Category Archives: side dish

The hardest thing to write

Photo by Lara Ferroni

Dear Parents,

Wait, that’s too formal.

Hi there! It’s Jess and Jim, fellow preschool parents . . .

Too campy.

Hi parents,

Better.

Now I have to tell them my son has cerebral palsy and explain why he uses a walker.

By now, you’ve probably noticed that there’s one spunky, silly 3 1/2-year-old who doesn’t quite match the rest.

But wait, that’s putting Graham’s differences before Graham, isn’t it? Can’t I start the email by showing how normal he is?

This morning, our son Graham threw himself onto the ground, kicking and screaming, because I didn’t use my maternal ESP to divine exactly which way he wanted me to design his breakfast plate, and the pomegranate seeds were totally in the wrong spot.

Ugh. Now he’s also a brat.

This might be the hardest thing I’ve ever written. It’s an email to the parents of all the kids in my son’s new preschool classroom, detailing what’s special about our child and why, and laying out some tender ground rules for their kids to learn—no pushing his walker down the stairs, etc. I’ve had it started for a good week or two, but procrastination has gripped me hard.

Everything feels hard all of the sudden, for some reason. It’s hard to get myself and my kid and my stuff into the car, hard to make coffee, hard to motivate. It must be the rain. Yes, that’s it. I’m suffering from shock after Seattle’s 85-day streak of gorgeous weather has (quite spectacularly) ended.

Months ago, I agreed to be part of The Oxbow Box Project, an effort on the part of Oxbow Farm to get the word out about their CSA box. In theory, it’s easy: They give me one of their weekly CSA boxes, brimming with produce, and I see what happens with it in my kitchen. Only, my pick-up day was the first day of The Rain. Stars crossed. The parking gods frowned. I dragged a cantankerous child to the pick-up, and the contents of that boisterously-colored box went into the fridge without a smidgen of ceremony. The next day, I painted mascara over my bad humor, got on an airplane, and flew to New York, hoping the vegetables would remember me when I returned.

Here’s the good thing about fall vegetables: They’re very patient, and they don’t hold a grudge. They don’t mind if you skip the warm reception, or if you go out of town. When I got back, the squash was still firm, and the collards and chard were still bright and perky. I sliced long radishes for a snack, and twirled pasta up with softened leeks, bacon, and shaved radicchio. This morning, I had roasted yellow beets for breakfast, like it was the most normal thing in the world.

There are still squash and potatoes and chard waiting for me, but last night, before I sat down to finish the email, there were carrots. To me, carrots always seem easy. Split in half lengthwise, tossed with whole-grain mustard, and decorated with fresh dill, these are a favorite from Dishing Up Washington. Save them for Thanksgiving, if you want, because they’re unfussy. (A dish like this is happy waiting on the counter, uncooked, for a few hours, and they taste perfectly lovely at room temperature.)

Or roast them soon, on a rainy night, when things feel hard but you know they really aren’t. (Tell me I’m not the only one who gets all dramatic when it rains.) You can float the back of your hand over your forehead and pretend you slaved over them. You can make up something complicated about what you did to get them to caramelize, dark and sweet, on each cut side. But you’ll know, deep down, that they’re just roasted carrots with mascara on–carrots with a mustardy little kick in the pants that elevates them from random root vegetable to elegant success story.

It’s just what we all need sometimes, isn’t it?

Roasted Carrots with Mustard and Dill (PDF)

Nash’s Organic Produce in Sequim is known for its sweet, crunchy Nantes carrots, which grow particularly well in cool climates and the alluvian soil that covers the northeastern portion of the Olympic Peninsula that Nash’s calls home. Roasted, they become even sweeter.
You can cut the tops off the carrots entirely, if you’d like, but I prefer to leave about ¾ inch untrimmed — I like how the little green sprouts look, and they’re perfectly edible.

4 servings

8 medium Nantes or regular carrots (about 1¼ pounds), peeled and halved lengthwise
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons whole grain mustard
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh dill

1. Preheat the oven to 400°F.

2. Mix the carrots, oil, mustard, and salt and pepper to taste together in a casserole dish large enough to hold the carrots in a single layer. Turn the carrots cut sides down, and roast for 25 to 30 minutes, until tender.

3. Sprinkle the dill on top, pile the carrots into a serving dish, and serve immediately.

4 Comments

Filed under Dishing Up Washington, gluten-free, recipe, side dish, vegetables, vegetarian

Dearest Neighbor (A Christmas Letter)

Pickled Peppers and Onions jar 1

Please pardon the oversight, but I have nothing to drop on your doorstep this year. No holiday cookies, no baby poinsettia. I promise it doesn’t mean I intend to ignore my neighborly duties. I will still drink your chocolate milk when you’re in Hawaii and let you bring my garbage cans in three days late and loan you chickpeas when you’re desperate to make hummus. But this year, there probably won’t be any pickles left.

It may sound outlandish, but I’m going to blame a hipster at Metropolitan Market. He came barreling down the produce aisle in a panic. “Peach-basil or pear-lemongrass?” he asked frantically, eyes searching. I looked around, wondering whether his sidekick had a bad moustache also.

He was talking to me. (Was he flirting with me?) “Peach-basil,” I said, missing only the briefest beat. I was standing in front of a giant peach display at a grocery store that’s recently outfitted its employees with t-shirts advertising their peaches’ Brix levels. It seemed so obvious. He took off again. (He definitely wasn’t flirting.)

But you know what that goober did? He went over to the lemongrass and picked up a big bunch. Then he took some pears. Then he was gone. I wanted to elongate my arms and twist that annoying little moustache til it hurt, then lift him until he was dangling by nothing by a few hairs. I’d look him straight in the eye and say, “What’s the matter with you? It’s peach season, buster.”

But he was gone. There was nothing I could do, except take advantage of having an empty trunk and buy a flat of peaches myself. I looked around the produce section, thrilling at having landed there the week when the grocery store looks most like a farmers’ market, with “grown locally” signs proudly painted near so many picks. I took home blueberries and basil and onions and peppers, and those peaches.

They rode home in the front seat, coddled in their cardboard box like jewels. It made me wonder whether the store puts all the peaches away at night, the way fancy jewelry stores do.

That afternoon, I did a lot of staring, the same way I do at Tiffany’s, when I’m not really sure I deserve to be in the presence of things that are so delicate and beautiful. I stared at cookbooks and at the peaches and at the basil. I piled those blushing beasts up in a wide wooden bowl, and fed one to my kid, who’s decided peach juice does a much better job polishing wood floors than almost anything. Then I sort of wussed out. What can you do to a dripping-ripe peach that makes it taste better?

Onions, though. I’ll tell you something, loud and clear: I don’t care for raw onions. But slicked with vinegar, sweetened and spiced, I’ll put them on anything that sits still. Ditto for peppers, especially the spicy ones. So it made sense to me, the way two people make sense together, to postpone the peach decision and instead pack the peppers and onions into little jars and smother them in vinegar.

Pickled Peppers and Onions open

I started with a pickled jalapeno recipe from Marisa McClellan’s Food in Jars. I changed the vegetables, and the vinegar, and the sugar and seasonings, and a few other things. So actually, it wasn’t really her recipe at all, but she was there, holding my hand through it all, promising me that if I wanted to, I could still put the end concoction on everything from sandwiches to nachos to hot dogs. In that moment of panic I still face when I’m canning, I looked her in the eye for a some quick assurance. She nodded.

I made five pints of pickled peppers and onions. The first jar went with my husband to work, and the second jar came camping a few weekends ago. The third went down easy at home, disappearing the way a batch of brownies does, little tastes at a time. The fourth is coming to the Wild & Scenic Music Festival this weekend, where we’ll be camping out, and the fifth . . . well, let’s just say the fifth reaches the criteria for stage four edibility, and probably won’t make it until Christmas.

But oh, those peaches. I did go back for more, and the hipster was nowhere in sight. The next box of peaches went into three little peach and raspberry crisps, which I’ve carefully packaged and frozen for our camping trip. I’m hoping to set the little foil pans over the fire in the space between dinner and new hunger, so their sweet scent fills the air as we finish off the pickle jar.

With any luck, there will be pickles or jam next year. Until then, please accept my apologies.

Pickled Peppers and Onions 1

Spunky Pickled Peppers and Onions (PDF)
Based loosely on Marisa McClellan’s recipe for Basic Pickled Jalapeño Peppers in Food in Jars, this colorful, mildly spicy blend of bell peppers, red onions, and jalapeños makes the perfect Christmas gift—if you can keep them around that long. If you want to use them this summer, wait a week for the flavors to marry, then try piling them on grilled pork with slices of grilled peaches.

If you’re familiar with canning, you’ll be comfortable with the instructions below. If you’re new to it, check out Food in Jars. It’s an excellent guide.

Note that this recipe makes extra pickling brine. I tend to do that each time I pickle; I keep the brine for quick pickling things like green beans and carrots.

Makes about 5 pints

2 cups distilled white vinegar
2 cups apple cider vinegar
4 cups water
1/4 cup kosher salt
2 tablespoons sugar
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
2 pounds small bell peppers, stems and seeds removed, sliced into 1/4-inch rounds
4 jalapeño peppers, stems and steeds removed, sliced into 1/4-inch rounds
1 medium red onion, cut into 1/4-inch slices

Prepare and sterilize five pint-sized jars (or similar) and fresh lids for canning per the jar manufacturer’s instructions. (Marisa McClellan has superb directions on page 10 of Food in Jars.)

In a large soup pot, combine the vinegars, water, kosher salt, sugar, garlic, mustard seeds, and peppercorns. Bring the mixture to a simmer, stirring occasionally, and cook for a minute or two, until the sugar has dissolved completely.

Add the bell and jalapeño peppers and the onion to the brine, stir, and let cook over the lowest heat, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes, until the red onion begins to lose its color and the jalapeños are a darker shade of green.

Using tongs, pack the peppers and onions into the sterilized jars. Pour the hot brine over the peppers and onions in each jar, leaving about 1/2 inch of headspace. Use a wooden chopstick to poke and stir the ingredients (to encourage any bubbles to escape). Add more brine, if necessary.

Wipe the rim of each jar carefully with a clean cloth. Apply the lids and rings, and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes, again using the jar manufacturer’s instructions or the directions on page 11 of Food in Jars.

2 Comments

Filed under gluten-free, recipe, sandwich, side dish, snack

Crab season

red rock crab

I wouldn’t call 4:30 a.m. a friendly time, but if you see it enough – say, growing up in a family dedicated to the first chairlift, or rowing crew in college – it becomes familiar. So when my alarm went off in the pre-dawn calm last Saturday, way before the hours I call human, I popped right out of bed. It was time to fish.

As a kid, we seasoned river trout in a paper bag. My father or brother would catch the fish – if I remember correctly, I never, ever caught one – and we’d pour flour into the bag, douse it with salt and pepper (or lemon pepper, if we had it), add the fish, and fold the top of the bag over twice. Dad set a cast iron pan over the open fire, glazed it with butter, and pan-fried the fish right there, next to the river. Or something like that. I think my father loved it because if we cooked by the water, my mother couldn’t complain about the house smelling of fish. I liked shaking the bag.

But river fishing, to me, always seemed like the easy way. (Don’t tell Dad, okay?) I romanticized deep sea fishing. Catching a fish in a river made you coordinated or perhaps just lucky; catching a fish in the ocean made you A Provider. So when my husband’s family arranged a salmon fishing trip for a group of curious relatives with All Washington Fishing, a local guide company with a slip about 2 miles from our house in Seattle, I was thrilled to join them.

I’d love to say it was a scintillating adventure. I’d love to say I caught three monster king salmon while battling rogue waves, each fish testing my strength to its limits. I’d love to say I came back with windburn, or sunburn, or both, or that I worked for my catch at least a little, but none of that really happened. The fact is, it was an easy, relaxing, calm, quiet morning. Like going to the farmers’ market, only less walking. We didn’t go out far – just across Puget Sound toward Bainbridge Island, where the kings and cohos were hungry and plentiful. The morning was almost absurdly pleasant. I drank coffee and ate Fritos. (It’s not a bad combo at 7:30 in the morning, if you’ve been up for a bit.) I learned how the fishing rods work, and reeled in the occasional fish, and drank in the shifting grays of the sky between our group’s successes. And in the end, perhaps because I was the only one who didn’t land one of the 7 keepers, or because I managed to pee off the bow because I was too proud to make the guide extract the women’s toilet from the hold, or because I’m the only one with a huge freezer, or because I have passable knife skills, I went home with 30 pounds of gorgeous salmon flesh. That, combined with my husband’s huge salmon-eating grin, was worth the wake-up call. I didn’t catch much myself, but my freezer is full.

A man and his fish

But then, on the way home, there was crab. The recreational season apparently opened July 1st here. The boat’s captain cruised by his pots with the same sense of idle convenience I use for getting gas or picking up a half gallon of milk. By then, I’ll admit I’d sort of stopped paying attention because I was focusing on the fish. But with each haul, he drew big tangles of sharp, angry legs out of his crab traps. About half were red rock crabs (pictured above), red-tinted, cranky things whose leg meat is apparently delicious but, besides the pinchers, quite difficult to retrieve. The other half were healthy full-size Dungeness. We took our Dungeness limit, 10 crabs, thinking the sweet, flaky meat could supplement our big family dinner.

What we didn’t realize, hauling in the crab, was that given a good labor force, two hours, and a few beers, the product of 10 pounds of crawlers is about 4 pounds of meat – enough to eat a bunch straight from the shell, stir some into crab salad, make a dozen jumbo crab cakes, pile crab curry over rice, and still have enough left for a hot, bubbling crab dip spiked with jalapeños two days after the catch.

Unlike waking up early, an overabundance of fresh-picked Dungeness crab meat is not a problem I’d call familiar. But if you should find yourself, like I did, with a healthy half pound of the stuff, and you can’t stand the thought of eating plain old crab salad for the third day in a row, and you’re longing for an indulgent appetizer that highlights the shellfish without scrimping on creaminess, this dip’s for you.

And guess what? You don’t even have to set the alarm.

Fishing photos by Adam Corcutt.

Crab Dip with Pickled Jalapeños and Goat Cheese 2

Hot Crab Dip with Pickled Jalapeños and Goat Cheese (PDF)
Active time: 10 minutes
Makes 6 servings

10 ounces fresh-picked Dungeness crabmeat
4 ounces fresh goat cheese, softened
1/2 cup sour cream
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup sliced pickled jalapeño peppers
Juice of 1 large lemon
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Tortilla chips, for serving

Preheat the oven to 425°F.

Gently squeeze the crabmeat in small handfuls over the sink to discard any excess liquid. Transfer the crab to a mixing bowl, add the remaining ingredients, and stir with a big fork until more or less blended. (This is a good time to think about something else; there’s nothing exact about this process.)

Transfer the mixture to an ovenproof dish just large enough to hold it all. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until bubbling and browned on top. Serve hot, with the tortilla chips for scooping.

5 Comments

Filed under appetizers, fish, gluten-free, husband, recipe, shellfish, side dish, snack

Saaging

Garden Saag

The question people have asked me over the last three weeks is this: Well, what have you been eating?

It’s this. It’s a bastardization of Indian saag (the kind I used to adore eating with paneer), made by sautéing spinach and kale and whatever other greens crop up in my kitchen with garlic and ginger, then simmering them into submission with a can of coconut milk. Hit haphazardly with an immersion blender, the greens collapse into a green mass just liquid enough to deserve a bowl. (Say the word saag aloud, so it rhymes with “clog,” and you’ll know how the dish gets its name; it’s a real slump of a thing.)

I eat the saag alone, or draped over roasted chicken or millet, or I thin it with a bit of stock (or additional coconut milk) and puree it in a real blender until it’s silky smooth. Then I use it as a grown-up sauce, for grilled salmon or halibut. It’s what I’ll be making ahead to take camping this weekend, which means I’ll eat it Dr. Seuss-style for days and days—on a boat, on a train, in a box, with a fox.

So yes, in week three of this silly thing, my culinary spirit is still, well, saaging. But at least there’s this. And for that, I’m thankful.

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Garden Saag (PDF)
There is an awkward, pubescent moment in every Seattle garden each year; it usually exists between June and August, when the days are just at their peak length, when the kitchen excitement over tiny fresh greens has died but the tidal wave of mature summer tomatoes has yet to begin. In this span of two weeks, the garden grows. It’s exactly what we wanted it to do, isn’t it; yet, when the workhorses of our early summer gardens, the greens, really get down to business, we’re often overwhelmed. When spinach, kale, and arugula threaten to take over every inch of your living space—or any greens, really, as long as they’re coming in massive quantities—make this sauce. Inspired by Indian saag, a spinach dish often draped over paneer (Indian cheese), it’s delicious on its own, mixed into rice, or draped over a delicately grilled slab of fish.

Light coconut milk will work for the recipe, but the flavor will suffer.

TIME: 15 minutes active time
MAKES: 4 servings

1 tablespoon ghee or unsalted butter
1 large clove garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh ginger
3/4 pound fresh spinach (regular or baby), cleaned and chopped
1 medium bunch kale (about 1/2 pound), ribs removed, cleaned and chopped
1 can (15 ounces) coconut milk
Small pinch red chili flakes (optional)
Kosher salt

Heat a large, wide pot over medium-high heat. Add the ghee, then the garlic and ginger, and cook, stirring, until the garlic is soft, about a minute. Add the spinach and kale and cook until the greens are wilted, stirring frequently. Add the coconut milk (water and solids, if the contents have separated), the chili flakes (if you like spice), and salt to taste. Cover the pot and cook for 10 minutes. Remove the cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the liquid is almost gone, another few minutes.

Using an immersion blender or a food processor, partially blend the greens until they’re spoonable but still a bit chunky, and serve as a side dish. (To make a sauce, simply puree until completely smooth.)

6 Comments

Filed under farmer's market, garden, gluten-free, recipe, side dish, vegetarian

These chips are good for you

Marinated Cucumber Chips 1

This, friends, is a cucumber dish with an identity problem.

It started as an appetizer. I’ve been eating these mini English cucumbers by the bagful – locally grown they are not, but they’re adorable, which is almost as good – and at the top of the list, just above the variation on a Greek salad, there’s been a quick pickle. I’ve been salting, rinsing, and sprinkling with rice wine vinegar. This time, I wanted to jazz it up a bit, with a good dose of garlic and a bite from red pepper flakes, but I didn’t want to wait. So I didn’t. I just chopped the cucumbers up, threw them into a bowl, and mixed them together with the garlic, pepper flakes, ginger, rice wine vinegar, and a sliced shallot. The idea was to set them aside until friends came for dinner.

Trouble came when I picked one up, five minutes after I made them. Even though they’d brined for such a short time, the flavors sang – so I ate, and ate, and ATE, the way you eat a salad, until I had to chop more cucumbers and remake the salad, because there weren’t enough left to actually fill the bowl.

Later, with friends, we agreed they’d be right at home on top of a flank steak flavored in a Vietnamese-style marinade, made with maybe some rice vinegar, fish sauce, ginger, and cilantro. Or atop a pate-smothered cracker. Or even in a taco, with spicy seared salmon.

I hesitate to call these pickles, because none of the things I associate with making pickles – boiling, sometimes salting, and usually waiting – are applicable. “Salad” is too boring. But “chips” – in one word, that encapsulates ultimate snackability, addictiveness, and deliciousness. So chips they are. (But I swear they’re healthier.)

Baby Cucumbers for chips

Garlic-Marinated Cucumber Chips (PDF)
Dunked in a mixture of garlic, red chili flakes, ginger, shallot slices, and rice wine vinegar, sliced baby cucumbers become infinitely snackable. Eat them alone, serve them in tacos, or use them to top a simple salad.

TIME: 10 minutes
MAKES: 4 snack servings

5 baby English cucumbers, cut into 1/2” rounds
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
1 small shallot, very thinly sliced
Big pinch red pepper flakes (to taste)
Pinch salt
Pinch sugar
1/2 cup rice wine vinegar

Mix all the ingredients together in a small bowl. Let sit at least 10 minutes, and up to 4 hours. Serve at room temperature.

Marinated Cucumber Chips 2

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Filed under appetizers, recipe, salad, side dish, vegetables

The Thoughtsorter

IMG_3552

Imagine, if you will, a large, round lampshade with tons of tiny holes in it. Now imagine that there’s a picture in each one of those holes, with a light behind it that projects the image onto a screen, like the little microfiche films you used to look at in public libraries for junior high research papers. With me? Now put the lampshade on your head, and let each one of your thoughts shine out a little hole, so that together, the snapshots narrate all the different things happening in your brain.

The thing on your head is called a thoughtsorter. (I invented it myself.) I use mine when my (good) multitasking skills can’t quite keep up with what I intend to do in a day, or with the things I want to think about. It’s not so fashion-forward, but it’s quite helpful as an organizational tool.

I haven’t needed my thoughtsorter in about three weeks. (Have you noticed? I’ve been gone about that long.) See, I’m working on two Big Projects—things I hope to tell you more about very soon—and it’s pretty much been me, my kitchen, a lot of dishes, and an increasingly dirty computer. I’ve had my proverbial head in the sand, which eliminates the need for said hat. It feels really good not to need all the little holes.

Today, I’ve come up for air, and I’m thinking about my hands. They’ve been white all day. They get this way sometimes (medically, it’s called Raynaud’s Syndrome, and for me it’s part of having lupus), mostly in the fall, when the weather turns. My body’s watching the calendar, it seems, and this year, Seattle’s snapping into late September with alarming punctuality. When they turn white, my fingers remind me of those strange whitish carrots, all wrinkly and not quite as pretty as they might otherwise look.

No one has ever been able to tell me why I have lupus, or how long I’ve actually been affected by it, but it’s clear to me that the side effects became serious when I lived in La Jolla, California, during the fall of 2003. I suppose we all want something to blame for the less desirable things in our lives, and for lupus, part of me always accused this unrealistically sunny, plastic-peopled paradise of making me “sick.” Shortly after I moved away and was diagnosed, La Jolla became the source of all evil.

I’d been married just a few months (in sickness or in health indeed) and had moved there to be the cook for a team of research scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution—one of whom happened to be my husband—who were working in conjunction with oceanographers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

About a month into our time there, I started noticing funny things. First my back ached, my fingers blanched every time I walked into air-conditioning, and my feet and hands hurt. I attributed it to spending hours cooking every day, and plenty of time grocery shopping, in addition to my normal active lifestyle. Then it was hard to tie my shoes, and hard to open doors. I remember sitting in a Whole Foods parking lot in my rented Ford Focus, deciding whether the fact that I physically couldn’t get the trunk open without using both hands was a good reason to cry.

One day, I went to pick up my coffee cup, and my hand sort of crumpled sideways, like it had lost all the bones. I went to the ER the next day.

The rest, as they say, is history. I have lupus. It’s relatively well managed, if you don’t count random bouts with possible kidney failure. (My kidneys are much happier now, thank you.)

But for whatever reason, I could never really put that time in La Jolla behind me. I was literally afraid of the place. I have a hard time pinpointing exactly what I was afraid of—that things would get worse if I stuck a pinkie toe into southern California? Hardly realistic. That all the emotions and fears surrounding finding oneself being consumed by an autoimmune disease would come flooding out uncontrollably? Maybe that. No one likes public displays of hysteria.

I’ve always known I’d have to go back. You know, back to the wolf’s den.

I planned a trip for last May, just after two of my closest friends moved to the area. Three days before departing, I was told I needed a quick round of heavy IV drugs for that kidney thing, and that I wouldn’t be leaving Seattle. Figures, I thought. I rescheduled my trip for Labor Day. But this time, instead of going with my family, I’d go alone.

Looking back, I think I did expect something of a turbulent, rollercoastery reentry, but it was nothing of the sort. I went down to La Jolla Shores with my friend Michaela, who’d arranged for us to go snorkeling with leopard sharks for my birthday. (Nothing eases the nerves like swimming with sharks, right? “Really, they’re harmless bottom-feeders,” she’d said. She was right.)

So much came back. I remembered driving the Focus, and the weirdness that is SoCal. I retraced my driving route to and from the Scripps research pier. I visited the little sandwich shop I’d loved. (I’d forgotten how ludicrously large they make their sandwiches.) I remembered the women, those falsely curvy, Juicy-clad glitterati that prowl downtown La Jolla, trying to look important, but (I always thought) actually just looking like they need something better to do.

We shopped. We people-watched. We ate cupcakes.

But at no point was I overwhelmed, or even touched, by emotion. It sort of surprised me, to be honest. I thought I’d be a wreck. My time there changed my life, and not necessarily for the better.

I flew back to Seattle that night feeling stunned. For years, I’d put off going back to La Jolla the way people avoid exes, for no reason. There was just no part of me that needed to do any forgiving (or forgetting, for that matter). Quelle bonne surprise.

It did make me wonder, though, how I was able to separate La Jolla from all that happened when I was there, and whether other people in similar situations can do the same thing. Maybe—just maybe—that’s when I invented the thoughtsorter. Maybe I was somehow able to separate all the little things that bothered me about being diagnosed from all the fun stuff in my life, so that my friendships, my relationships, and some of my everyday habits could avoid the inevitable cloud that medical issues can often cast over one’s life. It’s just a theory, but if it’s true, I’d bet there’s a good market for thoughtsorters in the medical devices industry. (Hey, you research types—give me a call, and I’ll send you the specs, for a small fee.)

I don’t actually expect researchers—even the best ones—to find a cure for lupus anytime soon. But finding anything new, even the slightest improvement on previous knowledge, might give hope to someone just being diagnosed, and to me, hope is the goal. I function just fine with lupus because I know, in my heart, that there will be ups and downs, but that overall things will be just fine. One of my lights has always been hope. It kills me to think of people going through those first uncertain stages of diagnosis without it – not knowing whether they’ll ever feel normal again, or go for a run again, or have children, or whether they’ll be okay if in fact it turns out that they can’t do any of those things.

That’s why about month from now, I’m participating in a lupus research fundraiser, called the Mad Hatter Walk and Roll. It’s one of those little walk-a-thon things. (Believe it or not, I’m planning to run it, with the highfalutin’ goal of finishing before the walkers.) Everyone wears funny hats, and eats lots of doughnuts, and for one day, everyone who has lupus struts around feeling like their medical status makes them a bit of a rock star. I can’t wait.

And you know what? I think I have just the hat.

(If you’re in Seattle, come join me! Or donate to my team, lupus minimus, if you’re so inspired. The info is here.)

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Hot Honeyed Carrots

Made with fresh garden carrots, this is more of a concept than an actual recipe. Top and scrub the carrots and place them in a pan large enough to hold them in one layer. Add water to cover, along with a good pinch of red pepper flakes, and bring to a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until all the water has evaporated, partially covering the pan once the water reaches only halfway up the sides of the carrots. When the water is gone, drizzle with honey, sesame oil, and soy sauce, and cook and stir until the sauce has reduced to a glaze, just a minute or two. Serve immediately.

7 Comments

Filed under garden, gluten-free, lupus, recipe, side dish, vegetables, vegetarian

Time change

Black Chickpea and Carrot Salad 3

Time baffles me. My father, an engineer, always said you need three things to conquer a new math concept: milk, cookies, and two hours. The first time he told me that, when I had to really study for a math test once, two hours seemed like an ocean of time. I’m pretty sure I cried before the clock started ticking, scared that my little boat of concentration wouldn’t make it to the other shore. But I’ve just spent two hours – that same increment – trying to sweep the debris off my browser and get to the screen now in front of me, and it hardly seems like I’ve had time to breathe, much less take a drink of milk.

Almost two weeks ago, I had lunch at Picnic, a little “food and wine boutique” near me in Seattle that sells mean European-style sandwiches, great soups, and a variety of creative little deli salads. I was with my oldest Seattle friend (someone I went to college with) and my newest Seattle friend, a woman I’ve only recently started getting to know. In round numbers, I’ve known one for ten years and one for ten weeks. Yet somehow, cuddled around the end of the table together, the difference, and the fact that they were meeting for the first time, didn’t seem to matter. We bantered and relaxed like we’d been having lunch together, the three of us, for years.

We all ordered soup, but before it came, one of Picnic’s owners, Jenny, came out with a little tasting plate of the curried chickpea salad we’d all been eying. “New Dehli salad,” said the sign, which made me laugh right out loud. It was spot-on – you certainly wouldn’t find a bright yellow legume mixture studded with golden raisins in the old-fashioned deli of my grandmother’s childhood.

It was the kind of salad that sits in the middle of the table and beckons, its little carrot arms waving wildly. Me, they say. Pick me. Every time my fork wandered toward the plate, I had a little moment of decision anxiety, a tiny panic over which scoop looked tastiest. (The truth: they were all pretty much equally delicious.) I’ve been meaning to tell you about it this whole time, but it’s taken until today – with a green tea latte, a muffin, and two hours – to get it all down.

My own version came together with a bit of serendipity, as we were pulling out of the driveway on our way to Portland, Oregon last week. Jill had sent me a bag of sexy black chickpeas from Montana. They’d been flirting with me the entire month of February, all pearly and exotic-looking, from behind the pantry door. I also had two pounds of gorgeous carrots from my garden – carrots I’d planted last June, forgotten about in September, remembered in November when they were hibernating under two inches of mulch, fretted over in January, and pulled just that morning – waiting patiently for the just the right use. (Carrots are pretty much the perfect vegetable for my current lifestyle: Can’t harvest today? Wait six months. They won’t mind.)

Quite literally, my husband was buckling our son into the carseat while I sautéed shallots with ginger, and yellowed them with curry. I stirred the mixture into the cooked chickpeas, along with toasted pine nuts for a bit of texture (because I didn’t think I had time to soften the raisins in hot water), fresh chives, lemon juice, and those carrots, all grated up.

“We’re ready,” said my husband. “We need to go.”

“Wait. Just a sec. I have to take a photo.”

He stood in the entryway watching me shovel the salad in, not 30 minutes after breakfast. Time stood completely still for three or four bites. I felt the chickpeas rolling over my tongue, and imagined their black skins cracking opening my mouth, revealing creamy insides really not much different from the interior of a regular chickpea. I felt the chives scrunch between my molars, felt the pine nuts collapse beside them. It was a snack for pressing pause.

“Are you going to take one?”

Right. The photograph.

“Yeah,” I muttered, foggy. “I’ll be right there.”

(And yes, of course regular canned or dried chickpeas work fine for this. I used the same amount you’d find in a can.)

Black Chickpea and Carrot Salad 2

Curried Carrot and Chickpea Salad (PDF)

Based on the “New Dehli” salad at a Seattle food and wine boutique called Picnic, this snacky salad combines chickpeas (regular, or black, if you can find them) and carrots with curry, ginger, chives, lemon, and toasted pine nuts. Either canned or dried chickpeas will work.

TIME: 15 minutes active time
MAKES: 4 servings

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (divided)
1 large shallot, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon coarsely grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon curry powder
2 cups cooked chickpeas (rinsed and drained, if canned)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives
1/2 cup toasted pine nuts
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 medium carrots, peeled and grated

Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a large skillet on medium heat. Add the shallot, season with salt and pepper, and cook and stir until very soft, about 6 to 8 minutes. Add the ginger and curry powder, then the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil and let bubble for another minute or two. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside to cool.

Combine the chickpeas, chives, pine nuts, lemon juice, and carrots in a mixing bowl. Pour the curry mixture over the top, stir to blend, season to taste, and serve at room temperature.

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Filed under garden, gluten-free, Lunch, salad, side dish, snack, vegetables, vegetarian

Telephone

Ingredients for holiday dinner
To listen to the version of this story that aired on KUOW, click here.

I recently played the most ridiculous game of telephone. It started when I called my grandmother to cook her dinner.

I know, it sounds all wrong, doesn’t it? You can’t cook for someone over the phone. I didn’t think so either. I’d planned a trip to Portland to do it in person. My grandmother, June, called her sister, and a friend, and molded an entire day around a trip to the grocery store for about ten ingredients. They scrummed around the produce department guy, battering him with questions about fennel and kale. Then they hit the fish counter, where, June told me, she knew not to order the wild salmon because it’s bad for the environment, and knew she could have told the fish guy where to cut, but didn’t have to. I smiled over the phone, not caring what she bought, because she was going to cook. (This woman eats, but she does not, in contemporary lexicon, cook.)

Then my cat got attacked by a raccoon. He was oozy and insulted and very much upset about being left alone indoors, so at the very last minute, I cancelled on my grandmother. She was devastated. She used that word – devastated – and I could hear the truth of it in her voice, weighing her down like an age. (She’s not usually dramatic.)

So we made a phone date. She’d invite her friends back over, and I’d call “on the cellular phone,” and we’d do it all that way, ear to ear. I’d talk, and she’d chop, and it would be like I was right there in the kitchen.

Of course, there was a little catch. The point of cooking for her, that night, was to demonstrate for her a holiday entertaining menu that even she could master – a whole dinner that would take me a heaping ten minutes to put in the oven. There would be roasted salmon with a lemon-cumin raita (she loves yogurt sauces), Dijon potatoes (she’s a mustard fiend), roasted fennel with sherry, and creamed kale – just the right balance of familiarity and foreignness. I figured ten minutes for me meant 20 or so for us together. But on the telephone?

But they’d already purchased the food.

Dinner at Grandma June’s house is a five o’clock affair. I called at 4:15, and June answered on the first ring.

“We’re here,” she sang. “Mary’s had her cigarette, and Verna has the knife.” Taken out of context, I might have been worried, but in this case, I knew that meant they were ready.

“I’m just going to hand the phone to Verna, and you can tell her what to do, okay?” said June.

“Not so fast,” I said. June will do almost anything to not cook. “How about you hold the phone while she chops?” I figured processing the instructions counted for at least half.

And so it began. My dinner plan echoed from Seattle to Portland, from me, to June, then invariably Verna and Mary:

Jess: Okay, let’s start by turning on the oven.
June: Verna, turn on the oven.
Verna: How do you turn on the oven?
June: Push in the dial.
Verna: Okay, how hot do you want it?
June: How hot do we want it?
Jess: 400 degrees.
June: 400 degrees.
Mary: How long is this going to take?

And on we went. I learned, over the next (honestly) 40 minutes, to give extremely specific instructions. We started with potatoes, then fennel, then kale, then salmon. But we started everything slowly:

Jess: Is your white square ceramic pan nearby?
June: Yes, right here.
Jess: Okay, I’m going to tell you how to cut the fennel, then you’re going to put the fennel slices in, drizzle them with olive oil and roll them around a bit. Ready?
June: (To Verna, excited) We’re going to get the fennel ready now. (To Jess) Okay, what do we do?
Jess: Okay. Pretend the fennel is a hand. You see it, with the fingers sticking up?
June: Verna: Pretend the fennel is a hand, with the fingers sticking up.
Verna: I don’t see it. A hand?
June: We don’t see it. What do you mean?
Jess: Can you pretend that the white part is your palm and the green sticky-uppity parts are fingers?
June: Oh, yes.
Verna: What. What? (June explains.)
Jess: (Hems, haws, then decides not to trim the bottom.) Okay. You can eat all of it, but for tonight, we’re going to cut the tops off. Cut the long green stalks off where the rings would be, if the fennel was a hand.
June: Cut the long green stalks off where the rings would be . . . what?
Jess: If the fennel was a hand.
June: If the fennel was a hand. Isn’t it were a hand?
(Chopping sounds.)
Jess: Okay, now cut it into slices through the core.
June: Now cut it into slices through the core.
Verna: I have to talk to her about the center.

Verna washed her hands, and June handed her the phone. I explained how to cut the fennel bulb into wedges right through the center core, so the layers of vegetable stick together, and promised her that it would roast up nice and soft. She handed the phone back to June, and got to work. And on we went, for potatoes, kale, salmon, and the sauce.

Overall, though, it worked quite well. Since it took us (collectively) longer than it took me alone to prepare the ingredients, I had them cut their salmon into smaller filets, instead of roasting it in a big slab, and unless they were lying, it came out perfectly.

From my end, it was sort of a grueling half hour or so. But it also made my heart melt, they same way it does when a kid says something so entirely wrong it’s cute. I’d say, “Squeeze the lemon over the fish,” and June would say, “How do you squeeze a lemon again?” and Verna would say, “June, I know how to squeeze a lemon,” and Mary, more kitchencaster than participant, would say, “What’s the lemon for? Why aren’t we putting it on the fish later?” And since I was there, they’d ask me, to make sure, and we’d spend 25 seconds – watch the clock, it’s a long time – talking lemon-squeezing.

But my goodness, they giggled. There were three of them, but even so, sometimes they were so overwhelmed by the collective energy it took to, say, find the cumin, that they’d abandon me on the counter, and I could hear them twittering, one to the next. It was like listening to a recording of a pack of teenagers in 1939.

And after they’d called back to report that yes, dinner was sensational, I imagined them gathered in front of her giant new television, watching the World Series, picking kale out of their teeth, and wished I wasn’t such a sucker for Whiney McWhiskers. But if anyone understands coddling a cat, it’s June.

Over Thanksgiving, she told me again how much fun she’d had. “But fennel,” she said. “I wouldn’t be too sad if I never saw fennel again. I’m a carrots-onions-potatoes kind of gal.”

Fair enough. I’ll cook the fennel here.

Holiday Dinner 2

The Ten Minute Holiday Meal: Roasted Salmon with Lemon-Cumin Raita, Caramelized Fennel with Sherry Vinegar, Simple Dijon Potatoes, and Creamed Kale (PDF)

The holidays are a time to put the shine on your best silver, if that’s what suits you, but it doesn’t suit everyone. Me? I didn’t always save the pasta-making, reduction-simmering, and bread baking for other times of the year. It used to make sense to stand in the kitchen for hours, talking and stirring. But these days, with an 8-month-old, I’m lucky if I can boil water in one try at 6 p.m. So this year, having guests over will mean simplicity, so there’s a chance – even the slightest, skinniest chance – that I’ll get to talk to the people hanging out with us in our home.

The following simple menu was designed with a 4-person dinner party in mind, to be prepared in a bit over 10 minutes (with dinner about 20 minutes afterward). It doubles easily, but if you do double it, keep in mind that it will take you longer to cut the vegetables, so the salmon might go in later. Luckily, it’s hard to overcook the potatoes, fennel, and kale, so let the salmon determine dinnertime – just add the sherry to the fennel right when you start taking things out of the oven, so it has a minute or two to sizzle.

If you can’t find Olsen Farms’ “Spud Nuts,” which are basically ridiculously small potatoes, quarter golf ball-sized potatoes and use them instead. Potatoes simply halved (per the photos above) don’t quite cook enough in the time allotted.

And, as always, please READ THROUGH the directions before beginning. The directions assume all produce is washed.

*

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

MAKE THE POTATOES: Grease a shallow roasting pan with a teaspoon of olive oil. Toss 1 1/2 pounds Spud Nuts (or quartered small potatoes) with 2 heaping tablespoons Dijon mustard, transfer them to the pan, and put them in the oven on the bottom rack.

MAKE THE FENNEL: Cut the long green stalks off a 1 1/2 pound fennel bulb and save to slice into a salad. Cut the fennel in half vertically (with the stripes), then cut each half into 6 or 8 wedges, so the core keeps each wedge intact. Pile the wedges in an ovenproof pan big enough to fit them in one layer, drizzle with 2 teaspoons of olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and mix with your hands until all the fennel is coated. Add to the oven’s bottom rack.

START THE KALE: Cut 2 small bunches (about 3/4 pound) lacinato (also called dinosaur) kale crosswise into thin ribbons. Heat 1/2 tablespoon olive oil in a large, deep pan over medium heat. Add a crushed, chopped garlic clove, stir for a few seconds, then add the kale, and cook, stirring occasionally while you continue.

MAKE THE SAUCE: Stir together the contents of an 8-ounce container full-fat Greek yogurt, the zest and juice of a lemon, 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin, salt and pepper to taste, and if you want, a chopped clove of garlic. Set aside to let the flavors marry, as they say.

MAKE THE SALMON: Center a 1 1/2 pound (roughly 1 1/2” thick) salmon filet on a parchment- or baking mat-lined baking sheet. Smear with 1 teaspoon olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Bake for 15 minutes or so, or roughly 10 minutes per inch of thickness, until the salmon just begins to exude small white beads of fat (but really not much longer, please).

UPKEEP: Add 1 cup heavy cream and a quick grate of nutmeg to the kale, stir, and walk away. Come back in 10 minutes, stir the kale, pour yourself more wine, and sit back down. (The kale is done when the cream’s gone, but it’s very happy to sit on low heat until you’re ready to eat.)

WHEN THE SALMON IS DONE: Add a big splash – about 1 1/2 tablespoons – sherry vinegar to the fennel pan, and return to the oven without breathing in too deeply (watch those vinegar fumes). Take the salmon out, and transfer it to a serving platter, along with the sauce. Transfer the kale to a serving bowl. Snuggle the potatoes in next to the salmon. Shake the fennel pan to release the wedges, and add them to the platter, too.

Serve hot.

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Filed under farmer's market, fish, gluten-free, kitchen adventure, media, radio, recipe, side dish, vegetables

Many thanks

Bourbon Sweet Potato Crisp 1

Six years ago, Thanksgiving meant lying on a hotel room couch in Park City, Utah, wondering what was wrong. I couldn’t see how and why my body had morphed from strongstrongstrong to something I simply couldn’t recognize. Six years ago, I admitted to myself that I was sick. It took me months to admit the same thing to the people close to me.

Thanksgiving means a lot of things, in my heart: It means food, and family, and the eggnog we age in the garage for three weeks. It means balancing cooking and relaxing and drinking and eating – have to do them all in the right amounts, in the right order, you know. And increasingly, it means a small, soft moment or two, when I sit back and remember that there was a time when I didn’t have lupus, and didn’t wake up on the easy mornings – the ones with good, greasy joints – and feel thankful, just to be walking comfortably. Despite all the physical and emotional hubbub that surrounds an autoimmune disease, sometimes I feel almost a little lucky to have lupus. It’s made me much, much better at giving thanks.

This week, I’m mostly thankful for the people who make it easier to live with lupus: For Kelly, who carried my groceries – not because I can’t, but because some days, it’s easier if I don’t. For our nanny, who came on her day off and schlepped all the heavy, awkward stuff out of the car for me. For a guy like Joe, who carried my skis on Sunday without making me feel like a sissy. For my neighbor, who walked my dog last week without knowing she’d picked the day when it hurt just to hold the leash. For my doctors, who tell me that my recent flare (honestly, the worst it’s ever been) can probably be abated by stronger medications and a lot less breastfeeding. For my friends, who told me it was okay to be devastated, and encouraged me to embrace what amounts to a huge departure from how I planned to feed my child. For my husband, who never knew “in sickness and in health” (or our own equivalent) would be a phrase he’d have to visit so often. And for all the people who help and support me, every day, without making me feel in any way handicapped. (That is a very impressive thing, indeed.)

You’ll also be thankful for Sarah, who came over for a gabbing and pie crust-making session and ended up staying to peel the sweet potatoes for this little crisp. (The real one’s bigger, but I’m saving it for the holiday, so you just get a snapshot of the baby version.) It seemed like such a nothing thing to both of us, I’m sure, but I’d broken my most hand-friendly peeler, and getting the job done with the normal metal peeler was somehow overwhelming. She just sat down and got to work.

I meant to come here days ago, for advice on what became my Thanksgiving conundrum of the year. I’d hit upon the idea of a sweet potato crisp – something done before, surely, but nothing my own taste buds had run across – and couldn’t decide whether to serve it as part of the meal or as a dessert.

Then Thanksgiving came cartwheeling in, before I could get my game face on. (There are eight here already, with eight more coming soon.) That crisp? It’ll slide in right next to the turkey, I’ve decided, as a substitute for the gooey-topped version found on so many tables. We’ll pile it onto our plates, along with Erica’s biscuits and a cornbread stuffing I’ve yet to invent all the way.

And when the meal’s over, and my husband’s salty, well-worked hands dig into the pile of dishes, I know I’ll be thankful for the way my family’s worked together to put everything on the table. When the pies come out, I’ll find a spot on the floor, because goodness knows where the couch will be by then, and wonder if it’s possible to teach a child to be thankful, just to be alive.

Thanks for reading. Happy Thanksgiving.

Bourbon Sweet Potato Crisp 3

Bourbon Sweet Potato Crisp (PDF)

The recipe below makes enough topping to cover the crisp if the sweet potatoes are snuggled into a 9” square baking pan. You can also put it in a taller dish (like a soufflé dish) and use less topping, decreasing the crunch-to-potato ratio, or spread the sweet potato mixture out in a 9” by 13” dish, so each bite has more topping.

TIME: 30 minutes, plus baking
MAKES: About 12 servings

For the potatoes:
5 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 1/2” cubes
1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup bourbon, such as Maker’s Mark
2 tablespoons maple syrup
Salt (to taste)

For the crisp topping:
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup old-fashioned oats
3/4 cup chopped walnuts
3/4 cup (packed) brown sugar
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch salt
3/4 stick unsalted butter, melted

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

First, start the sweet potatoes: Place the potatoes in a large pot, and add cold water to cover. Bring to a simmer and cook until very tender, about 20 minutes. Drain potatoes, return to the pot, and mash with the remaining potato ingredients. Puree in batches in a food processor until very smooth, and transfer to a 9” square (or similar) baking pan.

While the potatoes cook, mix the topping ingredients in a medium bowl until well blended. Scatter the topping over the potatoes and bake for about 30 minutes, until the topping has browned. Serve warm.

Note: Both the sweet potatoes and the crisp topping can be made ahead and refrigerated up to 3 days in advance. To serve, bake the sweet potatoes for 20 minutes, add the topping, and bake another 40 minutes.

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Filed under lupus, recipe, side dish, vegetables

The Chickpea Chronicles

Wolf chickpea salad 1

I have news for you:

I am going to give birth to a chickpea.

I’m not actually kidding. I’m pregnant, due in May, and I have blood tests that prove that the person growing inside me will come out with a can opener in his or her tiny little hand, because instead of breast milk, this baby will only be eating chickpea salad. At least, that’s the trend thus far.

I know. I should have told you earlier.

But it was so boring early on, in the food department: Toast. Saltine crackers. Cereal. More toast. More crackers. More cereal. Rice pudding. Saltines in bed. Saltines on the sheets, and in my husband’s hair. Dog jumping on the bed, snorting saltine dust. Toast.

Around here, you’ve seen an awful lot of desserts recently, if you hadn’t noticed. That’s because meat and I have not been friends. In fact, food and I have not been great friends, and for me, that’s sad. I thought I’d never meet a Bolognese I didn’t like, but I did, twice, and I can’t talk about it yet.

But all that nonsense seems to be over, finally. (Whoever said nausea ends at 12 weeks is full of shit. Try 15.)

But back to beans.

If they’re at all gussied up, I can down a can of chickpeas – garbanzo beans, whatever you want to call them – in a single sitting. Like now, at 10:17 a.m, when I’ve already had a piece of toast, an egg, and a smoothie for breakfast. In fact, I’m beginning to consider myself something of a chickpea salad expert.

Let me enlighten you.

The average chickpea salad takes four to six minutes to make. This takes into consideration my simplest version (and the one I make most often), which takes just under one minute, if I can find the can opener quickly – it’s just chickpeas, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper – and the luxe version, which requires boiling water for some sort of grain, chopping herbs, and getting out a proper bowl and perhaps, in a moment of leisure, a napkin.

Chickpea, cucumber, olive, and goat cheese salad

But yes, on average, I’d say four to six minutes. The version that was in the bowl in front of me just moments ago was a good proxy of my typical mid-morning snack. I mixed a can of rinsed, drained chickpeas with chopped cucumber, cilantro, and olives, plus the juice of half a Meyer lemon and some olive oil, salt and pepper. I crumbled in a handful of goat cheese, and stirstirstirred until it melted into a dressing, which meant chickpea salad bound by a silky white sauce that really probably wasn’t meant to fall into the little indentation between the space key and the raised framing on my Mac laptop. (No, silly, that’s for your thumb.)

The most exotic salad, thus far, was very misleading. I went to a party recently where we were all instructed to bring a favorite dish from childhood. Tea brought tuna noodle casserole (with peas, of course). Shauna made tomato soup, updated with chipotle peppers and red lentils. Traca brought homemade salted peanut butter caramel ice cream, and a chocolate version made with coconut milk, which must have been meant as a stand-in for ice cream in general, unless I missed that her mother is related to Martha Stewart. Barbara brought Oreos and milk, and Megan (I think!) brought rice krispy treats. (Just try spelling that with a “c.”)

But me? I brought the chickpea salad I made a couple weeks ago, which was based on the salad at How to Cook a Wolf. Not because I loved chickpeas as a child. (In fact, I refused to try them, because my friend Sari loved them, and how could I possibly have liked something she liked?)

No. I brought the salad because I couldn’t imagine getting through the afternoon without chickpeas.

Brandon's chickpea salad

And what did I find, there on the buffet table? Another chickpea salad. Apparently Brandon really did have a chickpea childhood. His salad seemed plain enough – to the naked eye, why, it was just a bunch of legumes, looking shiny in a bowl. But they were dressed with some combination so close to Caesar salad – with great olive oil, Parmesan cheese, and plenty of garlic – that I stubbornly refused to ask him what he’d put in the mix, lest he dared mention a raw egg out loud, and Hey, aren’t you pregnant? Should you be eating that? squeaked out from someone across the room. I made that one again, too, but (sigh) without the egg he may or may not have used. (I am such a wuss.)

And yes, about about that chickpea salad from Wolf? Oh, people, it gets better. Mix that one with 3/4 cup cooked orzo pasta, juice of another half a lemon, another glug of olive oil, and 1/2 cup crumbled feta, and you’ve got an eat-over-the-sink-til-it’s-gone-able pasta salad.

Chickpeas with olives, sdt, feta, quinoa

Then there are the warm versions, which may take slightly longer: A red quinoa and chickpea salad, with feta, sundried tomatoes, olives, and corn. That one was for a party, too, but by the time my spoon found it, it was only mostly for a party.

Chickpea, broc, bell pepper salad

Then there was a warm one where I sautéed onions, red bell pepper, and broccoli, and added the chickpeas with a touch of cumin and apple cider vinegar. That one was delicious, but not as shovelable as the others. I actually had leftovers, that time.

So yes, thank you for asking, I am especially thankful for something this year. I’m thankful for this little chickpea, even if it does make me cry at Walmart commercials. (Yup, you’re right. I don’t own a television. It happened at my gym, right there on the elliptical machine.)

I’m thankful for you, too, dear reader. It’s nice to have you along.

I can’t promise that hogwash won’t change in the months to come. I’ve always written about life, and if there’s one certain way to make life change, we’ve smack dabbed ourselves into the middle of it.

I will promise, though, that I will eventually move beyond chickpeas.

At least, I do hope so.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Chickpea, Quinoa, and Feta Salad

Red Quinoa, Chickpea, and Feta Salad (PDF)

TIME: 20 minutes
MAKES: 8 to 12 servings

1 1/3 cups red quinoa (white works just as well)
1 cup chopped Kalamata olives
1/4 cup chopped sundried tomatoes (the kind packed in oil)
3/4 cup corn kernels (from a large cob, or cooked frozen corn)
1 1/4 cups crumbled feta cheese (from a 7-ounce brick)
2 (15-ounce) cans chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/3 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Cook the quinoa in water according to package instructions. (You should have about 3 1/2 cups cooked quinoa.) Transfer to a large mixing bowl, and stir in the remaining ingredients, through parsley. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and serve at room temperature.

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Filed under gluten-free, recipe, salad, side dish, vegetables

Cornbread for Kristen

WG cornbread

A quick one for you:

My friend Kristen wrote me the other day with a very specific question. She wants to up the wholegrainness (her word, not mine, but I love it) of her usual Thanksgiving cornmeal stuffing, which she makes with sausage, pecans, leeks, and cranberries. (I know. I want the recipe, too.) But she didn’t want to just add bulgur or millet to the mix, lest the little pellets fall right to the bottom of the pan. No one wants stuffing baked on a layer of birdseed, right? She thought a whole grain cornbread – one made with whole wheat flour, of course, and the grains she’s been trying to squeeze into her diet baked right into the batter – would fit the bill. She just wasn’t sure how to go about it.

I wrote her about my standard rules: I freely substitute up to half the all-purpose flour in almost any recipe with whole wheat flour without blinking. If I want to add crunch, I add a tablespoon or two of millet or quinoa without changing anything else, or for more than just a touch of grain, I replace some of the whole wheat flour with the grain. . . But I couldn’t honestly tell her that there’s a ratio I always depend on. So chili climbed up a rung on our dinner menu – a deeply flavorful, spicy, vegetized version with mushrooms, roasted green chilies, and red bell peppers – and out came the cornbread pan.

The bread isn’t quite so muffiny as these cornbread muffins, what without the sour cream and all, which makes it just about right for mopping up the bottom of a bowl of chili the night before Thanksgiving.

whole grain cornbread top

Kristen’s Whole Grain Cornbread (PDF)

Here’s a recipe for the whole grain-crazy among you, based on my go-to for regular sweet cornbread muffins, the ones found on the side of the Albers yellow corn meal box. (I use a bit less sugar.) Serve the bread while it’s still warm, with a nice, hot bowl of chili, or let the bread cool completely, cut it into cubes, and toast it for you favorite cornbread stuffing.

TIME: 20 minutes active time
MAKES: 8 servings

Vegetable oil spray
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup cornmeal
3 tablespoons quinoa
2 tablespoons millet
2 tablespoons flaxseed meal
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 1/4 cup milk
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8” square pan with the vegetable oil spray (or butter) and set aside.

Stir the dry ingredients (through salt) together in a mixing bowl. Crack the eggs into another big bowl, whisk to blend, then whisk in the milk, vegetable oil, and butter. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients, and stir until the dry ingredients are just incorporated. Pour into the prepared pan, and bake for 35 minutes, until lightly browned at the edges. Cool for 10 minutes before cutting into squares.

WG Cornbread with butter

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Filed under bread, recipe, side dish

My New Noodle Soup

soba noodles

New Noodle Soup. Say it.

(Out loud, I mean.)

New Noodle Soup. Fun, isn’t it?

I know why. It’s because somewhere in there, you get to say “noo-noos,” like a two-year-old. Who can resist the sound of a food whose pronunciation requires the same mouth shape as its eating?

But clearly, noo-noos are not what one orders in mixed public adult company. Even I couldn’t do that. How unfortunate, especially this time of year, when traveling sniffles have most of us fighting hard to pretend we don’t have fall colds, and noonoos are just what we need.

But I do. I have a cold. And I’m going to be on the radio today, so last night I started hitting the liquids hard, trying anything to bring my bedraggled voice back. For dinner, it had to be my own version of the terrific chicken noonoo soup I had last weekend.

When I sat down at ART, the restaurant at Seattle’s new Four Seasons Hotel, I was a little shocked to find chicken noodle soup on the menu. It reads like such a pedestrian choice for an appetizer. Not exactly the sort of thing I’d expect to order in a room where the bar counter is backlit by ever-changing shades of fluorescence. But the soup – fine filaments of spiced vegetables, twisted up with soba noodles and black silkie chicken in a deeply flavorful broth, and topped with a poached egg – was anything but plain.

I didn’t have any desire to recreate the exact same soup. The carrots, cabbage, and squash were sliced micro-thin, for starters, and the presentation was far fancier than anything that happens in my house—the gorgeous ceramic bowl, the fanfare of a waiter pouring the broth over the noodles, yadda yadda. And I didn’t have time to hunt down a chicken that looks like it belongs in a Dr. Seuss book. But I couldn’t ignore the way the egg yolk glided into the broth, infusing it with a richness that makes chicken soup feel even more healing than usual.

I thought I tasted a hint of miso in the broth at ART – but when I asked, I was assured that I was just tasting the richness of a stock made with silkie black chicken, whose meat is known for its deep, almost gamey flavor. Once I got the miso in my head, though, I couldn’t get it out – so I spiked our soup with a dollop of miso paste.

Course, the plan was to eat half of it, then take it out of the fridge this morning, pop a newly poached egg on top, and take a few slightly more attractive photographs for you, in the daylight. But when I went to take it out of the fridge, I discovered my husband had taken the entire container for lunch.

Guess I’ll have to make more noo-noos.

new noodle soup

Chicken Soba Noodle Soup with Miso and Poached Egg (PDF)

At ART, Chef Kerry Sear poaches the eggs for 8 to 10 minutes wrapped up in a layer of plastic wrap. He lines a ramekin with the wrap, cracks an egg in, twists the ends to seal, and puts it right into a pot of boiling water. His method worked perfectly for me, but poach using whatever method you like best.

I found the timing worked well if I put the chicken stock, water for the pasta, and water for the eggs on the stove at the same time.

TIME: 25 minutes
MAKES: 4 servings

8 cups rich homemade chicken stock
1 large boneless, skinless chicken breast (about 3/4 pound)
2 large celery stalks, thinly sliced on a diagonal
2 carrots, peeled and thinly sliced on a diagonal
1 bundle soba noodles (about 1/3 pound, or the diameter of a quarter)
1 tablespoon yellow miso paste
Salt and freshly ground pepper
4 large eggs, poached
Shichimi togarashi (Japanese seven spice mix, optional)

Bring the stock to a bare simmer in a large saucepan. Add the chicken breast, celery, and carrots, and cook for about 10 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through. Shred the chicken and return it to the pot with the vegetables.

Meanwhile, bring a pot of salted water to boil for the noodles. Cook until al dente, according to package instructions. Drain, rinse with cool water, and set aside.

Add the miso to the soup, and stir the noodles into the soup to warm. Season the broth to taste with salt and pepper, if necessary. Using tongs, divide the noodles between four soup bowls, then add vegetables, chicken, and broth to each. Top each bowl with a poached egg, and serve with a few sprinkles of shichimi, for a bit of spice, if desired.

Close to Wolf's Chickpea Salad

For those who have come from KUOW, here’s a PDF of the chickpea salad recipe I mentioned, from How to Cook a Wolf (pictured above), and here’s the vanilla-olive oil cake.

Art Restaurant and Lounge on Urbanspoon

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Filed under appetizers, Cakes, chicken, dessert, gluten-free, kitchen adventure, lupus, Pasta, recipe, salad, Seattle, side dish, snack, soup, vegetables

For all you pumpkin carvers

My sis came over to carve pumpkins last night.

I heard a few gasps, telling my friends. Tonight? As in, Who carves pumpkins three days before Halloween? Two days is apparently the socially acceptable limit.

Which means I know what recipe you’ll need tonight.

Oh, come on. It isn’t that hard. You just slice the top off your pumpkin, then instead of staring at the thing, willing it to infuse you with instant artistic talent and creativity, you stick a hand in – sleeves rolled up, please – and gently mine the slinky pumpkin shreds for all the slimy seeds. Three big pumpkins’ worth should give you a bit more than three cups of seeds. A good soak in warm, salty water cleans them of any extra orange goo, and after a quick blot, they’re ready for the oven.

See? You don’t need to throw them away.

Salty Pie-Spiced Pumpkin Seeds (PDF)

Since the seed haul from every pumpkin is different, you might have to play with the ingredients a bit here – I scraped my seeds from 3 large pumpkins, being diligent with the first two and a bit lazy with the last. But play you should. I’ve added my favorite pumpkin pie ingredients (maple syrup, cinnamon, ginger, and cardamom), but a few pinches of clove, nutmeg, or allspice certainly wouldn’t hurt.

TIME: 10 minutes prep (not including seed excavation)
MAKES: 3 1/2 cups roasted pumpkin seeds

3 1/2 cups raw fresh pumpkin seeds
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt, and more for sprinkling
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 tablespoon packed brown sugar
1 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom

Place the seeds in a bowl with 1 tablespoon of the salt and add hot water to cover. Let sit for 4 hours (or overnight), until the seeds are puffy. Scoop the seeds off the top of the water, avoiding any leftover pumpkin bits, and transfer them to a large tea towel. Use another towel to pat them mostly dry – they’ll still be a bit slimy, but do what you can.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees; line two baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.

Transfer the seeds to a large mixing bowl, and stir in the olive oil and maple syrup. Blend the remaining ingredients, plus the remaining teaspoon salt, in a small bowl, and sprinkle the mixture over the seeds as you stir them. Stir until the sugar has dissolved, then spread the seeds on the baking sheets in a thin layer.

Bake for about 25 minutes, rotating sheets and stirring seeds once or twice, or until browned and crisp. Remove seeds from the oven, sprinkle immediately with additional salt, and let cool on baking sheets. Break seeds apart and enjoy, alone or on salads. Store cooled seeds in an airtight container.

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Filed under gluten-free, recipe, side dish, snack, vegetarian

A little pinch of ridiculous

A few weeks ago, Frank and Michelle made me the most hilarious birthday gift, meant as a form of encouragement for my renewed enthusiasm for biking: They took a Specialized advertisement starring Tom Boonen and put my face where the professional bike racer’s head once was, atop a bike significantly faster than mine. It’s a scary clip, and makes both me and poor Tom look quite ridiculous. Like the wolf in Grandma’s clothing, only in my case, it’s my little bobble head on a significantly more athletic body. My, Jess, what strong legs you have.

In my lexicon, “bicycle” and “racing” only really meet each other when I’m talking about getting those damned shoes off. When we rode with our friends again last weekend, though, I started to feel strong on a bike for the first time in years. (Or ever, maybe.) Michelle chatted me up the side of Queen Anne Hill at a whole mile an hour faster than I’d gone the previous weekend. I took a hit of one of those carbohydrate gels without making a face, even.

Now, I’m no Tom Boonen, but I’m getting closer. Michelle took off near the top of the second hill, to finally get her muscles warmed up, and I came to an almost dead standstill, to breathe again – but I didn’t get off that bike, and that felt good. And at the end, as we headed up Fremont toward the zoo, I didn’t think of crying.

It’s one thing, to have someone say you can do it. But it’s another thing entirely, another great, wonderful, life-preserving, heart-filling thing, when the people you’re with say you are doing it. I’m being dramatic, I know, reading so much into a single bike ride, but resting at the top of the Lighthouse hill (which measures a 22% grade at one point, thankyouverymuch), having hauled my ass up the thing in a painfully slow sinuous pattern at a crowd-pumping 3 miles per hour, I sure didn’t feel like I was “suffering from lupus.” Or anything, for that matter, except a little touch of sunburn. I just felt like the old Jess, trying to get back into shape, doing the biking thing in a way I sometimes thought I’d never do again. Oh Tom, I thought, pain is your enemy. But do you know how nice it is to feel the most normal pain, as opposed to one you can’t control? Maybe he does. Good for him, too, then.

That husband of mine? He’s doing his best to make the whole thing a positive experience, also. (Smart man. He’s the one who taped my handlebars pink, which thrills me to the core, and encouraged me to get a good bike jersey, because he knows I subscribe to the fashion-equals-fitness exercise mentality.)

On Saturday, he hopped right off his own trusty steed and into the kitchen, bike shorts and all, to whip up some huevos rancheros – my favorite brunch, if the rumblings my stomach is now making are any indication – to refuel us.

While he cooked, I stretched, and putzed around in the refrigerator for something to tide me over. I found the cucumber salad I’d made a few nights before, and again, obsessively, the previous night.

Then, it had seemed so perfect – crunchy and light, almost fizzy-tasting, with that celebratory champagne vinegar, and sharp, with that little dab of mustard. I made it because it seemed like such a shame to hide fresh cucumbers in a salad, or put them aside for pickles, when I could taste them just for themselves. The cucs were sliced thin, so we got all the good green flavor of the skins, but none of their sometimes-leathery texture. (Really. “Leather” and “cucumbers” should never be used in the same sentence.)

But when I opened the container after the bike ride, I just about laughed. Cucumbers? Pointless. I traded them for a piece of bacon, and sat down to wait for the rest of breakfast.

Sunday, we went for an easy hike up near Mt. Rainier, in the glowing September sun. (Oh, yes, a full weekend without work! Maybe that’s why I feel so good.) We took it easy, and my joints were more or less happy.

That wolf? I guess she’s all bedded down in grandma’s pajamas, these days. I know she’s there, and I know she’ll be back with the rains, all huffety puffety, but boy, is it nice to have some silence, for once. I do hope it’s a positive feedback loop.

Now that I’ve recovered a bit, my appetite has been correctly recalibrated, and I want another batch of those cucumbers, to celebrate Indian summer, on the porch. There are still a couple left from Friday.

Between us? They’re getting a little soggy, three days on. But that second day, they were still surprisingly crisp.

Cucumber salad

Champagne-Chive Cucumber Salad (PDF)
Here’s a recipe for cucumbers you won’t have to wait months to enjoy. It’s a simple, spunky, refreshing salad, the kind of thing you can eat standing up without feeling guilty. It’s also the perfect counterpart to rich fish, and would make a great sandwich ingredient. Slicing the cucumbers ultra thin means you get the flavor of the peel without its objectionable texture.

TIME: 10 minutes
MAKES: 4 servings

2 small cucumbers (not pickling cucumbers), or about 2/3 pound
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon Champagne vinegar
Salt and finely ground black pepper
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

Slice the cucumbers as thin as possible on a mandolin, and transfer to a mixing bowl.

In a small bowl, whisk the mustard, vinegar, and salt and pepper to taste, until blended. Add the olive oil, and whisk until emulsified. Add the dressing to the cucumbers, along with the chives, and stir to coat all the cucumber pieces, using your hands if necessary to separate the slices. Season to taste with additional salt and pepper. Serve immediately, or refrigerate up to 4 hours and serve chilled.

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Filed under Lunch, lupus, recipe, salad, side dish, vegetables

Express Yourself

Simple Roasted Onions 2

So yes, the oven. It’s broken.

Well, not totally broken. I mean, it still gets hot. It’s just abut 75 degrees slow, that’s all. I bought one of those little oven thermometers, which makes the oven usable, just highly annoying. My eyes are already tired from squinting in to see the thermometer, where I’ve positioned it in front of the oven’s light.

I called the Amana dealer yesterday. “I’m sorry,” said the woman at the Customer Experience Center.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it’s called the Experience Center, as opposed to the Service Center. I didn’t get any service. I just got an apology. Too bad so sad, honey, with a nice Midwestern accent.

But see, yesterday, I needed that oven. I pulled six small onions out of our garden, and though I’m sure they’d have cured up nicely and waited patiently for later in the fall, when they could be diced up anonymously and secreted into some soup, I wanted to taste them unfettered. Onions as themselves.

Onions and silk don’t have much in common, but if you roast onions slowly, at first, allowing them to soften all the way to the center, then brown them at a higher temperature and hit them with a little apple cider vinegar, their sections slide across each other like an old Madonna video.

Really. Don’t peg me as a huge fan, but when I popped one into my mouth, half dropping it along the way because it was so soft, and that Express Yourself video came to mind, out of nowhere. That scene at the end where she’s rolling around on the sheets? The onions did that. In my mouth.

These are onions at their sexiest. These are onions expressing themselves.

We ate half the batch standing up, deciding what to make for dinner, and scattered the other half under the cheese on a pizza. Next year, I’ll save them for a roasted vegetable salad – since they’re sweet, acidic, and a bit oily, all at once, I’d be willing to bet they’d blend up into a superb pure onion vinaigrette. Or maybe I’ll spread them on great walnut bread, and top with bleu cheese. . . In any case, next year, I’ll be planting more onions.

Simple Roasted Onions 1

Simple Roasted Onions with Cider Vinegar (PDF)

TIME: 10 minutes active time
MAKES: 4 servings

4 teaspoons olive oil, separated
1 pound small onions (about 6 or 8 the size of limes)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Drizzle two teaspoons of the olive oil across the bottom of an ovenproof dish, and turn the pan to coat. Trim the dry tips and root hairs off the onions, slice them in half through the ends, and peel. Place the onions in the pan, cut side down. Drizzle with the remaining 2 teaspoons oil, season with salt and pepper, and roast for 1 hour in the center of the oven.

Increase the oven temperature to 425 degrees. Roast for another 15 to 20 minutes, or until the onions are deep brown. Add the vinegar, and shake the pan gently to release the onions from the pan, if they’ve started to stick. (Watch your nose!) Using a small spatula, carefully turn the onions over, so the browned cut sides are up, and roast another 5 to 10 minutes, until the vinegar has reduced almost completely. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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Filed under gluten-free, recipe, side dish, vegetables

Over

At 2 a.m., my husband woke up yelling.

“What do you mean, the instruments aren’t running? What the hell happened?”

He sprung upright, cursed his (fantastic) intern, and made to get dressed.

“Jim, it’s over,” I soothed, trying to pull him back into bed without laughing. “It’s over. It’s done. Your experiment is done. You have data. You’re at home.”

It took a few minutes to convince him going back to bed was the best option.

This morning, he didn’t think it was quite as funny as I did. He reminded me that I’m normally the one who wakes up hawking jibberish. Last time it was something about sautéing the alphabet, which is a pretty accurate metaphor for my life, but still crazy.

After months of anticipation, we’re on the far side of what was undeniably the biggest week of our summer. But it’s over, all of it: Jim’s fieldwork, a carefully crafted plan that’s been in various stages of preparation for more than a year. My parents’ eight-day visit, timed around my 30th birthday, if I’m feeling selfish, or around my sister’s start at the University of Washington, if I’m feeling honest. Also done? Our Seattle not-really-summer, if the gloves I wore on our morning walk today are any indication, and my first real garden. (And, as it turns out, my oven. Again.)

It started with the birthday, of course. We had breakfast at Pete’s Egg Nest, our neighborhood favorite, then moved Allison into the most impossibly small triple dorm room known to man. Must have been quite the sight, twelve of us making sure three fully capable women had properly made beds, and enough hangers, and functioning dry-erase boards chock full of telephone numbers, should they all spontaneously combust and forget how to function without their mothers. Through all the bumping and sorrying and shy debating over what went where, I thought oh god, did I really ever live in one room with another person? I could touch all three of their beds at the same time, for goodness’ sake. The whole set-up seems ripe for head injury, not to mention emotional damage.

Tasting cupcakes!

But they seemed happy as clams, those three, so we left them, and had me a little bit of a birthday party at Oliver’s Twist, with 30 of Seattle’s very best cupcakes. (Really – is there any contest? Might as well call each and every one of them a trophy. That’s why there were considerably more than one per person.) There was great wine, and the kind of crisp-edged, gooey grilled cheese sandwiches that make a person wonder why we eat anything else for dinner, ever. My mother got tipsy, and my grandmother said embarrassing things. Then somehow, later, there were margaritas involved, and tequila shots, without the mother and grandmother.

And then it was over.

There never was a big epiphany. (Believe me, I haven’t matured a hair.)

But there was one moment – when my friends were singing and sharing cupcakes, and my parents looked young and healthy, and I felt like a million bucks wearing a flouncy pink dress that matched my grandmother’s shirt – when I felt a little bit invincible. It’s been a good summer. I’ve felt physically stronger than I have in a long time, and between friends and food and family, turning thirty made me feel just plain rich.

But now, it’s over.

It’s always this way, after my birthday. September 1st comes around a dark corner without any headlights on, and by the time I react, it’s tucked back in my blind spot, where I won’t find it again for an entire year.

Our first apples!

Yesterday, we decided to mark the end of summer with a harvest. We picked apples, all twenty or so from the wonky little espalier in the front yard. We pulled up the onions and beets, and gathered the cherry and pear tomatoes that have had enough sun to plump up colorful. It was bittersweet: Part of me smugged at how much I’d grown, my first year in that little plot in the back, and part of me sagged, realizing that now the apples and onions are in my blind spot, too, and that I’ll have to wait twelve more months to do what amounted to about eight minutes of picking again. I haven’t even begun to think about what I’ll do differently next year, but I’ll certainly plant more progressively. Sort of feels like I sent all my vegetables off to college at once. Besides those evergreen tomatoes, who’s left to mother?

And now, of course, there’s a different kind of responsibility. I can’t just go wasting a beet, if I only have 9 of them. I have to do the right thing, the first time. (Enter larger discussion on food values here. Summary: Growing your own increases awareness. Try it.)

Freshly dug carrots

My best garden surprise, and the crop that weighs heaviest with mustcookrightness, is a whole pound of sweet, crunchy carrots.

When my parents were here, my father asked how my carrots were doing. I’d failed to thin them out at the beginning of the season. I didn’t realize you had to, and then by the time their bushy little tops got about 4 inches tall, I felt guilty plucking them out of the ground, so I left them, and forgot about them altogether.

But Dad, he had to ask. “They’re small,” I said succinctly, and we moved on.

I was wrong.

Guess I thought carrots gophered their little heads out when they were ready. The greens had matured by yesterday, but since there wasn’t a speck of orange in sight, I’d assumed I had carrot threads, the babiest little specimens, instead of real vegetables. But they’re not baby carrots. They’re borderline adolescent carrots, or perhaps even real adult carrots, if the note on the package stipulating their expected stature can be believed.

Last night, we invited my sister over for Chinese food. (For practice, I should repeat my discovery: She’s not visiting. She lives in Seattle.)

It was quite a thrill, just picking up the phone in the middle of a bike ride like that, knowing I might very well see her two hours later. (Yesterday, I had my first-ever Power Gel. It’s been a long, long time since I tried to eat something without tasting it, but if I keep this biking thing up, I may have to get used to it. They’re vile. I planned our dinner in my head while we whizzed down Magnolia Boulevard, as a sort of atonement. Forgive me, for I have eaten notfood.)

Starting soy-glazed carrots 1

Allison sat at the counter while I cooked, listening to me rant about the broken oven, watching me roll the carrots over and over as I simmered them with chili and garlic, willing their wrinkles to accept a spicy counterpart to their sweet interiors.

“Have you ever stir-fried before?” I asked. She’d helped me prepare beef and vegetables for a supposedly spicy Szechuan dish, and I caught her staring at my empty wok, probably wondering why I had the heat on but nothing inside.

“I didn’t even know it was a verb,” she answered.

I explained how it goes quickly, especially on a stove with oomph, and as she watched me dump chilies and garlic and ginger into hot oil, September felt a lot more like a beginning than an ending.

It’s funny, how we mark time with birthdays and months and seasons, when the ending of one only really means the beginning of another. Our apples are in a basket on the counter, and the tree looks awfully naked, but the possibility of pie looms large. My garden is empty, but my tomato neighbor has begun striking. My parents have left, but my sister stays here. (Which means I can invite her over for stir-fry again. Only next time, it will actually be spicy.)

So yes, maybe summer is almost over.

I, for one, am thrilled.

Stir-fry dinner 1

Soy-Glazed Carrots with Chili and Garlic (PDF)

It’s not every day you meet a simmered carrot that tastes right eaten off a chopstick. But these babies – simmered with fiery chilies, so just a touch of heat finds its way into the vegetable’s nooks and crannies – are just that, carrots that feel right at home next to your favorite stir-fry and a pile of great brown rice. The heat plays best off sweet, freshly-dug carrots, which are smaller if they come from my garden, but you could also cut fat specimens in half crosswise, then cut the thick part in half again lengthwise.

TIME: 5 minutes active time
MAKES: 4 servings

1/2 pound garden carrots (roughly 1” around at the thick end), tops trimmed
1 small Thai chili, split lengthwise
1 large clove garlic, peeled and smashed
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

Place the carrots, chili, and garlic in a large skillet in a single layer and fill with water to just cover the carrots. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat and cook at a strong simmer, turning occasionally, until carrots are just tender when pierced with a skewer (about 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the size of your carrots).

Using a large lid, drain off any remaining liquid. Decrease heat to low, add soy sauce and sesame oil, and cook until liquid has reduced and glazes carrots, about 5 minutes. Serve immediately.

Glazing carrots

P.S. My oven is running extremely slow. The recipe for last week’s Ginger Shatters may require less oven time. If you give them try, please let others know how long yours take.

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Filed under chinese, recipe, side dish, vegetables

A quick kvetch

Grilled Corn and Cotija Salad 2

All that complaining about April being the cruelest month? I was lying. If you’re a food writer, August is the worst.

It’s so wrong, the way these things work. The way corn and zucchini and tomatoes run screaming into the markets, just when those of us that pepper magazines and websites with delicious recipes are gearing up for winter.

This week, I’m putting the finishing touches on a Christmas menu. (Beef tenderloin. Quinoa with nuts and dried berries. Bitter green salad.) I’m editing a recipe for lemon cake. I’m writing an apple-focused fall dinner party ($4.39 for three Washington state apples, please), brainstorming ideas for Superbowl appetizers, and combing grocery stores for cranberries and Kabocha squash.

All delicious things? Yes. Delicious now? No. It’s supposed to hit 90 degrees today, and I’m trying to figure out how to fit a braise and a cake into the oven at the same time.

Honestly. Is this a joke?

In February, writing summer grilling recipes didn’t feel completely right, but it sure did taste like optimism. This week, with my garden positively jungling with peas and tomatoes and beets and (bolting) fennel, it annoys me that those of us who are trying to champion local, seasonal food can’t always cook it. It would be easier, for sure, if all food magazines wrote their stories a full year ahead, but, ahem, we can’t all write for those.

I know, I have no room to kvetch. I spend my days learning and writing about food, and cooking, and by golly, that’s a pretty nice way to live, especially when an old t-shirt feels like high fashion.

So between assignments, I’m cobbling. My lunches have been salads, mostly – big piles of crunchy things, married together in an attempt to put as much summer into my mouth as possible with each bite.

Oh, that it were different. That I could have recipes for corn everything due in, say, August. But I guess I can’t have my corn and eat it, too.

Grilled Corn and Cotija Salad 1

Grilled Corn and Cotija Salad (PDF)
Call it the little black dress of summer salads. Or the one essential tool you need for your shop. Or forget the analogies, and call it a summer salad that distills the most exciting bites of summer into each and every spoonful. It does go anywhere, though—I’ve made it twice this week, and I’ve served it to company, next to grilled bratwurst. I had some for breakfast, flashed in a skillet and dumped over two sunnyside-up eggs. I folded some into a green salad, and tonight, I’ll stir in a finely chopped chipotle pepper, along with some adobo sauce, and stuff it into chicken burritos.

You’ll find cotija – a firm, easy-to-crumble Mexican cow’s milk cheese – near the feta in most large grocery stores. You can easily substitute feta or crumbled goat cheese.

If doing anything to corn besides dumping it in a pot of hot water makes you nervous, never fear – it’s really easy to cut off the cob:

TIME: 15 minutes, start to finish
MAKES: 4 servings

1 medium zucchini, halved lengthwise
2 corn cobs, shucked
2 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
3/4 pound assorted ripe tomatoes, chopped into 1” chunks
2 canned roasted green chilies, finely chopped
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Juice of 1 large lime (about 2 tablespoons)
1/4 pound cotija cheese, crumbled
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat a grill over medium heat. Brush the zucchini and corn cobs with 1/2 tablespoon of the olive oil, and grill for about 5 minutes, turning occasionally, until the vegetables are lightly charred and soft. Set aside to cool.

Combine the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil, tomatoes, chilies, herbs, lime juice, and cheese in a large mixing bowl. Chop the zucchini into 1/2” half moons, cut the corn kernels off the cobs, and add both to the bowl. Season with salt and pepper, stir to blend, and serve warm or at room temperature.

Corn salad in salad

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Filed under farmer's market, garden, recipe, side dish, vegetables

iDon’tProgram

Herbed summer quinoa salad and iPhone

This is my lunch, with my new telephone. (I know. That’s a telephone. I have trouble believing it myself.)

I was on the fence about the iPhone. Or so I thought, until someone showed me Urbanspoon’s new application. It’s ohso fun. You shake your phone, and it tells you where to eat dinner. Don’t like what it tells you? Shake again. The best part? It works in more than 50 cities, which means the next time I go to London, I don’t have to scribble fifteen thousand restaurant names and their respective addresses into my A to Z map. (That’s pronounced “zed,” you know.) I can just hop off the tube, lock in a neighborhood, and shake away.

The only problem is that no one goes out to dinner every night. At least, no one I know.

Which means someone, somewhere, needs to tap into a giant list of really good recipes (Cookthink? Epicurious? Are your coders on summer vacation?) and plop them into an iPhone app. Call it iMarket. iCookDinner. iWhatever. Or, God forbid, call it something without that poor i, which is so overused it’s beginning to look more like punctuation than an actual letter.

Imagine: You walk into a grocery store, or a farmers’ market. You lock in your parameters – a season, say summer, or an ingredient, or an ethnic cuisine, or “under 20 minutes” – and you shake. It comes up with dinner for you, complete with a shopping list and a pretty picture. Maybe a few serving suggestions, too. No typing. No searching. Just dinner.

This is, effectively, what my brain does every time I walk into a grocery store. The other day, when I walked into my local co-op knowing I wanted to make a tasty, packable lunch for a friend in the hospital, I left with ingredients for a red quinoa salad with tomatoes, olives, feta, and herbs, easy as that. Maybe your brain does it, too. But not everyone is born pre-programmed for dinner decisions.

I can hear you: Keep that idea to yourself, woman! It’s genius! You could make a killing!

It is, if you ask me. And I could.

But it’s so not my bag. So, uh, you coder people. Get moving.

Herbed summer quinoa salad

Herbed Summer Quinoa Salad (PDF)
Think of this as a summer salad template. Add anything you can dream up – I’d have added marinated artichokes, if I’d had them, along with chopped leftover green beans and zucchini, or even chickpeas. It’s the kind of thing you want to be in your refrigerator every time you open it, hungry, at 3 p.m. I believe it tastes best sitting in a chair on a sunny porch.

You can use red or white quinoa; I think red is simply more interesting to look at.

TIME: 20 minutes active time
MAKES: 6 servings

1 cup red or white quinoa
2 cups water
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
1 pint assorted baby tomatoes, halved
1 cup pitted nicoise or Kalamata olives, chopped
3/4 cup crumbled feta (about 1/3 pound)
1 small shallot, finely chopped
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Freshly ground pepper, to taste

Bring the quinoa and water to a boil in a small saucepan. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt, and boil for 5 minutes. Cover the pot, set aside, and let rest for 15 minutes, or until all the water is absorbed. (If there’s a little extra water remaining, just pour it off.)

Transfer the quinoa to a mixing bowl. Add the remaining ingredients, stir to blend, and season to taste. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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Filed under commentary, gluten-free, grains, Lunch, recipe, salad, side dish, vegetables

Ribs are for red states

plate 'o' ribs

Imagine, if you will, a blank map of our fair nation’s of political will. Color the states in with your favorite red and blue markers. (Erasable, please. You may need to change them.)

Now, in your brain, superimpose a different graphic. This one highlights the geography of the nation’s great ribbing traditions – sweet, sticky barbecue from St. Louis; saucy and smoky, from Memphis; vinegar-based, from the east Carolinas, and so forth.

You’ll notice a suspicious similarity between the first and second map. (There may be a chart of NASCAR’s fan base that coincides nicely with the other two illustrations. This is not a coincidence.)

I grew up in Idaho, which is all elephants also, last I checked. (Side note: 28,000 people showed up there for this year’s Democratic primary, an event traditionally accompanied by a joke about a phone booth.)

Unlike other Republican strongholds, though, Idaho uses “barbecue” as a verb, not a noun. In the North End, the Boise neighborhood that housed said phone booth and my childhood home, my family grilled chicken and steak for summer’s official kick-off. Later on, when my husband and I lived back east, Independence Day weekend meant steaming lobsters on a beach in Maine. If you’d asked me then to name the last thing I’d expect to eat in early July, ribs would be at the top of the list, right above gefilte fish and Tom Yum soup. Ribs are for red states.

All-American Man

But this year on the Fourth, Jim and I headed east, to Naperville, Illinois, to attend RibFest with our friend Peter, who judges the giant rib contest held there each summer. Jim’s been going for a few years, and for some reason, this year, I felt the pull. Maybe because there was a chance I’d sit on the jury with Peter. Maybe because Peter’s girlfriend Lauren would be joining us, and I knew I’d have someone to sing with when Joan Jett climbed up on stage.

Or maybe because I realized Illinois is a blue state turning bluer, and wondered whether the deep-rooted barbecue tradition that’s been wicking north for generations has any chance of moving into the Pacific Northwest as definitively as it has to the upper Midwest.

Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself. There’s one little detail I should probably mention: I don’t really love ribs. I do like tender, silky-threaded pork rib meat, and I’m all for gnawing on a bone now and then, but thick, finger-cementing Kansas City-style barbecue sauce appeals to me about as much as drinking ketchup straight. I don’t like the way spicy sauces burn my lips, and I’m not a huge fan of anything smoked. So, yeah, the idea of judging a ribs event was a little scary. By definition, a barbecue competition soaks its judges in sauces as varied as the pedigrees of the people that make them, and frankly, some of them turn my stomach. I know it’s unadventurous, but I have trouble ordering ribs if I can’t guarantee I’ll like the sauce.

My friend Chris made ribs with a delicious apple cider vinegar sauce recently, though, and I’ll admit, with Chris’s ribs in mind, I also flew to Chicago with the hope of falling in love. I thought maybe I’d had a string of bad experiences that could be undone. I fantasized about finding a rack worth a Saturday, worth the patience it takes to caress good barbecue with the perfect sauce until, but not past, the point at which the meat gets ready to melt right off the bone, like ice cream on the hood of a hot car. My tastebuds were already hard at work imagining a Seattle version, sauced with a thin local-tomato-and-Wenatchee-apple-vinegar concoction, sweetened with Olympic Mountains honey and spiked with the homemade Asian-style chili paste I’d find. Call it blind idealism, painted on the rack of squealer in my brain.

So it was a little relieving, I guess, but equally disappointing, when we arrived at RibFest at 11 a.m. on Saturday, to find the judging seats filled. Lauren had treated us to a full-on Fourth of July barbecue (er . . . I mean grill-out) the night before, with bratwurst, and German potato salad, and light, spunky coleslaw, and deep-dish caramelized apple pie. The last thing I wanted was a slab of swine.

Peter judging

Peter, though, he’s always ready for ribs. As we watched him begin tasting his way first through 17 contestants’ entries, then through their 17 corresponding sauces, I breathed a sigh of relief. I didn’t feel like eating ribs, and nothing one wouldn’t eat at 11 a.m. is worth judging, much less eating in mass quantity.

howlin' coyote

RibFest is a confluence of ribbing traditions, drawing a roster of teams from across the country with names like Sgt. Oink’s, Texas Outlaws, and Howlin’ Coyote Southwest BBQ. From the moment we snuck into the judging tent, my excitement for actual rib-eating went from 5 to about 2 on a 10-point scale. Just watching the woman in charge pass ribs out made me feel like I had something stuck between my teeth. I took a few noncommittal nibbles from the extra samples, and went straight for the toothpicks.

tables, before opening

I walked out into the private sponsor area, still completely vacant before the Fest’s noontime opening bell. Peter and Jim had explained how people camp out here all day, eating and eating and eating until sunset, then come back the next day for more. As I scanned the vendors’ billboards, I thought of the previous night’s reported crowd of 65,000, and wondered how many pigs die for RibFest.

Ribfest at opening

A few minutes after noon, when people started milling around, the smell of ribs had lost its allure. I felt a little intimidated, knowing we’d planned to stay until 10 p.m. When would ribs start sounding good?

sauce mop

I wasn’t the only one. Lauren doesn’t even eat ribs, and as the judging ended, I was surprised to learn how many in our blossoming little crowd were heading straight for the chicken. I was told that in the upper Midwest, and indeed, at RibFest, ribs are served with corn on the cob, baked beans, and true potato chips. We roamed the grounds, sticking our fingers in papaya-based sauces and “thermo-nuclear” hot sauces, but the more I walked and the more I tasted, the more I wanted a nice green salad.

fresh-fried potato chips

I did eat, eventually, mostly from the list of sides. We shared a huge pile of fresh potato chips, still moist from the fryer. I filled my plate with everything but ribs—foil-wrapped corn, with the husks still attached, and tangy pulled pork, and pasta salad—and then stole some of Jim’s ribs (from Desperado’s, I believe), when I discovered I liked the sauce.

ribs to judge

Now, don’t get me wrong here – I enjoyed them, for the moments I was eating. But it didn’t happen for me, the way I expected it to. With 17 of the country’s best ribbers gathered in one place, I wasn’t inspired to try them all, the way I assumed I would be, and I certainly didn’t fall in love. I enjoyed, and socialized, and found an excellent root beer, but didn’t nearly obsess.

RibFest in full effect

Honestly? I felt a little guilty. I’m used to being the foodmonger. And in a crowd of rib lovers, I felt a little left out. (And healthy. Oh, bless you, Naperville. You made me feel so fit.)

I wondered if there was something wrong with me, physically – if I’d eaten too much the night before, or somehow missed a key element of preparation. I thought maybe Joan Jett’s throaty yowls had stripped me of my appetite. But the moment we got home, I dug into Lauren’s coleslaw like I hadn’t eaten in a week. What’s wrong with me? I thought. Why don’t I love ribs?

I’d say it’s a political thing, or that I’m just not American enough. Or maybe it’s a combination of the two. Earlier in the day, I’d watched one woman give another a box of perfume, as a birthday gift. They’d combed through the scent descriptions together, searching for the flower that loaned its signature to the scent (“Ahhh! Magnolia!”), and discovered that each of the company’s perfumes is named for a particular person. Love in White is named for Laura Bush.

“I love Laura!” said the recipient, halfway between a squeal and sigh, her accent all Chicago.

I’d looked the other way, pinching a smile between my lips, realizing I’d never hear the same conversation in Seattle. Is there a correlation between liking Laura Bush and loving ribs?

Of course the answer is no. That’s just the excuse I created for myself, in the moment, when I felt like the only kid whose mom wouldn’t send cupcakes to school for her birthday. I know plenty of liberals who would go to great lengths for a good plate of ribs. I’m sure there are native Seattleites, even, whose idea of a heaven is a full rack, no matter which incarnation of sauce is slathered on top.

For now, though, I’ll have to learn to be okay with not being one of them. I’ll eat ribs when the mood strikes, when the sauce is right for me. When Chris makes them, or when I finally get around to that Seattle version.

great saying

And maybe I’ll go back to RibFest next year, with a little more determination, a bigger dash of patriotism, and a lot more dental floss. Maybe the election will change the map enough that I’ll stop pigeonholing a food I didn’t grow up eating. We’ll start our relationship from scratch.

I’m still not convinced I can’t fall in love with ribs. But if I don’t, well, I’ll just make sure Lauren’s cooking dinner.

German Cole Slaw

My friend Lauren Fischer’s German heritage comes out swinging each summer with picnic classics that skip the mayonnaise-laden dressings so typical of hot weather fare. These recipes are bound together by the flavor of celery seed; I love how it lends crunch and flavor and a hint of spiciness. I made both salads in about an hour (putting the potatoes on first to boil, then making the slaw, then finishing the potato salad), so it seems fitting to give you both.

Fischer Family Coleslaw (PDF)
When I was making Grandma Fischer’s tangy, celery-spiked slaw for the first time, NPR was reporting on childhood obesity, and I decided to cut the sugar by half – we didn’t miss it. The slaw is delicious straight out of the bowl, but would also be great on a warm barbecued pork sandwich.

TIME: 20 minutes
MAKES: 8 servings

1/2 cup canola oil
2 tablespoons sugar
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1/2 medium onion, chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
3/4 teaspoon celery seed
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
1/4 large red cabbage (about 1 pound)
1/4 medium green cabbage (about 1/2 pound)
2 large carrots, peeled

In the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the chopping blade, whirl the oil, sugar, vinegar, onion, salt, mustard, celery seed, and pepper until pureed. Transfer to a large mixing bowl.

Using the shredding disc, shred the cabbages and carrots, and add to the dressing. Stir to combine, and season to taste with additional salt and pepper, if necessary. Let sit 3 hours before serving.

German Potato Salad

Lauren’s German Potato Salad (PDF)
The dressing for the Fischers’ bacon-studded potato salad is unique: It starts as a roux, flour mixed with the drippings leftover from frying bacon, and builds into a thick, celery-spiked sauce that coats the hot potatoes with flavor without making them gummy. I imagine the leftovers would be fantastic formed into patties, seared in a hot pan, and topped with a poached egg, for breakfast, but so far, leftovers haven’t been an option.

It’s important that you add the hot dressing to hot potatoes – I sliced the potatoes next to the stove while the onions cooked.

TIME: 20 minutes active time
MAKES: 8 servings

3 pounds small potatoes (I used firm white Yukon Golds)
6 slices bacon
2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons salt
3/4 teaspoon celery seed
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
3/4 cup finely chopped onion
3/4 cup water
1/3 cup white vinegar

Place the potatoes in a large saucepan and fill with cold water to cover. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook until tender (15-30 minutes, depending on the size of your potatoes).

In a large skillet, fry the bacon over medium heat until crisp. While the bacon cooks, mix the flour, sugar, salt, celery seed, and pepper together in a small bowl.

Transfer the bacon to paper towels to drain. Add the onion to the bacon fat and cook, stirring, until the onions are tender and golden brown, about 7 minutes. Add the flour mixture to the onions, and cook, stirring, for a minute or two. Slowly add the water and vinegar, stirring constantly. Bring the sauce back to a bubble and cook, stirring, for another minute or so, until thick and creamy.

Meanwhile, slice the potatoes, transfer to a mixing bowl, and crumble the bacon into the bowl. Add the warm dressing, and stir to coat all ingredients well. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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Filed under commentary, gluten-free, husband, pork, recipe, side dish, vegetables

Beets, for me

Beets with oregano and sherry vinegar 3

I got a voicemail from Florida the other day, from a woman I’ll call Tracy. She’d read a piece I wrote in Arthritis Today, something that grew out of a post here about how cooking and lupus collide. She was calling to relate.

It was the strangest thing, having someone ask me for advice on how to manage the disease. My first instinct was to tell her she had the wrong girl.

On Sunday, I called her back. I knew I could listen, but didn’t think I’d have much to say.

Tracy’s a personal chef, like I used to be. She has lupus, like I do. Only, she has an incredibly complicated case, a fat folder stuffed with the details of multiple autoimmune diseases. She’s had unusual reactions to all the medications that seem to help me, can’t find a doctor she likes, and doesn’t have health care. She’s lost three friends to severe lupus in the last year, and oh, friends, she’s so angry.

Talking to her reminded me how lucky I am, and how far I’ve come since 2003. I remembered how much I wanted an explanation, at first, like Tracy still does, even after living with lupus for 30 years – she wants a reason, a cause, a more accurate diagnosis.

It surprised me a little when she told me her story, and I actually felt I had advice to give. I wanted to articulate how I stopped being so mad at my body. (-ing, rather. How I’m stopping.)

Calendar

There’s a calendar by my bed. Every morning, I mark it when I take my medication, and every evening, I keep track of the day – there are little notes about whether I’ve napped, how I’ve exercised, how I feel, plus any other little thing that comes to mind. It’s filled with complaints, too. (Left wrist hurting. Right knee snapping.)

The calendar keeps me honest. If I haven’t been napping, it tells me. If I’ve avoided exercise, it knows. And when I do something great for myself – get a massage, or paint my toenails, or pick flowers and arrange them in the heavy terra cotta vase my sister made – it tells me I’ve done a good job.

But no matter what the day brings, the calendar’s principle function is that of a constant caretaker. The physical habit of uncapping the pen each night reminds me that I’m in control, and that what I do every day – how I eat, how I sleep, how many Advil I take or don’t take, how much time I spend in the sun – has a direct impact on how I feel. I transfers the responsibility for my disease from some big, scary, overpowering force directly to moi.

I told Tracy about it, and asked if she did anything for herself.

“For myself?” she asked. “What do you mean?”

“You know,” I said. “For you, and only you. Not for dinner. Not for your clients. Not for your husband. For you.”

She didn’t understand.

I suggested she find a notebook, and make a list, over the course of a week or so, of things that make her happy, and to try to hold herself responsible for doing one of those things each day. We talked about chair yoga, and slow walks, and sitting in sunbeams, and taking a cut flower to a neighbor. As I wandered around the house, listening, my eyes grazed a greeting card my friend Beth gave me, years ago:

Engelbreit card

Oh, I do believe it’s true. No one else can make you happy. And from my experience, no one else can make you completely healthy, either. That’s up to you.

I’d never made a list myself, but as we chatted, I thought it sounded like a darn good idea. I realized how much more I’ve leaned on the little things, these last five years, to mask my frustration – just today, I obsessed about way a handful of cold cherries feels in my palm, and how the garbage can clatters across the asphalt when I bring it back in. Maybe it’s a convenient way to explain my OCD tendencies. But if you listen to them, I do believe life’s little pleasantries can begin to sound bigger than the worries.

When we hung up, I felt lighter. (I hope Tracy did, too.) I meant to make a list, but I didn’t.

This morning, though, trying to water the plants before the sun hit them, I found a beet in my garden. (My first beet ever!) Half the beets had bolted prematurely, so I pulled them all out, finding a good handful of little ones by the end. I was going to put them aside for dinner, for friends. But they called back.

I’ll just cut the tops off and wash them, so they stay fresh for a salad, I thought. My husband was heading off to work, and there I was, elbow-deep in a sink of cold water, playing with beet greens, enjoying the way the water iced my joints.

I’ll just trim them up a bit now, too, I decided. No sense in washing the cutting board twice, right?

Beets with oregano and sherry vinegar 1

I whiddled and sliced until they looked ready for a roast in the oven, but when I set them aside, they called me right back, loud as their stripes. Now, they insisted.

My deadline begged to differ. It’s been a crazy week (with not much cooking, if you hadn’t noticed), and the last thing I needed to do was make beet salad for elevenses.

But I thought of Tracy, and my nonexistent list. I could roast now, when I was really enjoying it and reveling in my garden’s newfound productivity, or later, tired, with dinner looming. So I roasted beets, at 9 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, simply because they were pretty. It meant that the beets weren’t for dinner, they were for me.

It felt like skipping class.

Sitting on the porch with the roasting pan, I started my list in a string-bound journal someone gave me months ago. I topped it with “sometime,” to separate it from the to-dos with actual deadlines. It only took five minutes, but it made me feel fantastic. I wrote things like rub the rosemary plant, and sit on the porch for five minutes on a sunny day. Nothing too intricate, nothing that takes too much time.

As I closed my book, I decided that while Tracy had been an excellent inroad for my own list, the journal would be good for any body, in any health. And sitting there, as the fog lifted off the Olympics, I almost felt luckier for not having perfect health.

I vowed to try to do something from the list, for me, each day.

So far, so good, I thought. But I might need a bigger calendar.

roasted beets

Roasted Beets with Oregano and Sherry Vinegar
There wasn’t much too it, really. There’s nothing fancy going on here. Just a half pound of trimmed baby beets, sliced up and tossed into a baby pan. (The skins seemed so fresh, I didn’t bother to peel them.) A sprig of oregano, stripped and sprinkled over the beets, along with a bit of sea salt and a crack of pepper. A drizzle of olive oil, and a dash of sherry vinegar. And time – oh yes, these beets need a bit of time, too, but not nearly as much as whole beets. I roasted them at 400 degrees for about 45 minutes, until soft when poked with a fork, then hit them with a tiny bit more vinegar before eating them straight out of the hot pan, with a fork, in the sun on the porch.

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Filed under recipe, salad, side dish, vegetables