I climb up and over the retaining wall to reach the patch of soil that holds the beets. It’s a small yard, so I’ve taken every inch of possible growing space, including this awkwardly placed spot between two stone walls on a steep slope. It’s inconvenient. Especially when the late summer heat forces me to lug heavy watering cans over the wall almost daily. But beets have done well here, and, in this unseasonably warm Fall weather, they’ve remained waiting in the ground, ready to harvest, much longer than I expected them to. I’ll roast, puree and use the ones I pull today to make a bright-purple fettuccine in what will only be my second attempt at the pasta machine.
Once inside, I set down the basket of beets and pick up Nigel Slater’s Christmas Chronicles. I’ve nearly finished reading it cover-to-cover. In the book, Slater, a self-described “cook who writes,” devotes almost as much space to the everyday life happening around the food as he does to the food itself. Certainly, in this and his other Kitchen Diaries tomes there are recipes, but his writing style is best suited for people who already know, for the most part, what they are doing in the kitchen; home cooks adept at improvising and adapting as they go. And those who want to read about food. Each recipe is nestled between evocative descriptions of the seemingly ordinary activities of wintertime domestic life and it’s here that, for me, the book shines: coming in from planting bulbs in a snow-capped garden, struggling to pull off wet heavy boots, lighting candles in the early morning and relying only on their flickering light to work by, cosying up with a good book as the smell of a pork roast with root vegetables and woody herbs wafts from the oven.
Winter has always been a time of relative isolated hibernation. Cold weather draws us inside the house. We bundle our bodies in layers of wool and down, literally insulating them from the unpleasant world outside. Gardeners lay in wait for the next growing season to begin. But the social distancing and intermittent lockdowns of a pandemic winter are forcing many of us into even greater isolation, to forego holiday traditions and pare back on the sorts of “going-somewheres” and “doing-somethings” we’ve been socialized to recognize as indicators of a life well-lived: experiencing new places and things through travel, day-trips, vacations, or visiting a new restaurant; spending time with family and friends and, of course, celebrating major holidays. The big things aside - professional accomplishments, weddings and babies, buying a home – though the possibilities for these milestones have been similarly quashed by the pandemic - these are some of the experiences that make us feel like time isn’t just passing by us, but that our lives are being lived as it passes. How do we go about the day-to-day of living a meaningful and memorable life without them?
I’ve found contemplative, if somewhat aspirational, domestic narratives like that of Christmas Chronicles to have a calming, grounding effect, and I’ve been seeking out similar content to inspire my attempts to make the most of winter life in isolation. Current favourites include the atmospheric, fairy-tale-like gardening, cooking and crafting videos of Liziqi; the maximalist English country home visuals and homely Northern European wintertime recipes of House & Garden magazine and old episodes of Nigella Lawson’s cooking shows, especially the holiday specials.
But for anyone paying attention to the world, lifestyle content as a genre, of both new and old media, can elicit feelings of ambivalence. It's always potentially alienating, tone deaf or inaccessible. The things and experiences it features are often financially out of reach for many people and the sort that features domestic life can romanticize the often thankless and boring drudgery of the home that tends to be unequally and unfairly apportioned. Presenting the everyday rituals of domestic life as a central dimension of a life-well lived, assumes, of course, that you have a home, that the home you have is safe and that you have at least a modicum of disposable income to spend on it. But not everyone does. And poverty, housing insecurity, homelessness and domestic violence, ever present failures of patriarchal capitalism, have only been exacerbated by the pandemic.
There is another, less significant, reason for the ambivalence I feel consuming lifestyle content - a genre I genuinely love. I could imagine myself a Nigella-like domestic goddess, gliding through my sparkling clean and beautifully decorated home, cooking, gardening and nesting with an air of calm and ease I so often see reflected in the lifestyle genre, but that’s rarely how my domestic life feels. Sure, my house is never completely clean, and my decor is unfinished and mostly neglected, but it's the way my emotions seem to fall short of the domestic ideal that I feel guilty about. Domestic life is work. And no matter your circumstances it can be a struggle. It can feel anxious, rushed, disorganized, exhausting, and overwhelming. There is a distance between the emotional tenor reflected in the lifestyle content I consume and that of my actual experience of running a home. And I can’t decide if bridging this distance is a worthy aspiration or an unrealistic fantasy. I suppose much depends on your expectations.
Nigella Lawson once replied to an interviewer who pointedly questioned the virtues of “being a domestic goddess” that her idea was more about taking pleasure in feeling like a domestic goddess, than actually being one. The implication, I assume, is that we can feel like a domestic goddess some of the time, but not all of the time, and for that we shouldn’t beat ourselves up. I think it's a useful distinction, and it’s one that’s reflected in Nigella’s work. She cooks a lot of simple dishes, takes shortcuts, unapologetically indulges in food she loves and refuses to feel guilty about doctoring up a store-bought cake or exhibiting less-than-perfect knife skills.
As for me, I’ve been trying to conjure moments of that “Christmas Chronicles” or “Nigella Bites” feeling in my own home with things as simple as lighting candles, filling the house with ambient sights and sounds - fireplaces, cabin in a winter snowstorm – caring for my houseplants, taking a few extra minutes to make a cocktail or fancy caffeinated beverage at home, and, most importantly, practicing being more intentional with what I pay attention to, getting off the internet sometimes and reading a book instead. There is something even a little subversive about insisting on the value and significance of everyday experiences and domestic rituals; asserting that these things, too, lend value to one’s life. Sometimes those things that we’ve been socialized to recognize as indicators of a life-well-lived lead us in the wrong direction; our eyes always looking ahead to the next accomplishment, the next going-somewhere or doing-something, looking for validation in the proof that we are busy and accomplished, and meaning in things both totally disconnected from the experience of our everyday lives and, as a global pandemic has made clear, that we ultimately cannot control. Of course, to understand this is one thing, to put it into practice in one’s life, is quite another.
My purple beet pasta dough hydrated more than I thought it would as it rested, possibly from the moisture of the beet puree. It’s too soft rolling through the machine; the first batch of noodles stick together as they sit and need to be re-rolled. From then on, I liberally dust the dough with flour after each step of the process and wonder if this the amount of flour I should have been using from the beginning. It’s not a disaster, but it’s not a smooth process either. I’ll need more practice to get it right.
VEGAN BUFFALO CAULIFLOWER TACOS
Crispy breaded and roasted cauliflower florets (or wings) smothered in a spicy buffalo sauce and tucked into a vegan taco served with a fresh tangy slaw and rich, creamy refried beans.
- For the Cauliflower:
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt, divided
- 1/2 teaspoon pepper, divided
- 1 cup flour
- 1 cup + 2 tablespoons plant milk, or water
- 1 1/2 cups bread crumbs
- 1 head cauliflower, chopped into bite-sized florets
- For the Buffalo Sauce:
- 1/4 cup butter, melted
- 1/2 cup Frank’s hot sauce
- For the Slaw:
- 1/4 head green cabbage, thinly sliced, preferably with a mandoline
- 1 carrot, grated
- 3 tablespoons rice vinegar
- 1/4 teaspoon sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/4 cup sour cream
- For the Refried Beans
- 1/2 onion, finely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 cups cooked white beans (or one 15oz can)
- 1/4 cup water
- Salt & pepper to taste
- Corn or Flour Tortillas
- Optional Toppings: lettuce, avocado, celery, jalapeños
- Preheat the oven to 425F.
- Bread the cauliflower. Place two wire racks inside two rimmed baking sheets. Set Aside. Place the bread crumbs in a shallow bowl with 1/4 teaspoon of the salt and 1/4 teaspoon of the pepper. In a second shallow bowl, whisk the flour with the garlic powder, onion powder, 1/4 teaspoon of the salt and 1/4 teaspoon of the pepper. Slowly whisk the milk into the flour until the batter is smooth and the consistency of slightly runny pancake batter. Working one at a time, dredge the cauliflower florets through the batter, allow any excess to drip off, then press gently into the bread crumbs. Lay the breaded florets on the prepared sheet pans.
- Bake. Bake the cauliflower in the preheated oven for 30-40 minutes, rotating the trays half-way through cook time, or until the breading is golden brown and a fork easily pierces through one of the larger florets. Meanwhile, prepare the rest of the taco components.
- Make the Buffalo Sauce. In a small bowl or glass measuring cup, whisk together the melted butter and Frank’s hot sauce. Set aside. The sauce will harden as it cools. Pop it into the microwave for a few seconds and whisk to return it to a sauce-like consistency when ready to use.
- Make the Slaw. Add the shredded cabbage, grated carrot, rice vinegar, kosher salt & sour cream to a large bowl. Toss well to combine. Set aside.
- Make the refried beans. In a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat, add the onions and cook until just translucent, 3-5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another 1-2 minutes. Add the beans and the water. Cook for 5 minutes. Mash the bean mixture with a fork or potato masher and cook for another 2-3 minutes, or until most of the liquid evaporates and the beans are the consistency of chunky mashed potatoes. Set Aside.
- Assemble. Top each tortilla with a large spoonful of refried beans, a heaping pile of slaw and 3-4 cauliflower florets, depending on the size of your tortillas. Finish with a generous drizzle of the buffalo sauce and any additional toppings of your choice - shown here with lettuce, celery, avocado and fresh parsley and lime.