I've just returned from a week in Sicily, where Rachel and I taught our food writing workshop at the splendidly picturesque Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School. I have so much to tell you, but the words and impressions and images are still swirling around in my head and haven't had a chance to settle yet. While I was away, Hugo and Max went to visit Max's grandparents in deepest Bavaria. They communed with sheep, cows and chickens, wore rain boots all week, and generally had the best vacation a little boy could hope for.
We all got home this past weekend, to an empty fridge and an uninspiring larder. Even the bread box was bare. And since stores in Germany are closed on Sundays, shopping was out. Mercifully, my mother had us over for lunch on Sunday. There were oven-baked polpette encrusted with breadcrumbs, roast potatoes, salad, and gratineed eggplant. After a week of being cooked for at breakfast, lunch and dinner, I thought I might feel like cooking again once I got home. But no, actually, being fed by someone else still felt pretty good.
At dinnertime, though, we were on our own. I picked up and considered a can of baked beans, a jar of millet, some carrots asleep in the fridge. I thought about doing a bit of tinkering. Roasting nuts, cooking lentils, trying to make something fresh out of the drabness staring back at me from the pantry. But after all that Sicilian home cooking - the expertly balanced menus, richly flavorful sauces, the vegetables that tasted so deeply of themselves and the earth, and crisp fritti - culinary experimentation felt a little sacrilegious. And after a week of not seeing my loves, the last thing I felt like doing was sequestering myself in the kitchen for an hour.
Instead, I went all the way back to the most basic of basics with the things I always always always have around: rice and peas and a little bit of broth; an abbreviated, simplifed risi e bisi. You could go elsewhere for more complicated versions of that classic Italian dish (David Tanis' with pancetta and pea shoots and lemon zest, oh my, or Rachel's via Marcella Hazan, with homemade stock, fresh peas and Italian rice). But in a pinch, it's good to know that cutting corners works just fine too. This is how I cook when I don't want to cook.
I heated olive oil in a pan, then cooked the rice (regular long-grain, nothing fancy) in the oil until it was toasty and fragrant. In went a lot of water, enough to cook the rice and still have a bit pooling in each plate after serving. The water sizzled as it hit the hot pan. Then a few spoonfuls of Better than Bouillon's vegetable base were stirred in. (You could also use a bouillon cube. I often do.) When the rice was halfway cooked, tiny droplets of oil pooling at the surface of the water, I added twice as many frozen peas, then let the whole mixture cook together until the rice was finished.
I spooned the rice and peas into our bowls, the broth pooling just slightly at the edges, put grated Parmesan on top to shrivel in the heat and melt. It felt like the truest nursery food, calming and nourishing, piping hot and agreeably savory.
You don't actually need a recipe for this, I think. But sometimes it's nice to know about the simplest, silliest meals, how we feed ourselves when we must make do. Knowing how to make a little thing that will fill you up and taste like home is just as important as knowing how to make a feast. These are the dishes that end up making up the fabric of flavors of your life.
Rice and Peas and Broth and Cheese
Serves 2 adults and one toddler
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup long-grain rice
2-3 teaspoons Better Than Bouillon vegetable base (or a bouillon cube)
2 cups frozen peas
Grated Parmesan, for serving
1. Heat the olive oil in a medium sauce pan, then add the rice and cook, stirring, until the rice is fragrant and slightly toasted. Pour in 3 cups of cold water and add the bouillon base. Bring to a boil, then reduce to the heat to a simmer, with the lid on and slightly askew.
2. After about 7 minutes, add the frozen peas and stir well. Raise the heat to bring the water back to a boil, then reduce to a simmer again and finish cooking, with the lid on and slightly askew, another 7-10 minutes. The rice should be soft but not mushy. There should still be some liquid in the pan.
3. Ladle the mixture into bowls and top with freshly grated Parmesan. Serve immediately.