Small, Good Things: Needs Must

Since eating is so necessary to body, mind, soul and society, make the most out of it

By Joe Dizney

When accusingly asked why she wrote about food and not about important things like love or the struggle for power and authority, M.F.K. Fisher responded:

It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it … and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied … and it is all one.

I would elaborate with another thought or two, the first referring to the headline of this column, the history of which is buried somewhere in the distant past in an idiomatic expression usually phrased, “Needs must when the devil drives.” As The Bard put it in All’s Well that Ends Well: “My poor body, madam, requires it: I am driven on by the flesh; and he must needs go that the devil drives,” generally accepted to mean “necessity compels” or in a modern vernacular: “Like I have a choice?”

Then there’s this therapeutic catchphrase: “HALT: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired,” an acronymic-mnemonic rejoinder to stop and be mindful of your physical, mental and emotional needs before taking any drastic actions. (And, please, note the first reminder on the list.) These things are very important.

When queried on my own borderline obsessive interest in food, I invariably respond that there are few things in life you absolutely have to do in order to survive, let alone flourish, and eating seems to be a central one. Since it is so necessary to body, mind, soul and by extension, society, we had best make the most out of it.

Roasted Beet and Caramelized Onion Bread Pudding (photo by J. Dizney)

Roasted Beet and Caramelized Onion Bread Pudding (photo by J. Dizney)

How I got to this week’s recipe from such airy thinking is both circuitous and direct: an emotional longing for specific foods — in this instant, beets and caramelized onions, cheese; the snow on the ground suggesting some Savoyard or Germanic ideal of Alpine comfort food; the necessity of dinner.

It’s odd to me that I could find no direct historical precedent for savory bread puddings, as obvious as they seem, but the classic gratin Savoyards, tartiflette and croziflettes of the Savoie pointed to areas worth exploring. So, layering custard- soaked sourdough-rye bread chunks with oven-roasted beets and sweet caramelized onions and binding the works with grated Gruyere seemed worth a try.

This casserole would make a fine simple winter meal with the addition of just a green salad. As the basis of an impromptu Thursday night potluck with people I love, it became a feast of the bread pudding, a cider-braised pork belly and greens vinaigrette (with one perfectly ripe pear) — not to mention companionship and conversation — that I believe the participants will cherish for a while. The warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied, indeed.

Savory Roasted Beet and Caramelized Onion Bread Pudding

4-5 medium beets; peeled, cubed, oiled and roasted at 425 degrees for 30 minutes. Reserve.
3 to 4 large onions, caramelized with 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium low heat, 30 minutes to 1 hour
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
14 ounces stale rye/sourdough bread (or dry fresh bread out in a 200 degree oven)
2 cups heavy cream (or combination of milk and cream)
6 large eggs
8 ounces grated Gruyere
¼ to ½ cup walnuts, lightly roasted and chopped roughly
2 tablespoons fresh dill for garnish

Prepare the beets as above. Caramelize the onions in a skillet with three tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Stir frequently for 30 minutes to an hour. Salt and pepper to taste about halfway through. Stir in balsamic just before removing from heat. Reserve. Beets and onions can be prepared a day in advance.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Tear or cut bread into rough one to two-inch pieces; reserve in a large bowl. Whisk together cream (or cream and milk) and eggs, salt and pepper to taste, and pour mixture over bread. Stir briefly to coat and let soak for 15 to 20 minutes to absorb some of the custard mixture. Butter a 1 to 1½ quart casserole.

In the buttered casserole, alternate thin layers of the moistened bread, beets, onions and cheese (in that order) until all the bread and beets are gone. (You’ll end up with leftover onions, which will keep covered in the refrigerator for a week and make a nice addition to sandwiches, etc.) Pour the remaining custard mixture over all.

Bake in the center of the oven for 45 minutes. Begin checking after 30 minutes that the top doesn’t burn. Serve warm, garnished with dill and even sour cream or crème fraîche if you have some.

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