My mother played scrabble with my grandmother everyday at noon, and made her pour her own cup of coffee and push her own toast down in the toaster. There was a painted cardboard calendar on the wall next to the breakfast table, and every morning my grandmother was meant to turn its cardboard wheels that adjusted the date. Everyday, when she turned it, she would say, “Is that what day it is. How about that.” I think she lost very little of her mind, to tell you the truth. It would just occasionally get murky, like someone had stirred up the bottom of the lake. Sometimes she would say, “where am I going? I have no idea. Nobody tells me.”
She was a snappy dresser, and before she moved in with my mother, my cousin had gifted her a few button down velour jackets with matching slacks. One was a deep, deep purple and the other was aqua marine blue. She had on the purple set. “These feel like pajamas,” she said. She let it go for a few minutes and then said, “If they send me home from church, it is not my fault. That is on you.”
She took a sip of her coffee and looked down at the buttons as if someone had just stolen them and sewn them on to her jacket for safe keeping. She moved her fingers along the buttons and said, “rich man, poor man, baker, thief.” Another sip of coffee. Then back to the buttons, and one by one, “rich man, poor man, baker, thief.” Except there were five buttons, so she went back to the beginning and ended with “RICH MAN. That is who I am going to marry. A rich man.” And I asked her, “Are you sure, Gram?”
“Of course, I am sure.”
“Do you want to get married, Gram?”
Yesterday, I made Bkeila. My grandmother would have loved the name, but vegetables weren’t her thing. She went for a little sliced, raw tomato with plenty of salt. Or, string beans, cooked past holding their shape. I find that in this pandemic, vegetables are keeping me from losing a little bit of my mind. They feel alive when I buy them. Their color and shape and vibrancy, pulse. Vegetable dishes I am not quite familiar with rewrite my script, repaper my walls, and change the language.
I found Bkeila in Ottolenghi’s new book, Flavor. The recipe comes from Tunisian Jews. Tunisia is in North Africa and sits next to Algeria, just south across the water below Italy, and not far from Spain. I read the recipe for a few days. I thought about how warm it was there. I wondered what kind of bread is popular in Tunisia (a lovely flat, folded, rectangular, rougag for one.) I thought about the idea of spinach and cilantro as a feature. I read about cilantro. Cilantro (what we call the leaves of the coriander plant) is related to carrots, celery, and parsnip. It can help reduce blood sugar, lower inflammation, boost brain health, fight infections, and improve digestion. Spinach is high in Vitamin K, C, folic acid, and iron, so if you can get enough of each in the same dish, it is a medicine cabinet. Bkeila.
I sauted a medium size onion with 3 cloves of whole garlic in a olive oil and butter. I let it go for a while. I gave it a tiny sprinkle of cinnamon. More was called for, but I had never used cinnamon with spinach. Nutmeg isn’t far off, and it is common with spinach in Italy and France, but cinnamon isn’t nutmeg.
I added a few fennel seeds and cumin seeds, crushed with a stone. I added salt. I peeled a potato and cubed it into half inch pieces. A little more salt. I hand chopped about 3/4 pound of spinach and a large bunch of cilantro, and added it to the pan. This would be less than half of what Ottolenghi called for, but I love a different proportion of onion and garlic with long cooked vegetable. I am 57, so what I love has equal battle rights with directions. I moved the greens around until they were completely wilted. I had no beans, but I had frozen some homemade stock with a few random cannellini in it, so I added that. I let the whole thing simmer covered, until it was what I imagined a grandma with borrowed teeth would be happy with. I tasted it. I added the teeniest bit more toasted cumin and gave it another nugget of butter and a squeeze of fresh lime. I let it sit undisturbed for a few hours to grow into itself, and then had it for dinner. So good. I suppose I would be the thief, but who isn’t.