While I've been out in the jungle we call the back garden, hacking away at the briars that have surrounded our sadly neglected greenhouse like Sleeping Beauty's castle, Lent has crept up on me.
For those who don't observe the Christian calendar, Lent is a penitential season of spiritual fasting modeled on the forty day fast that Jesus took to prepare for his ministry. Well, since he retreated to the wilderness for that one, in a way it seems appropriate that my Lenten observance began out in our own little wilderness.
Many who observe Lent focus on what they're not doing (most often what they're not eating and drinking). But a proper spiritual fast is less about the abstinence that marks it outwardly than the introspection and contemplation that ought to be going on inwardly. To that end, there's been a trend over the last few years to shift the focus from "giving things up" to "taking things on" as a spiritual discipline.
Perhaps rescuing our sadly neglected garden could be thought of as spiritual, but then again, so can everything we do. With that idea in mind, these days I neither give up nor take on during Lent. I do cut back on indulgence, but instead of adding a discipline, what I try to do is approach everyday chores with more focus and a contemplative spirit, and pay better attention to what I'm doing and why, especially in the kitchen.
What that means for my cooking is that it's less about what I'm leaving out of the pot than it is about paying more thoughtful attention to what I'm putting into it. It also means that I approach the unavoidable dull chores with more care and less of a sense of tedium.
Let's face it: no matter how much one enjoys cooking, a lot of what we do in the kitchen is tedious. If we focus on that aspect, then those tasks are reduced to a chore we're merely enduring and we never get what we could out of them. But if we're paying attention and focused on the right things, even the most irksome repetitive task becomes a fulfilling occupation.
By simplifying the ingredients and cutting back on richness, and by being more thoughtful about those ingredients and the techniques used to prepare them, I notice a whole lot more about what I'm cooking and eating at this season than at any other time of year, even the no-holds-barred feast days like Thanksgiving and Christmas.
But the best way to understand that is to practice it and taste it for yourself, and here's a good thing to begin.
New Potatoes with Garlic and Olive Oil
This was developed for my newspaper column back during the pandemic pasta shortage. An exquisitely simple recipe, it's based on one of the most perfect of all sauces for pasta, has few ingredients, and requires no special skill of the cook other than paying attention. But if you think about it, that last is really the most important skill for any cooking.
1½ pounds small new potatoes
2 large cloves garlic, lightly crushed, peeled and chopped
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons finely minced flat-leaf (Italian) parsley
About ¼ teaspoon hot pepper flakes (or to taste)
½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano cheese, plus more for serving
1. Prepare a heavy-bottomed pot with a steamer insert and at least 1 inch of cold water (which should not touch the bottom of insert). Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Meanwhile, scrub the potatoes under cold running water and slice them ¼-inch thick (don't peel them). Add them to the steamer insert, cover, and steam 2 minutes over high heat.
2. Adjust the heat to medium and steam until the potatoes are just tender, about 8-12 minutes. Start checking them after 6 minutes so that they don't get overcooked, and occasionally check to make sure the water in the pot doesn't get too low.
3. While the potatoes steam, put the garlic and oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the garlic is a pale gold—about a minute. Add the parsley and hot pepper flakes (go easy, starting with a little less than a quarter teaspoon—you can adjust it later). Remove the pan from the heat.
4. When the potatoes are done, carefully transfer them from the pot to a warm serving bowl. Lightly season with salt and add the garlic and oil, gently toss until they're evenly coated. Taste and adjust the salt and add more pepper flakes if it's not hot enough to suit you. Add ¼ cup of the cheese and again gently toss. Add the remaining ¼ cup of cheese, give it one last toss, and serve immediately, with additional grated cheese passed separately.