October 11, 2016

Issue 1: Hello, Roberto

Hi there.

This is long, for some definitions of long, but there is a truly excellent recipe for soup at the end of it, so your investment will pay off handsomely. Actually, if you must know, I promised myself I was going to use this space to write about literally anything except for food. I had a whole joke I was planning to do where if I mentioned anything about food I'd instead write "[redacted]" or figure out the HTML to make just a big black bar, and it would become a running gag about how I'm not contractually allowed to write about food unless it's for my day job, and the implication would be that there were lawyers censoring my email newsletter to protect the intellectual property of my employer. Whoops.

My day job does actually involve writing about food. In fact, for many years, I ran the website of a print food magazine, a fancy one that you've probably both heard of and mispronounced the name of. My position involved many things, including spending a lot of time with recipes. Not just cooking them — really, not cooking them very much at all — but a whole lot of thinking about them. As data, as content, as (forgive me) software designed to run on the hardware of the human brain and body.

As written objects, recipes are extraordinarily interesting. Somewhat uniquely among verbal instructions encountered regularly by non-specialists, recipes have evolved a very specific technical structure and vernacular. They don't read like normal writing, because the success of a recipe isn't measured in how fun it is to read, but how effectively it guides its reader to the promised real-life outcome. They follow a pretty standard structure, too: first the headnote, then a list of ingredients, then the steps. They speak in a brisk, often article-free imperative voice. (Skin and debone fillets; place in single layer in greased pan.) There's an assumption that the processor core — sorry, I mean the home cook — can handle a vast vocabulary of specialty verbs, adjectives, and nouns.

In my time at that job, I became a firm believer in this idea of recipe-as-software. I railed against the conversational recipe styles of Elizabeth David, and the stir-until-heartbreak-subsides style of cooking confessional that populated a certain type of blog. I would rage at recipes that called for "pre-heating" ovens, or didn't differentiate between "ginger, minced" and "minced ginger." I wanted no blood in my recipes, not a single drop.

For the last ten years, including the years I spent at that magazine, I've been in a relationship with a man named Jim, who is kind and handsome and extremely intelligent. Those details about his character aren't terribly relevant to the matter at hand, but I want to take a moment to brag about him, because he's one of those people who's so great that he makes me glow in his light, and it's a really fantastic flattering light that smooths my skin and fluffs my hair and generally makes me look like the sort of person who deserves to end up with such a top-notch human like Jim. This glow is a very nice externality of his greatness, and even though it's only Monday it's already been a long week, so this bit of preening is something I'm not embarrassed to indulge in right now. Jim is also really funny, and he has a nice singing voice.

He isn't perfect, thank the good lord. One of his most charming shortcomings is that as a cook, he's more enthusiastic than he is experienced. The tight, military-precise recipes that I zealously believed in do him absolutely no good. In fact, I've realized, they don't do much good for most people. Not only that, but my magazine's endless push for ever more concise recipes hadn't actually been the holy quest for crystalline perfection I'd told myself it was; it was just a morphemic belt-tightening intended to keep the recipes-per-issue number shored up against ever-shrinking page counts. (The situation was dire: We used the word "doughnut" so many times in one issue that an official downgrade of our house style to "donut" bought enough space for a whole extra story.)

Back to Jim: When he wants to cook something, which is often but not too often, I'll sometimes take whatever recipe he plans to make, and rewrite it for him in extremely detailed language, anticipating what his questions might be and trying to include descriptions that will help him understand not just what needs to be done, but why they're done that way. The flour added to the mixer gradually so it doesn't poof out all over the counter, the salt in the pasta water to deepen the flavor, the chicken cooked skin-side down first so the fat will render out, and then you can cook the skin-up side in the chicken fat!

It turns out that this is a great way to write a recipe. It forces you to really think about what you're asking someone to do, to put your eyes behind their eyes and your hands on top of their hands and make sure you're taking care of them. That's the real point of a recipe, anyway: you want it to serve the person making it, not serve some maximally efficient, minimal-expressive-character Platonic ideal of a chicken piccata.

Enter Roberto. It's a lot like other sausage and bean and kale soups. But it's different from them in one key way, which is that it's better than all of them. I couldn't tell you why — maybe it's the tomato, which adds some zingy acidity to the backbone — but I suspect the name might have a lot to do with it. I first made it probably five or six years ago, a hacked-together recipe based on a vague desire for something really hearty and savory and warming and, okay, plausibly low-carb. It turned out to be so perfect and so wonderful that we started having it for dinner three or four times a week. After maybe the fifteenth or sixteenth batch we realized it needed a name — not just "sausage and bean and kale soup" but a proper name. So Jim (who have I mentioned is a genius?) looked down at his bowl of sausage and bean and kale soup and said "Roberto. Your name is Roberto."

Here's the recipe for Roberto, thus dubbed, as I wrote it for Jim. The ingredients are just the ingredients; all the stuff you need to do to them (chop the onion, kind of thing) is in the instructions. There are lots of alternatives built in, because this recipe is very forgiving, and also because I don't want to deal with Jim texting me asking if it's okay to use turkey sausage instead of chicken sausage, which yes it obviously is, but for Jim—and maybe for a lot of cooks who are just stretching their wings—it may not be. Yet.

WHAT YOU NEED
Olive oil
1 baseball-size onion, if you have one (if you don't have one, it's okay)
2-4 cloves garlic (enough garlic to make up approximately the volume of your thumb)
Salt
1 pound hot italian sausage (chicken or turkey if you can find it — pork sausage is fatty, which makes for good sausage but not the best soup) (do not use breakfast sausage)
1 28oz can tomatoes, diced or crushed or whole and then you can crush them yourself later in the recipe.
1 14oz can of beans of any type (kidney, great northern, garbanzo, etc.)
4 cups of broth (chicken, beef, veggie, or honestly just a mix of water and wine is great)
1 bunch of kale, doesn't matter what kind but I prefer curly
Pepper
Hard, salty cheese like Parmesan or pecorino 
A lemon
 
WHAT YOU HAVE TO DO
1. Get things ready for the first round of stuff-doing. Find the olive oil. Get out a soup pot and a wooden spoon. Make sure the sausage is removed from its casing, so it's like a paste of ground meat with seasonings in it, which is mostly all that sausage is. Peel and chop your onion and peel and chop your garlic.
 
2. Do the first things: Put the olive oil and onions in the soup pot over medium heat, throw a pinch of salt in with it (a pinch is about a quarter teaspoon) and stir them all together. Slowly cook them all until the onions are soft and translucent, about 4 minutes, but sometimes as many as 7. Add the garlic and wooden-spoon it around in the onion until you get hit with that nostalgic garlic-and-onion smell, about 1 minute. Raise the heat to medium-high and add the sausage. Stir it into the onion and garlic, breaking it up in the pot into small pieces that could comfortably fit on a spoon. It's better to overcook than undercook the sausage: For the best flavor, you want the pieces to start to brown on the outside. It should look speckled with dark spots, like a leopard or a cute dog. This will take as many as 10 minutes. Be patient.

3. While the sausage is cooking, get ready for the second round of stuff-doing. Open your can of tomatoes. Open and drain your can of beans. Get your broth ready, or if you're using water with wine, get that ready. (I like a ratio of 3 cups of water to one cup of wine, and it's better with white wine but red is totally fine.) De-stem the kale and chop it into smaller-than-spoon-size pieces.

4. When the sausage is starting to brown and looks and smells delicious, dump in the tomatoes (including all the liquid), the beans (it's okay if there's a little liquid left in the can, add that too), and 4 cups of the broth/whatever and bring the whole thing to a simmer. If you'd used canned whole tomatoes, use your wooden spoon to break them up by violently crushing them against the side of the pot. You cannot over-crush the tomatoes.

5. Once it's at a simmer, add the kale. The pot will probably look extremely full—don't worry about that, because the kale will collapse like an empty wedding gown as soon as you start stirring it in. Get the greens in there and put the lid on and turn the heat down back to medium and let the whole thing simmer for about 5 minutes more, or even longer if you want to. Use these five minutes to grate some of the cheese into a bowl, which you can reuse later to eat one of the servings of soup out of. Not a lot of cheese, maybe a quarter cup. Taste the soup (use the wooden spoon, you're less likely to burn your mouth) and decide how much salt and black pepper you think it needs. Then add half as much salt as you want to, and twice as much pepper. Add a little more pepper. Dump in the shredded cheese and stir it all in. The cheese has salt in it, is the secret.

6. Serve the soup, which is very hot, in bowls. Buy some time for it to cool down by cutting a lemon into wedges and squeezing a wedge of juice into each bowl. Watch out for seeds. Don't drop the wedge in like it's a glass of iced tea, just throw it away. If you have parsley and want to chop up some parsley and put it on top, you can, and it'll be good, but it's also pretty great without it.
 
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Hi, this is the first installment of my newsletter, which doesn't necessarily have shape or form yet but might be a place where I share things that I think are wonderful, such as this soup. A fun exciting fact is that I wrote this at the dining table while Jim was in the kitchen making a pot of Roberto, using this very recipe! When Jim opened the wrapper for the chicken sausage our entire kitchen suddenly smelled like something had vomited and then died in its vomit, and without consulting me he made the very savvy decision to substitute plain ground turkey and give the whole thing a big hit of Cajun seasoning to make up for the lost spices. Also we had no cheese. It's fantastic. I'm eating it right now, and I'm probably going to have seconds.

If you actually made it all the way down here to the bottom, thank you! I'd be so happy to hear if you liked this, or what else you'd like me to use this space for, or if I had any spelling errors. Feel free to share praise privately via email and criticisms publicly via Twitter, or vice versa. I love you.