Monthly Archives: July 2008

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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He’ll take the Second.

I have a lot to tell you: Visitors. Surprises. A lot more visitors. A wedding. And recipes – recipes up on recipes, stacking up in my little book. But honestly? None of it has seemed very important this week.

I have a new least favorite course, dining out. It’s called gunpoint. It comes after appetizers, but before the entrée, when you’ve appreciated a few sips of your pink cocktail, but haven’t had enough to stay calm when, say, a big bear of a man stands up with a gun at other end of the restaurant, and starts booming something scary about killing the person at the other end of the weapon as they both head for the door, passing not two feet from you.

I know, I know, this is all sounding really crazy. But believe me, people, it happened. Last week. At the Pacific Grill, in Tacoma. It’s taken me a full week to stop shaking when I think about it. (It pisses me off that the chef blogged about shortcake this week, but I guess that’s the beauty of a blog.)

Rewind: It all started with the tater tots—homemade Oregon bleu cheese tater tots, to be exact. I knew they were too good to be true. I was sitting at the bar with my friend Beth, mopping a crunchy specimen through its creamy bleu cheese béchamel, when her eyes got really wide. She stopped chewing, actually.

I swiveled around in time to see a man pointing a revolver at another man’s back. Only the gunman was about three feet from what at that point appeared to be the victim, and from my perspective, it felt an awful lot like it was pointed at me. It was the first time I’d seen the kind of gun that looks designed to kill people. It was also the first time I’d looked down the business end.

“Turn around one more time, and I’ll shoot you,” said the gunman, quite clearly. He took a path uncomfortably close to my stool, escorting the other man out at point-blank range. I turned to Beth, willing her eyes to tell me—for fifteen long seconds—when we’d need to melt down between the bar and our barstools. She was frozen, except her big blue eyes, which softened as the two left the restaurant, then widened again as the gunman returned, relaxed, and sat down to eat his dinner.

I didn’t grow up in a dangerous place. These days, I don’t think of downtown Tacoma as a particularly dangerous place, either – probably a direct result of being a recent transplant. Judging by the staff’s reaction, though, neither do folks down there. We watched a server quake as she attempted to bring the restaurant back to life, zesting jagged, bumpy-edged strips out of a lemon that seemed to be doubling as an anti-stress ball.

It’s hard to say which scared me more: The idea of leaving the restaurant, and risking running into someone who was apparently no longer about to die but maybe should have, or sitting at the bar, in plain view of a man who’d just threatened death. Beth and I just sat, in shock, willing ourselves to breathe. In and out. In and out.

The police arrived. There was much scuffling outside, and a story unfolded: A man had walked into the Pacific Grill, seating himself like a regular customer. He’d asked the hostess for money (which sent her flying into the kitchen for help), then approached a group of doctors gathered for dinner toward the back of the restaurant. He tried to mug someone, and when the kitchen staff failed to convince him it was time to leave, he tried again. A doctor – who had apparently come to dinner packing heat, like you do, on his way back from target practice – thought his own method might be more convincing.

In the end, it was. The robber left the restaurant. The police came quickly, and took him away. No one was hurt.

But oh, friends, I got issues. There is so much wrong with this picture.

According to Washington state gun laws, it is illegal to carry a concealed weapon in a bar, but as far as I can tell, restaurant revolvers are a-okay. I personally can’t imagine having much of an appetite with cold steel in my purse. But wait – do I get a say? Guess not. Thank you, dear doctor. I’ll have another helping of Second Amendment, please. A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

Yeah. I feel secure.

Suppose the mugger had turned around. Suppose the gunman had fired. Suppose he’d missed, and hit me, a presumably innocent bystander sitting, incidentally, at the bar, where the same concealment would have been totally illegal. (Note to lawmakers: Bullets travel.) Or suppose the mugger had also had a gun, or a knife, or what have you, and things had gotten really nasty.

The news coverage paints the gunman as the savior. (This story, too.) I can’t stomach the politics, but that part bothers me. Might as well have run a television ad, BUY A GUN AND POINT IT AT SOMEONE TODAY.

Suppose, now, that the kitchen staff had gotten a little more aggressive, or that the standoff had lasted a few more minutes, gunless, until the police walked in. (They never actually had to enter the restaurant, at least not when I was there.) I, for one, don’t believe the gun was the only answer. I’m grateful I didn’t die, sure, but I’ve spent the week being embarrassed, almost, that I live in a place where crime is so quickly answered with more violence, realized or just potential.

For the record, we stayed for the rest of dinner. (The barkeeper was wonderful, filling us in when he could, keeping us calm.)

We shared a tuna tartare, moist and fresh on a bed of mashed avocado, with a caper vinaigrette that sunk into the crisp toasts and softened them just enough to chew peacefully. Midway through my halibut, a Thai-inspired affair swimming with mussels in a pool of kaffir lime-scented coconut curry, it occurred to me that I probably shouldn’t be hungry. But the chef had stayed in the kitchen throughout the whole ordeal, and when my fish appeared without pause, perfectly cooked, not eating didn’t seem like a valid option.

Sure, I’ll go back. Next time, though, I might sit in a corner.

What about you? Are guns legal in restaurants in your state? (How naive of me to assume they weren’t here.)

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Slim Pickin’

cherries to taste

7:45 a.m.

I fuel up at Le Panier in downtown Seattle. I’ve had breakfast already, but it’s going to be 90 degrees in Wenatchee, so I down a flaky croissant, in case the day turns into eight hours of volunteer labor. Andrew, who must be tall enough to harvest cherries without a ladder, picks me up in his Prius wearing a lovely pressed shirt, slacks, and trendy lace-up leather shoes. He has the self-assured smile of a very successful car salesman. Back home, I’d been so sure sturdy sneakers and an old t-shirt were appropriate, but now, I’m not so certain. Thank goodness I remembered my cherry-print bobby socks. Andrew notices them immediately.

In high school soccer, I was a forward. I had neither the speed and endurance required of a midfielder, nor the ball skills required near the goal. I thought it was a pretty good gig, hanging out up past midfield, waiting for someone to pass me the ball so that I could score and dance around like I’d actually accomplished something. That is, until one girl started screaming “CHERRY PICKER” every time I scored. That made it less fun.

When Andrew, the Washington State Fruit Commission’s resident cherry expert, said he’d take me cherry picking at high season, I jumped. I had no reason to believe I wouldn’t be good at the real thing, especially if I didn’t actually have to grow the cherries myself. And it would be awfully nice if no one hollered at me.

Continue reading Slim Pickin’ at Leite’s Culinaria. . .

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Stay Tuned

Hilary's cake

Oh, dear.

I almost forgot to tell you.

I’m taking a break this week.

We’ve had two visitors for the past few days – they came to Seattle to be part of a big surprise.

I’ll tell you about it, soon. But tomorrow, we have eight different friends coming, for a wedding. The reception is in the Space Needle. No joke.

And me? I’m not working. (Oh, that awful word. That’s me.)

At least, I’m going to try not to work. Or type, or worry, or even write down what I do with the three half-flats of fresh Northwest berries sitting on the counter.

I’m just going to be.

Here are a few bits to read, if you’re impatient – a piece on Ethan Stowell for Sunset, and somethings on chickpeas (with the most delicious recipe from Jerry Traunfeld) and on Mangalitsa pig, both from Seattle Metropolitan. The second issue of edibleSEATTLE is out, too.

Stay tuned, though. I’ll be back soon.

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A Two-Dog Pie

Sour Cherry-Rhubarb Pie

I baked my little heart out today.

First it was blueberry muffins, to fuel a morning at Workimer, and the most absurdly easy macaroons. Then banana bread, for the freezer. (We have eight friends coming next week.) Then sour cherry pie, my first with real pie cherries.

pitting sour cherries

I’d never actually tried sour cherries, come to think of it. Smaller and softer, they’re so much more feminine than a Bing. At first, they taste like cherries in a bitchy mood, but after I got used to their punch, I decided I love them. And indeed, when I broke into them with my fingernails, pitting them all by hand without the use of a knife or a pitter, I felt a little more feminine myself. My fingernails are finally long enough to be good for something, I thought. I smugged inside, and thanked the steroids.

I’d made the nicest crust. I planned to have friends over for pie, and pretend it’s something we do all the time on a Sunday afternoon. On Friday, I stayed up late with my crust, with two whole sticks of butter, and the patience to add water until the dough clung together just enough. I even tied the two sections of dough together. (Who was it that told me once that it works, that a double-crusted pie bakes happier when its two halves sleep together in the fridge overnight?)

Nestling pie crusts

Oh yes, I did all the right things. I bought instant tapioca, because I’d never thickened with it before, and even folded my rhurbarb patch’s midseason surge in with the cherries.

Sour cherries and rhubarb

Then a friend called, just when I was about to roll the crust out. I turned my back, and in the time it took me to put a measuring cup in the sink, my dog stole about twenty percent of the dough. Right off the counter, in front of me, like I wasn’t even there. Just took a bite, and chewed thoughtfully, which is unusual – she’s a gulper, through and through. I’m sure that if she could speak, she’d have said Why yes, Jess, this is a fabulous crust. I can’t wait to taste it later.

We had a discussion, and she was exiled to the porch.

But really, it wasn’t that big of a deal – the skimpier crust forced me to roll the dough thinner than I’d have normally dared, and when I draped the last part of the lattice over the top, I almost shrieked with excitement. I brushed it with cream, sprinkled it with sugar, and tucked it into the oven with a twirl and a dance I’m glad no one got on film.

After it had cooled, I tapped my fingernails on the crust, and it made the hollow, almost tinny sound crust only makes when it’s impossibly flaky. I clapped, pushed the pie into the corner of the counter, where I knew my dog couldn’t get it, and texted my friends with a cherry pie invite. I ran out into the yard to clip flowers for the patio table.

A few minutes later, Scout, the Golden Retriever we’re watching this weekend, pranced down the deck stairs with my red oven mitt in his mouth. He was all wag.

Scout ate my pie

Scout ate my pie.

For the record, I didn’t cry. I didn’t get straight to work on another crust, either, which is surprising, because I wanted nothing more than to put him in one, all chopped up.

I screamed and shouted at him, and mourned for what seemed more like a masterpiece with every passing minute. Scout thought it was all a fantastic show, and wanted to know, Would perhaps a tennis ball help us enjoy my fit? My husband came home, and I wailed into his shoulder.

My first sour cherry pie. My perfect crust. How could he?

And was Bromley in on it? Did they plan the one-two punch, step by step pie ruination?

We salvaged two pieces out of the edge Scout didn’t touch. The crust was perfect. (Of course I can say that now that you can’t taste it, but really, it was. I promise.) The tapioca gelled the cherries together, and the filling sang with flavor.

Jim scraped what remained of the top half of the pie into the garbage, and saved the bottom crust, and its clingy bits, in a rosy heap in a Tupperware container.

“We’ll bake it again in the morning, and it’ll taste delicious,” he said. His optimism failed to cheer me.

I may find the ingredients again, because I may have been converted – sour cherries are worth their price, I know that much now. I may type the recipe out, so you can make it too.

But for now, I need a serious pout.

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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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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