Author Archives: jess

About jess

Jess Thomson: Eater. Writer. Live-life-to-its-fullest-er. Hogwash: Recipes. Stories. Thoughts on food and life in Seattle.

On Fall, Death, and Ramen

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The transition from summer to fall has felt like an abrupt one in Seattle this year. As if someone was holding a heavy door open for me kindly, and then let it close without any warning. But it’s not like we didn’t know it was coming. We knew school would start, with all its associated meetings and responsibilities. We knew the weather would change. And we knew, of course, that our dog would eventually pass away.

This week has been gorgeous in Seattle, but colder. It’s different to spend the day’s early hours huddled around coffee cups not just for their caffeinated contents, but also for their warmth. I’m back to throwing on the kind of fleecy pile sweatshirt that, if it were made for an infant, would have ears on the hood. Every morning, I wonder whether they make them for grown-ups with ears. I just looked it up on Etsy, and the first thing I saw was a photo of a dog that reminded me of Bromley, with a hood covering her ears.

It would have been a travesty to put a hood over those velveteen ears. In fact, if I had to pick a body part, I’d say I miss her ears the most. When she was dying—it wasn’t any of our other worries that got her, but a new tumor on her spleen that had grown suddenly soccer ball-size and began pushing on her lungs, making it hard for her to breath—she let us pet those ears. It was as if she’d known, for 13 years, that if she refused to let us near them all her life, but let us touch them as the vet put her to sleep, we’d forgive her for everything else. For eating the one-pound donut and the bag of flour and the bag of sugar and the garden greens and the dog beds and the toys and the tomato plants and, just a few weeks ago, a whole box of little foil-wrapped juice pouches. We did, as she was dying. We forgave her for everything. And I think in her own way, she forgave us for ever having expected a dog who might pee on command or greet people kindly or come when called. Jim’s lip wavered dangerously and I sobbed, but it ended just the way it was supposed to—calmly, easily (if there is ever such a thing), and (we like to think) without much pain. But the house feels colder without her. It’s as if we’re learning now that her bed’s spot in the fireplace, which we really only chose out of convenience, was heating our whole house.


That must be why when my friend and mentor Kathy Gunst sent me her new cookbook, Soup Swap, it felt like a very large condolence card. I can’t be there now, but I can help you make soup, it said. And that will help your heart. More than any person I know, Kathy cooks to heal people. And her soups have always healed me.

It occurred to me to look for a soup made with the kind of beef bones Bromley used to love. When I was interning for Kathy a million years ago, and I used to bring Bromley to her house when we tested recipes, we’d give Bromley a big bone in her back yard, so she wouldn’t bother us. Opening the book, I discovered a short-rib ramen recipe. It looked like the kind of thing I could imagine Kathy feeding me in her big, airy kitchen on a cold fall day. Eat this, she’d say. You’ll feel better.

Also, admittedly, it looked like a really good vehicle for kimchi. As if my new habit of eating it on eggs each morning, to the soundtrack of my husband’s constant reminder that I spent years steadfastly refusing to eat kimchi, wasn’t enough. As if the silky, rich stock Kathy prescribed for her ramen wasn’t already incredibly flavorful.

In the end, it was the ultimate warm-up. It was the comfort of ramen and the healing powers of a good broth and the heat of the chili-flecked kimchi, all scooped up together in each bite. It was Kathy (who knew Bromley as a tiny puppy and understands how simultaneously relieving and devastating it’s been to lose a difficult animal), doing what she does best—giving me an edible hug from across the country, full of every flavor I could possibly need.

Short-Rib Ramen with Kimchi (PDF)

This super-rich short-rib ramen comes from Kathy Gunst’s Soup Swap, a book that celebrates that great fall tradition of gathering with friends to exchange recipes and nourishment. I’ve done a few similar swaps in the past, and the concept appeals to me—except when, as is the case with this elixir, the soup at hand is something I want to keep all to myself, generosity be damned.

At the heart of it, this is her recipe. But because I was trying to tailor the ramen to my own crowd at home, and to my current obsession with kimchi, I changed a few things. This recipe is a much-edited combination of two of her recipes—first, a short-rib version of her Rich Beef-Bone Broth (which can probably cure anything), and then her Short-Rib Ramen with Soy Eggs. (One of the things I love about the book is that while it offers clear, approachable recipes for just about every one of my favorites, it also leaves room for creativity.)

I used dried ramen noodles that I cooked separately in boiling water, but almost any sort of noodle will do for this—try udon or somen, if you prefer, or fresh or frozen ramen.

For the short ribs, you want the English-cut kind (with larger, meatier chunks) rather than the flanken-cut kind, which are long and thin and have smaller pieces of bone in them.

Serves 4.

For the short-rib stock
3 pounds short ribs with bones
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons tomato paste
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 large onion, peeled and quartered
2 medium carrots, chopped
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
3 sprigs fresh thyme
6 black peppercorns
4 garlic cloves, crushed

For the ramen
2 large eggs
8 ounces ramen noodles
Raw kernels from 1 fresh corn cob
1/2 cup kimchi
1/2 cup roughly chopped fresh cilantro
1/4 cup julienned green onions (white and light green parts only)
1/4 cup julienned fresh ginger

First, a day before you plan to serve the ramen, make the broth: Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. In large, heavy pot or Dutch oven, coat the meat with the olive oil and tomato paste and season with salt and pepper. Add the onion and carrots. Roast for 1 hour, turning the meat and vegetables every 15 minutes, or until the ingredients are deeply browned. (The meat won’t be quite cooked.) Remove the pan from the oven and add the vinegar, scraping up any brown bits on the bottom of the pan, then transfer it to the stovetop and add the thyme, peppercorns, garlic, and enough water to cover the ingredients by about two inches. Bring the stock to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 2 hours, scooping off any foam that rises to the surface at the beginning and adding water as necessary to keep the water level about 2 inches above the tops of the ingredients. Transfer the beef to a plate to cool, strain the stock, and transfer it to a large bowl. Let the stock come to room temperature, then refrigerate it overnight.

When the short ribs have cooled enough to touch, use your hands to shred the meat. Transfer it to a small sealed container and refrigerate overnight.

When you’re ready to serve the soup, remove the stock from the fridge, scoop off and discard the congealed orange-hued fat, and transfer the stock to a large saucepan. When the stock is hot, season to taste with kosher salt, if necessary.

Fill a two-quart pot with water and bring to a boil. Carefully add the eggs and boil for 6 minutes, then use a large spoon to transfer them to an ice bath, leaving the boiling water in the pot. Cook the ramen in the water according to the package instructions. While the ramen cooks, peel and halve the eggs.

To serve, pile the cooked, drained ramen into four big bowls. Add the reserved short rib meat and corn, and pour the hot stock over the meat and corn until the liquid comes almost to the top of the noodles. Garnish each bowl with some of the kimchi, cilantro, green onions, ginger, and half an egg. Serve hot.


Filed under recipe

Dear Bethany Jean


You are a Seattle writer I admire greatly but do not actually know. You recently wrote a great story on tea kettles. It had everything—what to look for in a kettle, wary warnings, and a reminder of the ultimate goal. A tea kettle, you said, should boil water. It was funny. The thing you article failed to address, however, was what to do when you already own the wrong one. I’m writing you for advice.

The most significant problem with my cast-iron kettle is that you can’t touch it. Sure, if the thing is stone cold, you can do what you want. But if it’s hot, well, it’s iron. You only have to accidentally touch it without oven mitts a few times to remember the smell of your own flesh searing. The first time, not thinking, I just tried to pick it up without protection. The second time, it was just the lid, which doesn’t have any sort of heatproof material its knob. The third time, I picked it up after it had just been on the stove while I was cooking dinner, and didn’t think hard enough to realize it would be hot. I should hope I’ve finally learned my lesson, but you never know. At teapot is, as my brother Josh says, a tool you use to do dangerous things before you’ve had coffee.

It has other problems. You can’t pick it up, for example. Correction: When it’s cool, you can pick it up, as long as you have strongish arms, which I sometimes do, and two hands free. But it’s not the type of item you can sling across the stove willy-nilly on the way to the toaster. It requires planning and conviction and oven mitts. And two free hands.

Another thing: that damned lid. It’s a disc of iron that fits nicely into its home in the top of the pot when the pot is upright. But it doesn’t stay attached to the body of the kettle, so it’s forever clattering off when I forget to remove it before pouring out the water. I do that when I realize, in a huff, that the water has been boiling for 4 minutes while I sit on the couch without coffee. See, the kettle doesn’t have any sort of whistling mechanism. When the water boils, the best sign you get is steam coming out of the open spout, so if you’re not standing right there, it could go on forever. That spout is also slightly lower than the lid, so if you fill the kettle more than about three-quarters full, water explodes out of the spout at the boiling point. (Spoiler: It’s hot.) Sometimes I just stand over the kettle and the open flame, waiting for the water to stop bubbling out so I can pick the thing up with my protected paws.

And then there’s the question of keeping water in it. Since iron rusts, you can’t keep water in a cast-iron kettle. So every time, when you’re done making coffee, you have to empty it out. (Don’t forget the oven mitts.)

The kettle is the antithesis of perfect. It’s not just that there’s something wrong with it. It’s that besides how it looks, and the fact that it does indeed boil water when put to a flame, there’s nothing actually right with it.

However, my husband gave it to me for Christmas. My husband, who is generally style-blind in the kitchen, noticed our old yellow Le Creuset had begun to take on the wear and tear of age, and had started to acquire an even drip of yellowish grime around its widest part, from so innocently lounging through dinner preparations too close to pans spluttering out stray droplets of hot oil. And he bought me a cast-iron kettle that is, at face value, extremely sexy. He bought me a kettle, when I hadn’t asked for one, and he took the time to find something beautiful. His face even got all blushy when I opened it.

So you see, Bethany Jean, buying a new kettle isn’t really an option. In fact, as I wrote this, at 5:32 a.m. on a Friday morning and filled with teapot angst, I poured myself a fresh cup of coffee and slugged it own, only to spray it all over it couch, because it was too hot. This is a teapot that can sense infidelity.

You wound up steering clear of the stately $200 number William and Kate got for their wedding (what a handsome thing!), opting instead for the $29.99 grocery store version. But what, pray tell, would you do in my position? For the record, though our kitchen isn’t small, it’s not large enough to use and hide an alternate kettle for use when my husband isn’t looking. (I’ve tried.)

The only option I seem to have now is to live with it, and let my husband make the coffee in the morning. To make cookies in the afternoon, feeling very sorry for myself the whole time, and heat the water for afternoon tea in the microwave.

Yours in crisis,



Filed under recipe

What We Don’t Eat


It’s always been hard to judge Bromley’s misery properly, because she’s been a miserable, hateful sort of creature since the beginning. She’s almost never affectionate, and pouts constantly, and whines if she smells food but doesn’t get to eat it (which, in my line of work, happens often). She hates rain and children and men with beards, and feet without shoes on them, and people touching her feet, or her head. She’s the cranky neighbor and the crazy lady on the corner and the mean librarian, all rolled into an aging, stinky, always-hungry beast. As we talked about putting her down, my husband and I stared guiltily at each other, each thinking our own version of the times we’d wished aloud that she’d just hurry up and die already, so we didn’t have to clean up the remnants of the individually-packaged kids’ juice boxes she’d opened with her big maw and strewn across the living room rug, or wonder how she’d gotten to the shoulder-height bag of cat food. Thinking about how different she was from the dog we thought we were getting, almost 13 years ago.

Bromley comes from good eaters. When we arrived to pick her up for the very first time, her mother was counter surfing. We should have known then.

“SYRI,” bellowed Syringa’s owner, before Siri became a terrible name for a dog. The red bell pepper Syri had claimed from the cutting board dropped to the floor. Innocent eyes begged forgiveness.


From the moment we got Bromley home, she was the same kind of scavenger, ripping open entire bags of sugar, stealing donuts off the counter, sneaking bites of steak directly from a hot grill, and generally failing to understand that the kitchen counters weren’t dog domain. She learned to stand in the center of the kitchen and not move, ever, interrupting the so-called kitchen triangle so effectively that we could never get from the refrigerator to the stove or the stove to the sink without running into her unmoving bulk. When we scolded her, she looked up at us with what we soon came to call “filet eyes.” She knew she was beautiful from a very young age, which didn’t help.

Outside the kitchen, she was cold and loveless. She refused to be petted. She hated being touched. She generally hated other dogs, too. No matter how much time and money we spent training her, she only paid attention to us if we had food in hand or if she was seated on some sort of couch. For years, we joked about giving her away.


But about two months ago, our big Rhodesian Ridgeback plum stopped eating. We’d taken her in to have her various old lady lumps inspected, but until then, while she was partially deaf and blind and starting to lose her barking voice, there hadn’t been anything actually wrong with her. Not eating seemed like a giant red flag.

That same week, she fell up the stairs. She was ambling up them after eating her breakfast in the laundry room downstairs, and her back paws slipped out behind her on the polished wood, just a stair or two from the top. I heard a yelp and a thunk, as all 85 pounds of her hit the floor, and ran to find her stuck, chest and front paws prostrate on the top landing, with the back paws pads-up behind her. I had to lift up her backside so she could gain enough traction to finish the job. She was very embarrassed.

“I’d say 90 percent of our clients let their dogs live too long,” said the admin at Bromley’s vet, when I called to ask how one knows when it’s time to put her dog down. “We see a lot of dogs that suffer for way too long. And not eating is generally not a good sign.”

I dropped my phone, collapsed into the bed beside my snoring hound, and sobbed into her fur until she wiggled away, grossed out by my storm of affection. That afternoon, I brought her in for a check-up, but again, there wasn’t a single definable something wrong. The vet insisted it was our choice, but made sad little nods and pursed her lips a lot.

And so we went into discussions, round and around, trying to decide whether it’s better to wait until a dog shows definite signs of the end-of-life kind of aging before putting her out of her misery, or to have her anesthetized before anything tragic happens, and save her the pain. I bought her lovely hunks of beef leg bones to chew and thought about what we’d do, if we gave her a day of her favorite things before it was all over. We’d take her to the beach, of course. I started planning a steak dinner goodbye party in my head.

Because she’s the dog we got, we have loved her. And because we were heading out of town, and because a few days after seeing the vet she simply started eating again, we didn’t put her down.

Instead, we gave Bromley to my husband’s parents for two weeks, and left for our spring break road trip, hoping she’d be there when we returned, and that no one else would have to do what we hadn’t been ready to do ourselves. And the first day they had her, they wound up in the emergency room.

It was an abscess in her foot that had clearly been there for a long time, said the ER vet, and, later, our own vet. Weeks, maybe, or longer. It was likely the sign of bone cancer or a deep bone infection, they thought, but just in case, they’d treat it like a random foot infection. They cleaned it and drained it, and put in stitches, which fell out as the wound worsened, and put in staples, which fell out also, and put in more staples. My in-laws shepherded her through multiple rounds of pain medications and antibiotics, and Bromley became famous with all the vet techs. When we returned, my in-laws had had the patient in their home for two full weeks. They’d covered their rugs with puppy training pads to prevent the blood from Bromley’s wound from staining everything. The injured leg was wrapped in a big purple bandage more appropriate for a 12-year-old girl than a 12-year-old dog.

And when we came home, Bromley seemed upbeat. She was eating normally. She seemed happy to see us, even. We took her in to get her staples out, three weeks after the ER visit, and the vet leveled us with her steady, sweet gaze.

“There is a chance that it could just be a tissue infection,” she said defensively. “But honestly, I’d say I’m 99 percent certain it’s either a cancer or a deeper bone infection.” She recommended an X-ray, which would tell us which it was. The cancer could theoretically be treated with amputation, and a bone infection would require a month or so of IV antibiotics.

Jim and I looked at each other. We knew we couldn’t amputate one back leg of a dog who could no longer reliably stand on two. And since every vet visit left her shaking and bereft, sending her to a dog hospital for a month would be devastating to her. We told the vet we didn’t need the X-ray and left, chewing on her warning that sometimes, bone cancers can take over in a matter of weeks.


At home, we spoiled her rotten. I bought fat, fresh spot prawns for grilling, and we ate them, but saved all the shells for her dinner bowl. I let her eat corn straight off the cob, in little bites. I fed her the crusts from Graham’s lunchtime sandwiches. We committed to buying canned dog food, which is outrageously expensive, and smells not unlike excellent pâté.

A few days later, my husband left on a business trip. I took Bromley in for her final foot check-up, and the vet declared it healed—healed better, in fact, than she had thought it might. Bromley wove her bumpy body between my legs as well as she could, like a toddler burying her head in her mother’s legs to hide. It was as if faced with her final moments, she’d decided she did actually have some love to share. As I was leaving, I suddenly decided I should ask to have the foot X-rayed. Off went Bromley, shaking terribly, with the perennially peppy vet, who seemed to pity me because I was about to learn the method nature had chosen for my dog’s execution.

But the vet came back with a funny look on her face.

“I’m happy to tell you that I think I was wrong,” she said. “I can’t find anything. Her foot looks completely normal.”

“Normal?” I asked, surprised and almost crestfallen. “Let me see.”

I couldn’t believe that there could still be nothing wrong, but as far as my amateur eyes could see, the dog’s injured paw looked the same as the normal paw, which the vet had X-rayed for reference. How many lives does this dog have? I thought to myself.

Bromley has never been easy to love, so with the good news came relief, but also an enormous wave of shame. I know my job is to love this animal as long as she lives, but part of me hoped—honestly, guiltily hoped—that something was finally really wrong with her.

And somehow, Bromley knew. When we got home, she became strangely sweet. She started following me around the house, like she had something interesting to say but kept forgetting. She sat next to me if I was sitting on the floor—close enough that I could pet her, which wasn’t something she let us (or anyone else) do regularly. She didn’t stop drooling or snoring or peeing in the wrong places at the wrong times, but instead of the mean, reclusive cat we’d likened her to her whole life, she finally became a dog.


In return, we’ve started treating her like one. We’ve started petting her, because finally, she’ll let us. Last weekend, when Graham passed out in the middle of the living room floor, she took a nap next to him. And I actually cuddled with her. It took her five whole minutes to realize something unusual was happening and she stomped away.

And in the kitchen, we’ve simply kept spoiling her, because if a large dog can live almost 13 years eating all the human food dogs are supposed to avoid, a few more scraps on top of her pâté certainly won’t kill her.


Last night, we had spot prawns again, heaping piles of messy garlic- and chili-studded creatures on a platter for our own dinner. We sucked the sweet meat out of their shells, and heaped the tails and legs into a big metal bowl, which we passed on to Bromley on the back porch. She looked up at us in lucky disbelief, as if wondering whether perhaps they might be poisoned. We nodded and pushed the bowl closer. My husband and I hugged each other, somehow deciding, after 12-plus years, that we’d simply love Bromley the way she wanted to be loved. Because sometimes the sweetest thing you make isn’t what you eat, but what you don’t.


Spot Prawns with Garlic, Chilies, and Lemon

If you’re really going to do it right, eating spot prawns should be done with an apron on. That way, you can snap the tails off the creatures right as they come off the grill, slurp the juices off their legs (and out of their heads, if you’re so inclined), peel the shells off before dredging the tender, sweet meat in any lemony butter that remains on the plate, then wipe your hands on your front with reckless abandon.

In a pinch, whole fresh shrimp are a good substitute, but nothing beats the sweetness of spot prawns from the Pacific Northwest.

Serves 2 to 4.

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

3 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 teaspoon dried red chili flakes (or to taste)

1 medium lemon

1 pound fresh spot prawns

Preheat a gas or charcoal grill over medium-high heat (about 425 degrees F).

In a small saucepan, melt the butter over low heat. When the butter has melted completely, stir in the garlic and chili flakes. Zest the lemon and add that to the mixture, then slice what remains of the lemon into wedges and set aside.

Put the spot prawns in a large bowl and drizzle the butter mixture over the shellfish. Using your hands, scrape the leg side of the prawns against the bottom of the bowl, so each creature gathers up as much garlic as possible.

Grill the prawns for 1 minute per side, with the lid closed as much as possible, or until the prawns turn a deeper shade of pink and curl. (You want them cooked, but just barely.) Transfer the hot prawns to a platter, and serve piping hot, with the lemons for squeezing over them.



Filed under Buddies, commentary, dog, gluten-free, husband, recipe, shellfish

The Manhattan Project


When the anesthesiologist asked Graham which flavor he’d like for the drugged oxygen kids often get to initiate the anesthesia process before surgery, he responded with complete certainty. “I usually get bubble gum,” he explained, nodding coolly. Like they’d asked his favorite color. It wouldn’t surprise me if Graham, who has mild cerebral palsy, has at six spent more time in hospitals than many people do before forty. And as he settled onto the table in the operating room—for the first time, completely unafraid—it occurred to me that even though we’d told him he was having surgery on both legs, and even though we explained that he might be in some pain afterward, and even though we’d described in kid-friendly detail that it would be a long road back to his version of normal, he had no clue what was happening.

Neither did we, really. Going in that day before dawn, we knew that choosing the New Jersey surgery, as we came to call it, meant travel to the east coast and a week’s worth of recovery and therapy in New York City afterward. We knew that compared to the more traditional approach to hamstring and calf muscle lengthening, which was the ultimate goal of the procedure, the New Jersey surgery (really called selective percutaneous myofascial lengthening, or SPML, or sometimes “percs” for short) required far less superficial healing and a significantly shorter recovery period. We also knew that none of Graham’s Seattle therapists—a smattering of well-trained, intuitive, and effective physical and occupational therapists and alternative medicine folks—had ever coached a kid back after SPML surgery. But ultimately, we didn’t know what would happen in the OR. In theory, part of the reason SPML works is because rather than completely anesthetizing the patient, the surgeon keeps the kiddo partially awake during the surgery, so that he can make changes to the muscle based on active muscular response rather than based on assumptions he makes on how the muscles work while watching videos of, say, the kid walking around in Seattle. So while we went in planning for Graham to have various “bands” of muscles lengthened (in ways not appropriate for detailed description on a food blog), we didn’t know how difficult those bands would be to stretch, or how many bands might be effected, or exactly where the needed band-lengthening might be located on his body.

While Graham was coming out of the lighter anesthesia (to be clear, he doesn’t remember anything), the surgeon came to see us in the waiting room, briefly relieving us from the clash between the receptionist’s gospel music and the emergency coverage of that morning’s lightening storms on Long Island. He looked at us, then ran his palm down the entire length of his face, with all the fingers on one side and the thumb on the other side, like he was wiping a memory off his brain so he could give it to us. The surgery had been longer and more involved than he’d expected. While he’d known Graham’s hamstrings and calves were very restricted, he was quite surprised at just how tight they’d been, given Graham’s level of function. It made me wonder just how much pain Graham had been in all these years, walking around with his little arm crutches day after day, toes on point like a ballerina’s from the calf and hamstring tension his altered neurology caused. “And we ended up doing the triple play,” Dr. Nuzzo added, describing how he’d also loosened bands in Graham’s adductor muscles. “The recovery will be longer than we talked about yesterday, but he’ll do great.” All I heard was his New Jersey accent. Da recovery will be loingah dan we tawlked about.

Graham came out of surgery hurtling angry words and ultimatums. “I’M NEVER GOING ANYWHERE UNTIL THESE CASTS ARE OFF,” he hollered, sobbing. “YOU CAN’T DOOOO THIS TO ME!” He tore violently at all the various tubes and machines connected to his body. Nurses came running with needles. As the valium set in and the IVs came out, he calmed down, and we eventually made our way back to our dank, dark old hotel room, where we more or less stayed for the next 48 hours, watching all six Star Wars episodes, adjusting and readjusting the cantankerous air conditioning unit, coloring Graham’s casts with Sharpies, and generally coaxing our drugged little boy through his post-operative discomfort. Seeing him so immobile was sad; watching him realize that he’d be depending on us to sit up and sit down and use the bathroom was heart-breaking. He’s worked so hard to be independent, but I don’t think I realized how much pride he took in doing things himself.


Once the wounds had stopped bleeding and we’d passed the most acute recovery period, we moved into a small apartment on the upper west side of Manhattan. We rented one of those beefy off-road strollers—the kind we’d given away just the previous year, certain we’d never have a use for it again—and started in on a sad-kid-unfriendly routine of twice-daily neurological therapy and supposed sightseeing. It was a different view of New York, to say the least. We thought spots like the Natural History Museum and the Liberty Science Center might distract Graham from his pain and annoyance, which they did—but only until they frustrated him more. Each time the initial excitement over a place like the Lego store wore off, he just got depressed. No child wants to be stuck in a stroller and on therapy tables all day. He was a sad sack, as an old Cape Cod friend would say.

In my head, the whole time, I called it The Manhattan Project, in spite of the militaristic implications. But we were in Manhattan. And our world had totally changed.

On our last day, a full week after surgery, we met some friends at a grassy park along the Hudson. They brought their five- and two-year-olds, and much to our surprise, a game of hide-and-seek sprung up. Out of nowhere, our completely sedentary little patient was crawling around on the grass, even rolling down little hills, doing what he could to smear New York City mud into his unwashable casts and bruised little knees. The combination of friendship and dirt had finally propelled him back into the universe. There were grass fights. And even smiles.


After returning the stroller the next day, we took a car to the airport in Newark, New Jersey, carrying our two weeks’ worth of luggage and a big, still mostly immobile boy. While my husband checked us in, I explained to Graham that we’d be borrowing a wheelchair to go from the check-in area, through security, to our gate. He burst into hot, frustrated tears. “I can just walk,” he insisted. (Until that point, he’d put a little weight on his legs to use the bathroom, but hadn’t taken steps, even with assistance.) He awkwardly hoisted himself to his feet with his walking sticks, and promptly crumbled to the floor. We gathered him up and placed him back on the bench. “Okay,” he conceded. “But I’m only using it until security. Then I’m walking to the gate.” We nodded.

The airport’s security line was vacant, but dutifully cautious. “Hi there, buddy!” cheered a friendly TSA guy with blue latex gloves. “We’re going to wipe this piece of paper over your chair, and then you can go, okay?”

Graham was quick to spit out a response. “This isn’t my chair!” he protested. “I don’t have one of these.” He pushed one of the armrests away from him, like he was distancing himself from something smelly. “I don’t even know how to use it.” It was heartwarming to see my handicapped kid identify so strongly as not handicapped, but as we wheeled toward our plane, I could only wonder how long it would be until Graham was on his feet again. Days? Weeks? Months? We still didn’t know. We’d arrived in New Jersey with a happy, mobile Graham and we were leaving with a much altered, much sadder, much less capable version of the same and no real known path back to normal (or better).

Now that we’ve been back in Seattle another ten days, Graham’s trajectory seems positive, albeit bumpy. At home, he’s basically crawling and participating in life per usual if he has a friend over; it’s like the mere presence of another small body erases the physical memory of the surgery. (When they leave, he collapses on the floor in a teary heap.) In therapy, he started bearing weight on his legs, and even walking in short bursts between two parallel bars. We got out the walker he used before his arm crutches, and he’s started taking a few steps at a time with that. He insisted over and over that taking the leg casts off would leave him magically new and strong. But predictably, those casts came off, and the proverbial rug was ripped out from underneath us. Each day is different. Every morning, he’s sore. He asks if he can play, but typically, we wake up and go straight to therapy. And each day, he gets stronger.

The Manhattan Project has knocked us all off balance, really. My husband’s back is wonky from lifting and carrying Graham. I woke up with mysterious searing foot pain yesterday that is completely gone today. It’s been the kind of month that takes you so many places that you no longer know how much strength it takes to close your own refrigerator. At home, even ten days later, my husband and I strangely keep swinging our fridge door almost closed, but not quite.

So in the kitchen, it seems to make sense to stick with the basics—to things that we know will always work. Things we trust Graham will eat, because it’s clear his body needs good fuel right now. Below is a recipe for one of his favorite things—we call it “yellow chicken” around here. It’s not especially pretty, but in our house, it’s reliable.

Today, we’re going camping, and taking a few sticks of yellow chicken to eat in the car on the way. It feels crazy, packing everything up again between therapy sessions and heading into the mountains. But since the surgery, one thing has become clear: nothing motivates our kid like hanging out with his buddies. So off we go, in search of friendship and dirt.

Also: Check out my kids’ lunch series this week over at The Kitchn, called Think Outside the (Lunch) Box. There’s info on what to pack and how to pack it, and (especially for other moms of kiddos with fine motor challenges) the best lunch box ever.

Yellow Chicken Noodle Bowls with Broccoli and Peanut Sauce
Yellow Chicken Noodle Bowls with Broccoli and Peanut Sauce (PDF)
In our house, kid chicken consumption is erratic; Graham will eat chicken legs right off a roasted bird, but won’t eat plain chicken breast meat. One of his favorites, though, is the kind of turmeric-tinged chicken satay we order from our local Thai take-out spot. This version is made for him—grilled over medium heat, not high, so the chicken gets marked but not charred, and served with a coconut-based peanut sauce that my husband and I make mild, then kick up with a bit more sriracha.

Use this recipe as a guide for any similar dish—you could use soba noodles and leftover grilled peppers instead of the broccoli, pork instead of the chicken, etc.

12 six-inch bamboo skewers, for the chicken

For the bowl
4 tablespoons canola oil, divided
2 teaspoons freshly grated ginger
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 pound boneless chicken breast meat, cut into 1/2-inch strips the short way
One (14-ounce) package pad Thai rice noodles
2 heaping cups broccoli florets (from a 3/4-pound head of broccoli)

For the peanut sauce
1 (13.5-ounce) can coconut milk
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 to 3 teaspoons red Thai curry paste, or to taste
2 teaspoons freshly grated ginger
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste

Place the skewers in a shallow pan and add water to cover. Set aside to soak for about 30 minutes.

First, marinate the chicken: In a mixing bowl, stir together 2 tablespoons of the oil with the ginger, turmeric, and salt, then add the chicken breast strips and turn to coat all the pieces evenly. Cover and refrigerate for about 30 minutes.

Next, bring a large pot of water to a boil. When it boils, turn the heat off, add the rice noodles and submerge them. After a few minutes, stir the noodles, then add the broccoli florets, and let both sit for about 10 minutes in the hot water, until the noodles are al dente and the broccoli is bright green. Using a slotted spoon, scoop off the broccoli and transfer to a bowl. Drain the noodles in a colander, rinse well with cold water, transfer to a big bowl, and toss with the remaining 2 tablespoons canola oil. Set aside.

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, combine all the sauce ingredients. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, whisking until smooth, then simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season to taste with additional curry paste and salt, and set aside.

Preheat a gas or charcoal grill over medium heat, about 400 degrees F. Drain the water off the bamboo skewers. Thread the marinated chicken strips the long way onto the skewers.

When the grill is hot, brush the grates as clean as you can. Grill the chicken pieces for 4 to 6 minutes, turning once only when the chicken releases easily from the grill grates.

To serve, toss the noodles with about two thirds of the peanut sauce, then pile the noodles into bowls. Top with broccoli and chicken skewers, plus additional sauce to taste.


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The Gourmet Century

Rad Chicken Salad 4

“Laura Marshall just had TWINS!” hollered the instructor. Whoops erupted from around the room. But in the dark, cultish spinning studio in Marin County, I couldn’t see who this woman was, or why I should care. At that point I much preferred it just be me, my ragged breathing, and the glowing EXIT sign. That Laura Marshall seemed to be in the front row dominating my first SoulCycle class soon after popping out a couple babies did not help me feel less exhausted or more fit. The instructor’s voice thundered on through her microphone. Maybe we should consider being more like Ms. New Mother, she suggested—stronger, even, since the rest of us hadn’t just given birth. “Raise. Your. Standards,” our waifish leader repeated to the beat of hammering pedals. I think I was supposed to be impressed, or possibly motivated.

But I am not the Laura Marshall in the front row. I am neither the Lycra-clad Energizer Bunny who bounced about in front of me nor the agro she-man who grunted beside me. There in the back row last April, on bike fifty-two, elbows bumping sweat-slicked neighbors’ arms, I was the wheezing newbie thirty-something who wore bike shorts. (No one wears bike shorts to SoulCycle. It’s a cycling class, but you don’t actually use the seat.) I looked lame. I was just trying to find a way to pretend I was pedaling hard and out of my saddle without actually lifting my butt off the seat.

In the end, I survived, if survival can be defined as panting for 45 minutes afterward in front of a tall iced coffee and a chicken salad sandwich my arms were too tired to hold. As I waited for my heart rate to come down, I weighed my options. Sign-ups for the Gourmet Century, a 100-kilometer bike ride-slash-eating-experience that winds its way through the hills outside Portland, Oregon each July, were the next week. I needed to decide whether I really wanted to do it. On one hand, I had started training. I could congratulate myself for getting back into road biking, even though my experience to date that winter had consisted only of riding my bicycle on a trainer (a little gadget that goes under the back wheel and allows you to pretend-ride in place without actually moving). If I signed up, I could sleep a little better knowing I’d already started pedaling. I could participate in a theoretically fun ride with my husband and some of our more cycling-savvy friends—a ride predicated on the theory that the only thing better than cycling is cycling with consistent gourmet food provisioning all day long and a big dinner and lots of wine at the end. But if I signed up, I’d also have to train more. A lot more. I’d have to ride up real, live hills, instead of gliding along peacefully in the relative safety of the garage. If I didn’t sign up, I could probably avoid thinking about Laura Marshall again, but I couldn’t think of any other good reason not to ride. On April 1st, when the registration page opened, I pressed “submit.”

I’m not one of these people with an illustrious athletic history. I flailed in gymnastics as a child, thrilled for the floor routine music but too uncoordinated and inflexible for the rest. I stunk at ski racing. I limped through college crew. As an adult, marathons and triathlons never interested me. But none of these things had been paired with a daylong eating schedule, complete with mobile espresso machines and fancy Portland chefs. For the first time, I felt engaged in a training schedule. I was interested. As the spring rolled along, I began riding two and three days a week—something I’d never done before. I rode at my own leisurely pace, but still, I was moving, often next to Tracy, my friend and unofficial coach. I became Tracy’s Padawan cyclist, following her around to learn things I thought I already knew: how to yell at offensive vehicle drivers, how to open a packet of energy gel blocks while riding, how to relieve numb or cramping hands. When I bought the wrong new bike seat (which, I learned the hard way, is referred to only and always as a “saddle”), she sent me to a special physical therapist who specializes in bike fitting and injuries. (It’s not a place that makes a person who’s broken both collar bones in bike wrecks feel comfortable about deciding to ride more.) I bought a very white, very hard saddle—an experience that required a very awkward young man to propose that perhaps I needed a different seat because my pelvis and its associated parts have widened since childbirth—and wrapped my bars in white tape to match, because that’s what you’re supposed to do.

When June hit, I’d survived a 28-mile ride (with hills!) with Tracy. I rode 37 miles with my husband in the rain without screaming at him or myself. And once I’d passed what I considered the halfway point—the point at which I’d ridden half of the distance required on Gourmet Century day, July 18th—I started talking a big game. I told everyone who would listen that I was training for a Big Ride, and that it was going to be Type 2 Fun, at least. And that my goal is to finish without crying. (If you’re not aware of the classifications, they’re easy: Type 1 Fun applies to an activity that is fun both in reality and retrospect. Type 2 Fun may require suffering in the moment, but is enjoyable when you look back on it. Type 3 Fun—the type that, truth be told, applies to much of my athletic history thus far—describes an experience that is neither fun in the present nor when you think about it in the past.)

“Wait,” said a friend. “I don’t get it. Are you eating or riding or both?”

Her confusion was understandable; when I explain the Gourmet Century, I usually get flustered and hopscotch between my reservations about the riding and my excitement about the eating. I’ve been training for both, focusing on eating while training to make sure my body is up for the combination. But stomaching anything halfway through a workout has never been my issue. Surviving the workout itself is another story. I started attending a spinning class more regularly. (The instructor, Tommy, always seemed to look directly at me when, after big pretend hills on our stationary bikes, he’d bellow, “This is not a working recovery period. This is work.”)

My friend Sarah and I hyphenated a hilly 40-miler with brunch and lemon drop shots (her idea) at mile 25. Two weeks ago, I rode 52 miles with the editor of A Year Right Here–the full story of the ride will be a chapter in that book–complete with stops for bacon-cheddar-avocado breakfast sandwiches and copious quantities of caffeine. I’ve learned that I can keep a decent tempo on a decent hill if I sing Anna Kendrick’s cups song from Pitch Perfect a gazillion times in a row under my breath. (Try it. It’s annoying but it works.)

I’m told some who sign up for the Gourmet Century are intimidated by the variety and quantity of food the organizers expect one to consume along the way. The pre-event email, which I received earlier this week, read like an ode to all of Portlandia, and it didn’t even include the dinner plan:

At mile 19, you will have the chance to refill water and snack on a selection of small morning offerings. Lunch will take place in the field at Sun Gold Farm, 33 miles into the ride. Rick Gencarelli of Lardo and Grassa will be putting a delectable spin on his farm-fresh approach to lunch […] 56 miles in, riders will find themselves at Chris King‘s barn for an afternoon serving of delicious charcuterie and small sandwiches by Chris Carriker of 23 Hoyt. Salt and Straw ice cream will be on location to cool everyone off, and there will be a barista to give you a quick caffeine fix.

A wave of satisfaction flooded over me when I read that email. Finally, someone understands how I want to exercise.

But in that same email, one thing got me: instead of 62 miles, which is the technical equivalent of 100 kilometers (and the distance I’d trained for), the email reminded riders that we’ll be going 68 miles. And in the days before the event, the six-mile differential has started to intimidate me terribly. Suddenly, I can’t imagine my legs lasting that long. How will I garner the strength for 68, when 52 felt like a thousand million miles already? The last six seem like they’ll be my personal equivalent of NASA’s trip to Pluto–achievable, perhaps, but never-ending. Eating seems like the obvious solution, but I instinctively assumed the carb-loading habits of my youth are no longer applicable. Yesterday, I wrote my coach.

“Fat and protein,” texted Tracy. “And hydrate. Carbs not needed until day of.”

I wrote my uber-athlete friend Lindsay, who will be running 100 miles in Vermont the same day I’m riding them in Oregon, to ask the same. “Eat your face off with carbs from lunch Thursday to lunch Friday,” she countered. “Then normal easy-to-digest dinner Friday and regular breakfast Saturday.

And so last night, at T-minus three days before the event begins, in addition to being plain old nervous, I found myself in the awkward, unfamiliar position of not knowing what to eat. Feeling paralyzed, I thought that instead of thinking about what might show up on a nutrition label, I should eat for my foods’ personalities. In a tangle, a salad came together right on my cutting board: I chose robust radicchio for toughness, spicy peppers for spunk, and preserved lemon for surprise, because I’m sure I’ll need to find all those things inside during the ride on Saturday. I added chicken for sustenance, then handfuls of the arugula and parsley from my little front garden–they refuse to stop growing, which seemed appropriate–and tossed it all together into a big, kick-ass salad I’ll probably make six more times before the ride. (I’d call it Rad Chicken Salad if I could keep a straight face while doing so, but I can’t. And on a bike, laughing makes me swerve, so it seems like bad luck.)

My only regret now is that I can’t serve it to the enigmatic Laura Marshall. I never saw her face, but from the back, she didn’t look like the kind that eats. Perhaps the next time I visit Marin County, I should go back to SoulCycle with a rad chicken salad, just so I can share it with her afterward. “Raise. Your Standards,” I’d say.

And then I’d tell her how I survived a 100-kilometer bike ride without crying, and ate exorbitant amounts of really delicious food along the way, and that it was a much, much more enjoyable way to exercise.

Rad Chicken Salad 5

Chicken and Radicchio Salad (PDF)

I could eat this salad for a century—or more, if the parsley that perches on every edge of my little raised bed garden was still growing well. It combines big chunks of chicken with leafy, colorful greens, preserved lemon, and a spunky vinaigrette, for a lunch that eats somewhere between a salad and a sandwich. If you prefer, throw in a handful of toasted walnuts and a little bleu cheese, and balance a hunk of good bread on the edge of your plate.

To use the preserved lemon, cut a whole one in half, then cut it in half again. (They’re squishy in the center.) Using a small, sharp knife, cut the flesh of the quarter lemon away and discard. Then, with the peel flat on the cutting board, make cuts parallel to the cutting board to shave away any additional flesh and pith that remains on the peel, until only the yellow zest remains. That yellow zest is what you want sliced into thin strips for your salad.

Note that this is a recipe for one meal (in my stomach, anyway). Double or quadruple it as needed. For a crowd, you could plate the greens right around a roasted chicken, for something a little fancier.

Serves 1.

1 tablespoon finely chopped Mama Lil’s Peppers (or similar spicy pickled peppers)
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup leftover cubed chicken (about one breast, cut into 3/4-inch cubes)
1/2 small (1/3-pound) head radicchio, cut into 1-inch hunks
1/4 cup Italian parsley leaves
1/2 cup baby arugula
Julienned zest of 1/4 preserved lemon

In the bottom of a big bowl, whisk together the chopped peppers, vinegar, mustard, and salt. Whisk in the olive oil until blended, then add the remaining ingredients and toss until all the leaves are coated with the dressing. Serve immediately, right out of the bowl or piled onto a plate.


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Scones for scarred eyebrows

Blueberry-Ginger Buttermilk Scones

It’s just been that kind of month (or two). With mercury in retrograde, our lives have become a comical progression of errors and mishaps. One Sunday, Graham ripped his eyebrow open falling into a metal support beam on the ferry home from Lopez Island. The following Tuesday, I got caught in a rain squall that turned to hail twenty-something miles into a bike ride. Then that Thursday, my husband got clipped by another bike commuter on Seattle’s busy Burke Gilman trail (which he avoids, as a hard rule, except just this once). I found him cowering on the couch when I got home, bruised as much inside as out. He sported a good slice across the bridge of his nose. Just as it began to look good and healed, the cat came home with a matching cut, and Jim spent the later half of an evening in a room full of yowling animals at the local pet emergency room. It’s been the ides of March, but for three whole weeks.

So straying from a baking recipe isn’t what I should have been doing, even if I knew that Cheryl Sternman Rule’s recipes are always bombproof as delivered. But the astrology site I consulted—I’m not normally into this sort of thing, so I had a lot to learn—says “intuition is high” when mercury is in retrograde. I figured that if I started with one of Cheryl’s new recipes from Yogurt Culture, and tweaked it just a little, I’d probably still be safe. I was right.

That Cheryl’s book (which, yes, is all about making and using great yogurt) uses yogurt in place of other dairy in baked goods appealed to me from the start. I don’t always have cream in the fridge. I always, always have Greek yogurt. Her scones—really, a recipe she tweaked from her friend Coco Morante—appear in the book with granny smith apple and a sweet cider glaze. I’ve retooled them in my kitchen with everything from rhubarb to fresh Bing cherries— and they’ve become a staple. “SCONES!” screams Graham. He eats them top-down, smashing the icing directly into his face.

More happened before I decided to share them with you: my credit card and telephone were both accessed by strangers. There was a rash of break-ins on our street, which we somehow dodged but which left a wash of sadness up and down our block. I made spectacularly underbaked banana bread, an annihilated an attempt at empanadas. I burned egg after egg. It just hasn’t been a good few weeks. But according to the experts, this mercurial problem was all set to end on June 11th.

But when I leaned toward making a blueberry-ginger version of Cheryl’s sweet morning treats for Graham’s last day of kindergarten today, there was no Greek yogurt—just buttermilk. So with the buttermilk, and the wrong kind of sugar, and a slightly different glaze, it wasn’t really Cheryl’s recipe any more. But somehow, she was there, laughing off the catastrophes with me the way she was in culinary school, more than a decade ago. And damn if they weren’t still delicious.

Hello, Mercury. Glad to have you going back in the right direction again.

Scones, and a scarred eyebrow

***Cheryl Sternman Rule will be at Seattle’s Book Larder on June 25th at 6:30 p.m. to talk about Yogurt Culture.***

Blueberry-Ginger Buttermilk Scones (PDF)
Based on the green apple scones in Cheryl Sternman Rule’s book Yogurt Culture, which are in turn from her friend Coco Morante, these blueberry gems don’t actually contain yogurt. Buttermilk gives them their signature tenderness! I’ve tested these scones with both regular all-purpose flour and pre-made gluten-free blends (Pamela’s and Domata brands). Both methods work; you’ll need to flour the board you use to form and cut the scones a bit more if you’re using gluten-free flour, to prevent the dough from sticking to the board. Brush any remaining flour off the scones before baking.

Makes 8 scones.

2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour (regular or gluten-free), plus more for forming scones
1/4 cup light brown sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into 10 pats
3/4 cup plus 4 tablespoons lowfat buttermilk, divided
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup fresh or frozen wild blueberries*
1 1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted

*If you use frozen blueberries, you my find you need a little extra flour on your work surface to prevent the dough from sticking.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F, with a rack in the center of the oven. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.

In a large work bowl, whisk together the flour, brown sugar, baking powder, ground ginger, baking soda, and salt. Add the butter, and, using your fingertips or a pastry cutter, squish the butter into the flour mixture until all the chunks are about the size of large peas.

In a small bowl, whisk together 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons of the buttermilk (reserving 2 tablespoons for the glaze), the egg, and the vanilla until smooth. Pour the liquid mixture over the flour and butter mixture, and mix with a wooden spoon just until it forms a big shaggy mass. Using floured hands, knead the dough a few times, until it begins clumping together. Add the blueberries, then knead a few more times, until you have a cohesive dough. (It’s okay if the blueberries get smashed.)

Turn the dough out onto a floured board and pat it into a 7-inch circle about 1 1/4 inches thick. Using a large knife, cut the dough into 8 wedges, like you’re cutting a pizza, and arrange the wedges on the prepared baking sheet with plenty of space between them.
Bake the scones for 18 to 22 minutes, until the scones are firm on top and the undersides are golden brown. Once they’ve cooled enough to touch, transfer the scones to a rack to cool completely.

While the scones cool, in a medium bowl, whisk together the confectioners’ sugar and the remaining 2 tablespoons buttermilk until a thick glaze forms. Drizzle or pour the glaze over the warm scones. Serve immediately, or let the glaze harden as the scones cool completely and serve.

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How Jewish tastes

GF everything matzo 1

Making matzo at home brings with it an unusual challenge: because the goal of eating matzo is to remember the sacrifices our forebears made, it’s not really supposed to be enjoyable. Store-bought matzo, if made appropriately, should leave one with the approximate sensation of having eaten crisp cardboard made out of dust. It’s shattery. It’s white. And it’s very, very plain.

The problem is, I usually avoid boxed matzo. I don’t steer clear because of the taste. I skip it because it’s just the type of white-flour product—plain, slightly sweet, and likely quite processed—that makes me feel crummy. Gluten-free matzo are commercially available, but they’re heinously expensive. And unlike regular boxed matzo, which often come in various flavors, gluten-free matzo are (in stores near me) always naked.

I lined up my matzo musts: First, I wanted my crackers to taste like an everything bagel, with a smattering of seeds. Second, I wanted to avoid grains, lest someone question my devotion to Ashkenazi Judaism (to which I am not even slightly devoted), practitioners of which typically avoid all grains during the holiday. Third, the matzo had to be disappointing in some way. There’s no point in making a cracker that doesn’t taste like suffering if you’re going to eat it for a week straight while pretending to suffer. I couldn’t call it matzo if it didn’t leave me needing a glass of wine, or at the very least, water.

“This can’t be called matzo,” said J, a high school friend who’s recently moved to Seattle. “It tastes too good.” She was munching on a cracker I’d made from a mixture of almond, coconut, and garbanzo bean flours—a mixture sprinkled with poppy, sesame, and caraway seed, crunchy sea salt, and dried onion flakes, then baked until the edges curled up. We dipped the crackers in hummus, pondered, and ate more.

“I’m no expert, but there is no way these are matzo,” she repeated. She was right. I wasn’t feeling even the least bit guilty about having a nice life, or peaceful surroundings, or leavened bread–not to mention making a cracker that took longer than the “official” limit of 18 minutes to make. I was feeling guilty about planning to not eat the same terrible cardboard everyone else planned on eating.

“They’re a cross between socca and a graham cracker,” declared Jim. And he was right. We actually enjoyed them.

The next day in the car, I started preparing Graham for what will probably be the first Passover dinner he will actually understand. I talked about how Jewish people take the holiday as a moment to slow down and appreciate what they have. About how we eat certain foods to celebrate the season, and how we always leave the door open, in part to welcome in anyone who might stop by with a hungry stomach.

“Mom, what does ‘Jewish’ mean?” he asked.

Right. I’d forgotten the basics. I’m a secular Jew: I’m Jewish by tradition and by generational duty, but not by proactive practice. We don’t talk very much about religion in our house.

“Jewish means something different to everyone,” I said carefully. I went on to give a very brief, very bad explanation of how religions differ, and how everyone needs to find out for themselves what practice works best for them, if any. Our conversation fizzled, and I cursed myself for being so unprepared.

Then, when we got home, I got an idea.

“Here,” I said. I handed him a matzo. “This is what Jewish tastes like to me.”

He refused to taste it. And in that moment—feeling guilty for giving the matzo too much flavor, and for failing to teach my son about my family’s past practices, and for realizing he had zero concept of what was going to happen later in the week at Passover dinner—I realized I could call it matzo. I’d suffered enough.

Eat it smeared with additional guilt.

photo 3

Gluten-Free Everything Matzo Crackers (PDF)
Gluten-Free Everything Matzo Crackers

Made with a combination of garbanzo, almond, and coconut flours, these crackers have a texture slightly crisper than graham crackers, with a much more savory flavor. Topped with a smattering of the seeds you might find on an everything bagel—plus caraway, a favorite of mine—they make a good substitute for any cracker you’d use for hummus, cheese, or tuna salad. Put them on the Passover plate, if you feel like it—but be warned that they’re more flavorful than traditional matzo!

Look for minced dried onion in the spice section of your local grocery store.

Time: 35 minutes active time
Makes about 6 servings

2 teaspoons poppy seed
2 teaspoons white sesame seed
2 teaspoons dried caraway seed, roughly chopped
2 teaspoons minced dried onion
1 1/2 teaspoons crunchy sea salt, crushed til fine if large
1 cup (100 grams) potato starch
1/2 cup (60 grams) coconut flour
1/2 cup (50 grams) almond flour
1/2 cup (50 grams) garbanzo bean flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
Pinch kosher salt
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for brushing
1/4 cup warm water
2 large eggs, blended

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F, and space two racks evenly in the oven. Cut two pieces of parchment paper to fit the flat parts of two large (such as 12-by-17-inch) baking sheets. (You’ll roll the cracker dough out between the two pieces of parchment, so they need to be the same size. If you don’t have two baking sheets of the same size, just pick one, cut out two pieces of parchment to fit it, and bake the crackers in two batches.)

In a small bowl, blend the poppy, sesame, and caraway seed with the onion and sea salt with a spoon until well mixed. Set aside.

In the work bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, stir together the potato starch, coconut flour, almond flour, garbanzo bean flour, baking soda, baking powder, and kosher salt just to blend. With the machine on low speed, add the oil, water, and egg. Increase speed to medium and blend for one minute, until crumbly. The mixture should clump together when you press a handful between your palm and fingers.

photo 1

Pat the dough into a ball, then split it roughly in half. Place one of the parchment sheets on a clean work surface, then add half the dough. Top with the other sheet of parchment and roll the dough as thin as possible without breaking it; it should almost reach the edges of the parchment. (The goal is to make one giant cracker about the size of a baking sheet with each half of the dough.)

Brush one baking sheet with olive oil. Peel the top sheet of parchment off the rolled-out dough, then carefully invert the dough onto the prepared baking sheet, paper side up. Peel off the remaining piece of paper, and brush the dough with more olive oil.

Repeat the process with the remaining dough, using the same parchment paper. Scatter the spice mixture over both pieces of oiled dough, then pat the spices in with your hands so they stick. (If you’d like a more matzo-like look, use a fork or a rolling docking tool to poke small holes all over the dough.)

Bake the matzo for 5 minutes. Rotate the pans front to back and top to bottom, and bake another 5 to 7 minutes, or until the matzo is well browned on all edges and begins to curl up and off the pan. Transfer the crackers immediately to cooling racks and let cool for at least 30 minutes before breaking into pieces and serving.

Store any unused crackers in an airtight container, up to 3 days.

If you’ve followed the Uncle Josh Haggadah Project over the last five years, never fear, there is a 2015 edition. This year, it focuses on Montana, and was written in conjunction with our sister. Click here for the PDF of the 2015 Haggadah.

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