Cities are strange and occasionally wonderful places. The strangeness hits me differently, depending on the days. Sometimes the hodgepodge of it all is too much: I feel an acute sadness pressing in when I watch an old man clutch the subway pole as three loud teenage girls bump against him, shrieking and giggling, with no regard for their surroundings. The crowded streets give me a near-feverish anxiety one morning; the next, they infuse me with energy. Something new around every corner! People! Cars! Noise!
My favorite grocery store is exactly one and one-quarter blocks from my apartment door. It's on the west side of Broadway, a wide two-way thoroughfare that boasts a leafy median strip. On that median, there are flowers and trees and benches by each stoplight. My morning routine takes me to the grocery store, then past the benches on my way to get coffee.
You never know what you'll find there. Last week, I passed two women sitting together on one bench, their knees turned towards one another. They were a few years older than me, but not much. Clad in workout clothes and neat, high ponytails, they could have just come from a spin class together, or a run along the Hudson River boardwalk. The shorter one held a paper coffee cup from the French bakery around the corner. She was taking a bite of some sort of pastry as I passed. Normal for 10 AM, sure. Her friend was talking earnestly at her, leaning in as she gesticulated with a spoon. I looked down. Really? She was holding an open pint of Halo Top ice cream, digging into it as she finished her story. Oookay, New York, you are odd.
Today I walked past the same set of benches a little later in the morning, closer to 11 AM. One bench was empty. On the other, two girls in their early twenties sat with their mother. They had plastic bags from the grocery store at their feet. I sat next to them, perching briefly to eat a fistful of granola in the bright sunlight. The younger sister ceremoniously unwrapped a package of soft white dinner rolls, then two slices of American cheese, then a sealed pack of bologna, carefully piling each onto the roll and delicately taking a bite. The other girl was a dancer, wearing beige ballet tights with her hair pulled tightly off her face in a severe bun. She was balancing---I kid you not---an entire family-sized takeout container of buttered elbow macaroni on her lap. No cheese. No toppings. Just noodles.
I walk on. I see babies pushed in strollers by their nannies. Construction workers leaning against shovels and laughing together. A cab driver on his cell phone. I smell car exhaust and the sweet scent of sugared peanuts from the street carts and roses from the corner bodega.
The constant barrage of things is exhausting. Great, but exhausting. To counteract it, some weeks I crave sameness and routine. When I feel myself getting overwhelmed, I make the same dinner over and over, riffing just slightly depending on my mood or cravings or what's in the fridge.
Here's a recent favorite. I hesitate to even write it as a recipe, since it's more like a loose template that even the most novice cook can easily adapt. So here's the general method, but if you don't have the exact ingredients (or don't like some of them), just follow this rubric:
Base: fresh greens (baby spinach, lettuce, etc.)
Middle: sauté chopped cauliflower + garlic, toss in fresh diced vegetables so they wilt a bit
Top: pile on ground meat + spices, cooked until golden and crispy
Garnish: fresh herbs, toasted nuts, a drizzle of yogurt or tahini thinned with olive oil
Middle Eastern Lamb + Cauliflower Bowls
1/4 cup pine nuts
1 head cauliflower, cored and chopped finely
1 clove garlic, minced
2 medium cucumbers, diced
2 medium tomatoes, diced
1 pound ground lamb
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/4 teaspoon coarse black pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
fresh parsley or mint, roughly chopped (to taste!)
1/4 cup tahini
1 cup baby spinach
In a large skillet over medium heat, toast the pine nuts until golden brown. Transfer to a bowl.
In the same skillet, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the garlic and cook over medium heat until fragrant, stirring often, about 1 minute. Add the chopped cauliflower, season with salt and pepper, and cook until soft. This takes about 5-10 minutes.
Transfer the cauliflower to a large bowl and toss with the chopped raw cucumbers and tomatoes.
To the same skillet, add the ground lamb and spices. Cook over medium-high heat until well-browned (about 10 minutes).
Divide the baby spinach between two shallow bowls. Top each with half of the cauliflower mixture, then half of the cooked lamb. Drizzle tahini over both bowls (sometimes I use plain tahini, sometimes I mix it with Greek yogurt and water or olive oil and lemon juice for more of a "sauce"), then the torn parsley or mint. Sprinkle the toasted pine nuts over each bowl, then eat!