Words, Iron, Earth

Posted on June 8, 2011

(Interviews for The Food Life begin next week, fingers crossed.  I am working on scheduling some right now.  Today, a few words and a little food instead.)

I learned last week that my recently released novel, The Mosaic Artist, won an award (Honorable Mention) in the 2011 New York Book Festival.  I have been invited to go to the Algonquin Hotel this Friday night to pick up my framed certificate and make a brief acceptance speech.

I’ll be there, but right now I am struggling with what to say.  Not because I’m nervous or plagued by stage fright, but because the words I come up with are so darn inadequate.  Honored.  Humbled.  Awed.  Grateful.  A few others in that same vein.  Of course I feel all of those things, but these words pin down only a small piece of what I and everyone being honored on Friday feel right now.  An infinitesimal piece.

If I were writing a novel about someone making an acceptance speech, I would show the moment rather than tell a reader only the words used.  I would describe the mood and the lighting of the room.  The sounds.  The telling physical details.  Along with lots of interior character dialogue.  But novel writing isn’t speech writing; feelings aren’t labeled this or that in any definitive way in a novel.  Feelings are instead experienced, and in this way a reader absorbs many disparate elements and (when done well) leaves a book with some understanding of the moment.

Food – a dish, an entire meal – is like this too.  The experience, the moment of taste will trump any words I could write about it.  Last night’s spinach tasted green, metallic, rich and sharp with its iron.

The mushrooms of earth, truffled almost by the slivers of garlic infusing the olive oil.

All this is true, but dinner will taste better than my words 100 % of the time.

Still, sometimes it’s the words that get us to the moment of experience, as imperfect as those words might be.

Between now and Friday, I’ll think of something to say in my little speech.  Between now and Friday, maybe you’ll get in the kitchen to make this pasta.  It really did taste like iron and earth, flavors juxtaposed but complementary, ultimately satisfying.

Fettuccine with Fresh Spinach, Mushrooms, and Garlic

This is not the time for bagged baby spinach leaves.  Or older bagged spinach leaves.  Get to the farmers’ market or your favorite farm stand and get fresh, bunched spinach like the ones shown above with dark green leaves and complete stems.

You can use any favorite pasta shape, but I like these birds’ nests of fettuccine.

The ribbons cook up quickly without sticking together (a problem I seem to have with long, boxed fettuccine) and yield a silky texture which pairs nicely with the unctuous olive oil.

  • 1/2 cup fruity olive oil
  • 3 medium portobella mushrooms, halved down the center and sliced
  • 2-3 cloves of garlic, slivered
  • several bunches of well-washed spinach, bottom stems removed (just tear top half from bottom half)
  • 1/2 pound fettuccine
  • salt
  • pepper and parmesan cheese for serving

Set a large pot of water to boil for cooking the pasta.

Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the mushroom slices and cook, stirring once to coat, until the mushrooms turn golden brown around the edges.  Browning will happen fairly quickly at this temperature, and it is important to not stir frequently or add salt as the mushroom pieces make their way to brown.

When the mushrooms are golden, add the garlic slivers.  Stir once or twice.  When garlic softens (again, very quickly) add a pinch or so of salt.  Stir and taste.  You should taste a bit of salt at this stage, but not too much.

Add the spinach to the pan.  Using tongs, turn the spinach a few times to coat with oil.  Cook until wilted, a minute or two.  Taste test for doneness – the stems should be crisp-tender, not tough, not mushy.

Salt with another pinch or so of salt until you have the taste you like, remembering you will be adding salt to the past water and salty cheese to finish the dish.  (Note: it is easier to use a little bit of salt at a time to build the taste you want, rather than oversalting and needing to correct.  So be sparing and add more only as necessary.)

Remove pan from heat and set aside.

Salt the boiling pasta water and cook pasta according to directions.  Drain.

Toss quickly drained pasta, some cooking water still clinging to it, into the pan with the spinach and mushrooms.  Toss to coat.

Serve immediately with pepper and grated or shaved parmesan cheese.

The recipe serves four, or two with leftovers for two.  Leftovers are really nice served cold for breakfast.  No kidding.

©2011  Jane A. Ward