Updated: Jul 10, 2021
I came back from the doctor's last week with straight A's on my report card. I could attribute it to exercising a lot more, drinking less wine, and cutting out meat, and, while it is of course all of those things, I think it is most likely the elimination of my 210-minute round trip commute to work every day. Suddenly having almost another four hours in my day was incredible. I used some of that time sleeping, but I also had so much more time for all sorts of things, like this blog. Part of the problem with my insane commute was that I was expected (that is to say, paid) to work more than 9-5. I tried to limit myself to a ten hour workday, which is borderline slackerdom in my business, because otherwise I would not get home in enough time to go to sleep to get up early enough to do it all again the next day. This is a sick hamster wheel, and I know many people on it.
Why do Americans work so hard? Clearly it starts with the advice we get in school. I don't think students in other countries are told "You can be anything" and its corollary "Do what you love!" It is axiomatic that if you love it, you should devote yourself to it like a vocation. And of course being committed to work indicates you are just a better person, generally. More of a team player, more ambitious, someone dedicated to self improvement. The walls of my office yelled barfy slogans in primary colors--a décor more appropriate to a Maoist work unit. (I am happy to report that they are currently yelling at empty desks). These slogans are in the language of workism. INTEGRITY. CURIOSITY. ACCOUNTABILITY- MAKING IT HAPPEN. (I sat next to PASSION - BEING YOUR BEST.) Yep, I am committed--no, passionate--about getting those TPS coversheets done.
I have always been amazed at how deeply this attitude drove into the most unlikely workplaces. I once worked in a bookstore where the dippy manager wanted us to wear plastic buttons that said "Customers First!" (This was actually the slogan of the nearby K-Mart at the time). I normally agree that customer service is a priority for any business, but this was an independent bookshop in the East Village. The clientele knew better than to ask for help. Most customer queries were greeted by the employees with a look that said "How dare you interrupt my conversation about Lydia Lunch?"
So I am unsurprised that people are quitting their jobs in record numbers, and that others are refusing to take shitty jobs. If we held those jobs, we were underpaid and underappreciated. For those of us lucky enough to able to work from home, many don't care to go back to commuting. And if we weren't working, we are holding out for something better. I hope it works out for us, the résistants.
A version of this cake appears in a terrific Middle Eastern cookbook by Bethany Kehdy called Pomegranates & Pine Nuts. I took a lot of liberties with the original recipe, which is brilliant for many reasons (not only is it delicious, beautiful to look at, and entirely vegan, it can be eaten hot or cold, as a side dish or a main course) but also because it is so forgiving. You can take the idea in a lot of different directions. You can try replacing the zucchini with eggplant, or root vegetables, or try other vegetable combinations with the rice, or top it with different nuts or herbs. I would encourage experimenting with anything but the spiced rice mixture, which is the key to the dish, and should probably not be tampered with.
It looks show-offy, but it's fairly easy to make.
2 cups rice, soaked for thirty minutes in warm water
3 garlic cloves, finely minced
2 cardamom pods, crushed
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp allspice
1/4 asofoetida (hing) powder (if you don't have this, you can add some onion powder. The original recipe called for something a bit more funky and sour in the form of dried lime powder, which is hard to find. You can try amchur powder as an option- something to offset the sweeter spices)
1/2 tsp harissa (if you don't have this, you can make your own. Harissa is totally worth the investment to buy or make)
3 1/2 cups mushroom or vegetable stock
1 large red onion, finely diced
2 large zucchinis, thinly sliced into strips (easiest to do with a mandoline)
2 cups of cauliflower, broken into small florets
1/2 cup of canned or jarred chestnuts, finely diced
1 cup of cherry tomatoes, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons pignoli nuts, toasted in a frying pan until golden brown
2 tablespoons pomegranate seeds
chopped fresh basil or mint
mandoline, if you have one
Rinse rice and soak in 8 cups of warm water with 2 tablespoons of salt for about half an hour.
Add garlic, cinnamon, cardamom, allspice, asofoetida powder, harissa, and vegetable stock in pot. Don't forget to split open cardamom seeds when adding them to the mixture.
Cover and bring rice to a boil, then let cook and steam until liquid is absorbed.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Grease Bundt pan with olive oil.
Grease baking sheet with olive oil.
Prepare the vegetables. When you break the cauliflower into florets, put the stems and any other extra bits aside, and then mince them up finely and add to the diced onion.
Toss cauliflower florets with olive oil and salt.
Lay cauliflower and chestnut pieces onto the baking sheet and bake until the cauliflower turns golden. (Depending on the size of your chestnut pieces, you should check on them to ensure they are not completely cooked to crisp and still have some chew- you may need to remove them before the cauliflower is thoroughly cooked.)
Remove from sheet and set aside.
Brush zucchini slices with olive oil and lay them on a baking sheet. You can use the same baking sheet, but check to make sure it is still adequately greased. (If you only have one baking sheet, you may need to roast the zucchini slices in batches-the slices will fill 2-3 baking sheets.)
Keep a close eye on the zucchini. You want them to cook, but not get brown and crisp. They need to be pliable. Timing depends on how thickly you sliced them.
When all vegetables are cooked and out of the oven, set them aside and reduce oven temperature to 350.
Sauté the diced onion and cauliflower in a bit of olive oil until soft. Set aside.
Now assemble the cake!
With the Bundt pan inverted, start by lining the greased pan with the zucchini strips.
Add ~ 1/3 of rice.
Sprinkle half of the cauliflower and chestnut mixture.
Sprinkle half of the onion mixture.
Sprinkle half of the sliced tomatoes.
Add another third of the rice and repeat layering of the other vegetables.
Add final third of the rice and press it all down.
Cover the Bundt pan with foil and press foil down.
Cook in the oven at 350 for 30 minutes
When it is out of the oven, let stand for 20 minutes and then carefully invert the Bundt pan onto a plate. Some of the zucchini strips may have shifted, but you can fix them once the whole thing is on the plate.
Decorate with toasted pignoli and pomegranate seeds.
Garnish with basil or mint.
It tends to fall apart when sliced if you eat it straight out of the oven. If you let it completely cool and serve cold or room temperature (ideal for hot summer days), you can get that cake-slice look.