. Pressure cooking is a hard sell for places that host classes. It's just not sexy. Pressure cookers strike home cooks as risky and prone to explosions. But pressure cooking is IS sexy, and it's also very safe, and that we had a sold-out group this past Sunday only proves how groovy the folks are up in the Randolph/Tucker county area of West Virginia. It's about 3,000 feet up there, to be exact, so we needed a few extra moments of cooking time for a number of the dishes. (Note to chef-educators: when something does not turn out exactly as planned, blame the altitude!)

Here's one thing we made in the class, a summer staples I cook again and again: green beans and potatoes. Pull out your pressure cookers and snap to it.

Indian-Style Green Beans and Potatoes

Serves 6-8 as a side dish

Is there any other veggie pairing as homey and adaptable as green beans and potatoes? Here, we’re adding turmeric and a few spices with ginger and garlic for an Indian feel, a riff on a recipe created by my friend Sara Alway in her adorable little book on companion planting, Soil Mates. But you could tinker with the aromatics and seasonings and take it in dozens of different flavor directions.

The doneness is the trick here. Some green beans are old and tough; some are young and tender. Some potatoes cook up in 4 minutes; others take longer. Also, I love it when my green beans get on the mushy side and the potatoes begin to fall apart. I’m guessing you don’t (if you do, awesome!) Use these cooking times as a guideline, checking after 4 minutes and cooking longer as needed.

  • 1 tablespoon canola oil
  • 2 teaspoons whole black mustard seed, optional
  • 1 onion, diced or sliced
  • 1 tablespoon minced ginger
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • ½ teaspoon ground turmeric
  • ½ teaspoon ground coriander
  • ¾ cup vegetable stock, water, or whey
  • 2 pounds small redskin potatoes, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1-2 pounds green beans, snapped
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, optional
  • Freshly squeezed lemon juice for serving
  1. Heat the cooker over medium-high heat. Add the oil. When it shimmers, add the mustard seed and cook until the seeds pop.
  2. Immediately add the diced onion and cook until the onions begin to brown, about 5-10 minutes. You may need to lower the heat to keep the onion from burning. Add the ginger, garlic, turmeric, and coriander and cook for an additional minute.
  3. Stir in the water, stock, or whey, then add the potatoes and green beans. Sprinkle salt and pepper over the works. Lock on the lid, bring the cooker to pressure, and cook on the highest setting for 4 minutes (really I always need to go longer, more like 8 minutes, but start with 4). Release the pressure and take a peek in the cooker, poking a potato and green bean. If they are not yet tender, continue to cook in increments of 2-4 minutes.
  4. When the vegetables are cooked to your desired doneness, stir in the butter, if using. Taste for seasoning and add more salt. Unless you used whey, which is already tart, squeeze as much lemon juice over the vegetables as you like and serve.

Rosemary and Garlic Variation: Substitute olive oil for the canola oil, and omit the spices and ginger. Add a dried bay leaf and a sprig of fresh rosemary when you add the liquid and the vegetables.

Basil and Tomato Variation: Substitute olive oil for the canola oil, and omit the spices and ginger. Decrease the cooking liquid to ½ cup and add a few chopped fresh tomatoes instead. After it’s all cooked, throw in a nice handful of chopped fresh basil and maybe a little fresh oregano.

Down Home Version: Omit the canola oil, spices, and ginger. Render a few slices of bacon and cook the onion in that. Sprinkle a tablespoon or so of apple cider vinegar over the cooked vegetables before serving. I especially like this preparation when the veggies are a little more cooked and the beans are army green.

*Sara also shared her own pressure cooker, a funky but not scary Hawkins, with me; it's what you see in the photo. Hawkins is a big brand in India, I guess, because the pamphlet that came with the cooker has a bunch of neato regional Indian recipes. Sara, if you want your cooker back, let me know! It's not hard to use at all. Perhaps it's time for me to host a an underground Modern Pressure Cooking Workshop in my own kitchen!  

Gather Ye Ramps While Ye May

Like nearly all highly coveted foods, ramps have a crevice of calendar days when they appear in titillating abundance. Their delicate green fronds rise from the leafy detritus of primeval forest floors, signaling spring. And thus the mania begins. Every year, those wise in the ways of ramps take to the woods, seeking their precious, restorative quarry.

ramps on slope.JPG

A ramp is as slender as the most refined pinkie. It shyly pokes its head from the ground from late March to April. They grow in fertile, shady woodlands all over the eastern United States and southeast Canada, though I think of them as particularly Appalachian. It’s possible to cultivate ramps, but they are finicky. The majority of the ramps harvested every year are foraged. These alluring wild mountain leeks have grown for centuries, so if you are rolling your eyes and thinking how very 2011 it is to extol the many culinary and spiritual virtues of ramps, you may be dismissed. Only those pure in heart can enter the magical portal to this pungent Brigadoon. It’s been a hell of a winter. Go gather ye ramps while ye may.

That the heartbeats of an entire group of humans—young and old, hillbilly and hipster—can quicken so at the mention of an untamed vegetable that shares a prosaic name with a simple machine perplexes many. My husband, for one. He does not object to ramps; in fact, he will gladly eat them. What he does not get is the mighty ruckus people like me raise over a feral edible plant. The concept of combing the hillsides in search of elusive alliums and then investing dirty hours on hands and knees extricating their slender roots from the chilled spring soil holds little appeal to him. And since the treasure hunt is half of the point, he’s only experiencing a shadow of the ramp when he ingests it.

ramps with brown.JPG

Appalachians pride themselves on their self-reliance. To glorify the ramp is exquisitely Appalachian. To glorify the ramp is to recognize the generally unnoticed wonder that quietly rises up from deep, dark, ancient hollers where living mindlessly is not advisable.

So ramps are not just a food or a fever of spring. They are an emblem and a practice and an edible manifestation of a tribe. You don’t need to live in a shack in the woods to belong to that tribe. All you have to do is get why there’s a tribe in the first place.

And yet the flavor of a ramp offers enough stinky-breath allure to pay off the emotional hype surrounding it. Ramps are scallion-esque, but not oniony. Their emerald fronds are herbal, but not chive-y. There’s some garlicky assertiveness in the white root, but it’s not as sharp. That’s what’s foxy to a chef about a ramp. It’s an aromatic and a cooking green all in one, familiar in concept but and exotic in spirit.

The Appalachian tradition hinges upon having access to heaps and heaps of ramps. Heaps, literally. This amount is known colloquially as “a big mess of ramps,” or even more colloquially as “a messaramps”. A messaramps shrinks dramatically when exposed to heat, and the result is somewhat like very pungent cooked spinach: green, but zingy with that good stink.

These cooked ramps are often served alongside cornbread and beans at church fundraising ramp dinners, where many hands make faster work of the digging, sorting, cleaning, and cooking. A common way to prepare the ramps is to first blanch them; it’s fast, and it’s said to tame these little buggers. I prefer to chop the white root ends into segments about a centimeter long and saute these gently in a big skillet filmed with olive oil. After a few minutes of this, when the roots are good and aromatic (they won’t become translucent as chopped, cooked onions do), roughly chop the greens and throw them in. They will wilt yieldingly. Season this with salt and a few light grinds of pepper; now you can enliven a frittata, risotto, pizza, sandwich, omelet, quiche, home fries, et cetera.

A raw ramp is an entirely different beast from its mellower cooked sibling. Raw ramps emit vapors that intoxicate some and polarize all. If you have only a dozen or so precious ramps to in your hot little hands, I recommend using them as crazy-intense herbs. Make ramp aöli, or mince them and gently knead them into a hamburger patty with a dash or two of Worcestershire sauce (and then serve it with ramp aöli). Or chop up your scant little bundle of ramps, flash it in a little olive oil, and cook eggs sunny-side-up right on the rampy nest.

The only way to go wrong with ramps is to disrespect them. When you find a patch in the woods, don’t go decimating the whole thing like a heathen. Dig up a few ramps here and a few ramps there, allowing the patch to maintain its numbers from season to season. And it’s best to leave some of the root end in the ground, if possible, to facilitate next year’s growth. I sense that the trendiness of ramps in urban markets peaked last year, but there’s still a need to preserve, not deplete, the wild rampshed.

Should you not be privy to the secreted lands where ramps thrive, take heart. Certainly there’s something else equivalent in your life. If not in flavor, in essence. Ramps present themselves to those who choose to be aware of what surrounds them. You can’t enter Brigadoon by looking for it directly, but you can’t enter it without wandering, either.

Mash up a big, rich pot of potato-ey ramp champ to enjoy some rib-sticking spring fodder. 

This post originally appeared on Food Riot, where I am a contributor.