Category Archives: commentary

What We Don’t Eat

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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

How Jewish tastes

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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.

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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.

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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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Filed under bread, commentary, Lunch, snack

Balance

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“Balance isn’t something you just get,” said my favorite yoga instructor. She’s forever coming up with these isms that sound so obvious rolling off her tongue I feel silly for never having thought of them myself. “It’s something that comes and goes.” We’re crouched in eagle pose, one of flow yoga’s hallmark awkward balances, where the arms are completely intertwined at shoulder height and the standing leg gets all tied up by the free leg. There’s nothing elegant or agile or birdlike about it for most of us, but as our wobbles get smaller and the grunters stop grunting, we relax into relative calm. We are not eagles, we are warped, panting humans. But we are finally still. The teacher continues. “Balance is what comes when we let go of needing balance. When we normalize the fear of falling.” My mind reels. How can I not need balance when I’ve morphed into a human twist-tie? “Remember, falling is okay,” she promises. Good thing, I think.

To be honest, I didn’t really like that class on Saturday. There’s something about walking into a darkish yoga studio when it’s 75 degrees and sunny that feels inauthentic for me. But I did really like that toward the end of the class, Leisha focused on balance. Because her words, spoken and digested when I was really supposed to be not thinking at all, helped me process the fears and worries of my previous weeks.

See, we just started kindergarten. (I know: I’m not in kindergarten, my son is. But the process is certainly family-wide. Ask any new kindergarten mom; we’re all crying or screaming at our husbands or getting hit by our normally gentle children.) I wasn’t worried about Graham when he settled in for his first day. Sure, there were details–where he could put his new walking sticks, and how he’d get to the playground, and whether he’d need help in the bathroom, and why he seemed for forget, so suddenly, how to write his name–but ultimately, on the first day, I didn’t worry a bit about his safety or happiness. He stumbled off excitedly after his classmates, falling occasionally, oblivious to how the school’s well-intentioned mind–and heart-balancing slogan, Got Balance?, mocked him from the back of his school t-shirt as he tottered town the hallway.

The start of kindergarten was much more of a personal crisis for me. On the second day, the assistant head of school called us into her office. “This is going to be more difficult than we expected,” she admitted, eyes grave. She wanted to strategize about how to be patient with Graham’s slower pace without sacrificing the academic time the other kids deserve. My husband and I nodded, smiling, trying to strike the right chord between We told you so and Oh God, what happened? On the fourth day, she called us in again. They’d paired Graham with an intern every day that first week. We think it would probably be best to hire a movement aide for Graham. He’s a trooper, but traversing this school is just too exhausting for him and too time-consuming for the class.

Ultimately, it was the obvious choice. Having someone sweet and strong and kind and interested in Graham’s success dedicated to helping him would make kindergarten work not just for Graham, but for the whole class. But when we heard those words–the ones telling us that despite making huge leaps after a summer of huge efforts he still wasn’t going to hack functioning in a classroom full of typical kids without some serious help–we sagged. How could we tell them that we were thrilled with how fast he was moving? That Graham’s physical therapist said he’d never seen a kiddo adapt to forearm crutches so quickly and easily? That given what we’ve seen from Graham, we were sure the weeks to come would bring big improvements? We were pushed off balance. It felt like we were falling down, all of us together.

My friends didn’t seem to understand. “He’ll be fine,” they assured me. Of course he’ll be fine. Graham is nothing if not a trooper. We’ve found the best aide I could imagine, and Graham seems to understand that he now has permanent support. But he’s also clearly old enough to begin grasping that he needs extra help where other kids don’t, and that hurts a mom’s heart. It hurts like falling.

The question, for me, is whether (and when) I’ll be fine. Whether I’ll find the balance that now, in hindsight, we seemed to find so gracefully and easily within Graham’s preschool. Whether the aide will gain his own instinct with Graham, the way so many other parents and teachers have in the past. Whether every single one of the new kindergarten parents will eventually be able to look me in the eye (and when it will stop mattering to me what they think). Whether I’ll fall every time Graham does, and whether I’ll be able to stand back up as quickly–and with as much courage and as big a smile–as he does so many times every day.

These are the twist-tie days, when I feel like I’m falling almost all the time. Every morning now, I do a little yoga. It’s not the physical kind. (There’s not even any sweating, which is nice.) I just repeat my little mantra: It’s okay to fall.

Then I start a new day, hoping I can let go of needing balance at all. Knowing that someday, I’ll find it again.

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Enough

It’s been a very delicious year in my house. I worked with Renee Erickson on A Boat, a Whale, and a Walrus: Menus and Stories, due out in September, which has been, hands down, the most rewarding, most thrilling work experience I’ve had in my career. (I’ll take spot prawning and crabbing as a day’s work over fact-checking any day. Same for traveling to Normandy to learn about oysters. Ditto for working with and writing about a chef who is as devoted to beauty, writ large, as she is about where she sources her ingredients.) In cookbook terms, we worked hard and fast–at least, it seemed fast to me, until I started Passionate Nutrition, which was the writer’s equivalent of running a marathon with no training. The overall effect feels like swimming to the ocean’s surface after being released by a submarine far, far below.

Now, though. I’m back at the surface, after a year under water. Boat comes out in September, and Passionate Nutrition comes out in December. I’m intensely proud of and excited for both books, and feel so lucky to have been chosen as the writer for each. And now, theoretically, I have time to pick my head up and look around for what’s next. (I’ve had time to read, which in and of itself is cause for celebration.) Only, reading The Map of Enough made me wonder what I’m really trying to see.

The Map of Enough, by Molly May, a woman three or four silky threads over on the web of life that seems to connect us all, is a lovely memoir about the significance of place and self-exploration. The book sees life through the eyes of a woman who spent her childhood and young adulthood identifying as a happy nomad—a person whose soul craved travel and adventure—who decides to build a yurt by hand with her now husband. After growing up in a constantly mobile family, she’d always needed to move. In fact, for the first part of the book, I didn’t think I’d be able to identify with her at all. I was born all settled down. I can’t take a two-hour car trip without unpacking myself properly into the front half of the car. To me, the concept of building a house you could just pick up and move anywhere seemed antithetical to the concept of having one in the first place. If you build a home, it means you want to stay right where it is, right? Building a yurt is pretty close to the bottom of my lifelong to-do list, right down there with visiting the Arctic (where my husband is now) and riding a bicycle across the country (which is where you’ll find my sister soon). I’m the girl who always had all her school supplies lined up and labeled a week before school started. If I’m going somewhere, I want to know when, why, where, and for how long. I make reservations. People who build yurts by hand aren’t reservations people.

Reading is funny, though. The more I read about Molly’s need (or lack thereof) to pick that yurt up and move it someplace new, the more I associated her Montana life with my own work habits. Every time she flashed back to childhood memories, living in Spain or in Mexico, I saw myself–but my in my working life, instead of my personal life. I saw myself jumping from project to project the way she’d jumped from country to country, sometimes, like Molly, self-defining more by the jumping (Higher! Faster! Over a new stream!) than by the projects themselves. It threw me into a tizzy over the definition of one word: enough.

I don’t want to go anywhere, like Molly did. (We also remodeled our basement in the last year, so we’re not moving anywhere.) But I have been wondering, the way she did, how to know when I’ve had enough of something. And what’s the difference between getting enough, in the sense of being full, like when you eat, and having enough, as in being sick of something? It’s a fine line.

For me, clearly, enough relates to cooking and writing and writing about cooking. Of course it does. We all want to do well in our work, and as a freelancer, there’s no annual review. There’s the wave of self-satisfaction and pride that washes over when the mailman brings a big blue cookbook to your doorstep, but there’s no promotion. There’s no real benchmark. There’s no paperwork that says, Well, Jess, that’s enough for this year, well done. I guess I’d like an owl to fly through the window with a letter that reads: There, now you’ve got three more until Success. Walk down Greenwood Avenue. Take your third left, then the first right. Your next idea will be hiding in a small box in front of the red house. Books bring me pleasure, but these two offer no more of a path forward–and no more real sign of enough–than the first did. Is it enough to write someone else’s story, rather than my own? Is it enough to work during the school year, but not much over the summer this year? Is it enough that I’m writing recipes for this blog every week or so, but that they never seem to make it onto the screen? Is it enough to make money writing for a corporate magazine no one reads?

Enough seeps across the cracks to the rest of life, too. I’ve declared this The Summer of Graham, because before our kiddo starts kindergarten, we’re doing an intense amount of various therapies with him. There were three weeks in leg casts designed to increase his ankle flexibility, then a week in California for an alternative therapy, and now, where I sit writing and pretending not to watch at all, he’s working with his favorite physical therapist, learning how to use the crutches he’ll have inside his kindergarten classroom. Is it enough? Right now it’s three hours of therapy every weekday. Is it too much? Where’s the line? The kid clearly has the capacity to learn, physically, and in that sense the therapy is “working.” He can make sideways steps now while hanging onto something, which means he’ll be more successful going to the bathroom by himself. (Huzzah!) But he also needs to be a kid. It’s summer. He needs to run through the sprinkler and eat sand and fall down the stairs. (Check. Check. Check.) He needs to play Candy Land until he drives his parents crazy. (Check.) But are we summering enough?

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You have issues with enough, too, I’m sure. They’re different issues. But they’re there.

There’s a habit Molly has, explained in the book, of getting in the car and just driving when she’s feeling the need to move. Ultimately, to me, the habit was helpful; it signified that while we’re always looking to define enough, the definition changes when we step away. Last spring, I thought for a bit that I’d had enough of food writing. (Well, that, or I thought I’d never find a project as great as A Boat, a Whale, and a Walrus again, and I got depressed.) In the cracks, I wrote a story about skiing, and a story about noise, and a story about cycling, and now, food seems pretty lovable again. I got in the car and drove away–metaphorically, anyway. I came back, and now food seems like enough.

Now, I think, I need to explore–not just how to define enough, and how have enough, but how to not have enough, too. The other day, sitting on the couch while a random batch of fig jam bubbled away on the stove and Graham played happily, I got a little bored. I had a moment of (dare I say it?) summer. It felt so, so good. And in that small moment–hanging out with my kid, with the windows open, and only vague plans on the horizon but all Graham’s school years in front of me to work on whatever comes next–I felt like I’d found the recipe for enough.

Now, if I could just get that small moment of enough to last longer.

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Filed under and a Walrus, commentary, Passionate Nutrition, recipe

Beat.

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It hardly seems appropriate to say Happy New Year, but here it is, 2014. Thinking retroactively, here’s what was on my winter to-do list:

• Finish edits on a cookbook
• Take a time-out
• Gather every preschool germ Graham brings home and filter it through my system
• Pitch stories to magazines I’ve never worked with before (some Not! About! Food!)
• Do my taxes
• Finish details of our basement remodel
• Take a writing class
• See a kid through two surgeries
• Apply to private and public kindergartens for said kid

In my mind, two months in, the last thing is the only thing that really happened.

“It’s not the school that’s bad,” soothed my husband one wintry morning. “It’s the system that’s bad.” I sniffed over the phone, and tried to compose myself on the damp bench outside my gym, where an impromptu conversation with the principal of our local elementary school had reduced me to tears and snot and hiccups. My purse sagged open into the dirt of a giant potted plant. But Jim was right. The principal had never met Graham. And he hadn’t, as I’d insinuated, actually told me that my son didn’t belong in his halls. He’d just said he wasn’t sure, and refused to speak with me further, because I hadn’t followed the (totally top secret) prescribed order of operations.

In Seattle, where public schools are arguably better than those in many spots across the country, the process of enrolling a child with special needs in a typical kindergarten classroom requires patience, time, and emotional stamina. In the past week, I have been told to enroll, not to enroll, to fill out the special education form, not to fill out the special education form, that the special education form doesn’t exist, to fill out the school choice form, not to fill out the school choice form, that I need to appear in person to enroll because of the choice form, that I shouldn’t have appeared in person to enroll, that my special ed form will be shredded, that I’m already enrolled, and that RIGHT NOW I’ll be enrolled anyway even though I shouldn’t be standing where I’m standing and don’t need to enroll.

Now, Graham is officially enrolled in our local public elementary school. Will we end up there? Time will tell. At least we have a back up plan. Does that mean the system beat me? Or did I beat the system? This parenting thing is not for the weak.

Out of the blue this morning, when I was getting whiny over all this school nonsense, Graham decided to take the stairs to into his current classroom for the first time. A friend put him up to it and offered to take his walker to the top, and he just agreed. Like it was the most normal thing in the world. Like in his little way, he was saying Mom, I got this thing beat. See?

(Thanks, kid. You sure do.)

Graham on the steps

Grilled Beets with Herbs and Preserved Lemon (PDF)
In my house, beets make excellent decorations, but they’re rarely the main event—mostly because I tend to chop them up and shove them into salads more quickly than they can stand up for themselves. Here, they shine between layers of crème fraîche and fresh herbs, punched up a bit with preserved lemon.

If I haven’t made my own, I buy preserved lemons at Picnic in Seattle, because the owners, Jenny and Anson Klock, do a consistently excellent job. To use them here, cut them into quarters. Push the lemon’s meat out of the fruit and discard it, then use a small knife to trim the thin white layer of pith away from the peel. Once you have just the yellow peel, it’s ready to chop and use.

Serves 4

3 fist-sized red beets, roasted, peeled, and cut into 3/4-inch rounds
2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons crème fraîche
1/4 cup lightly packed fresh herbs (leaves only)
Peel of 1/4 preserved lemon, pith trimmed, very thinly sliced
Chunky sea salt, for serving

In a large bowl, mix the beet slices together with the olive oil and salt until well blended.

Heat a grill pan over medium-high heat. (You can use a regular heavy-duty pan instead, if you prefer.) When hot, add the beets, and cook, undisturbed, until well marked on both sides, 6 to 8 minutes total, turning the beets once during cooking.

Meanwhile, smear the crème fraîche onto a serving plate. Pile the beets on top, then scatter the herbs and preserved lemon on top. Drizzle the beets with additional olive oil, sprinkle with chunky sea salt, and serve.

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Filed under commentary, egg-free, farmer's market, garden, gluten-free, Lunch, recipe, salad, Seattle

Resting

resting with jackson

For the record, although it looks like I’m spending a Sunday in my pajamas on the couch, there are other things happening around here. I’m recovering from an unforgiving stomach flu, and from a whirlwind trip back east to celebrate the New Year, and from Christmas with family, and a from month-long extravaganza of cookbook events before that. And well, let’s just say 2012 was A Year for me. A big year. A two-cookbook year—three, if you count the ghost writing. The year I started Benlysta. The year Graham took a few independent steps. The year the dog started going grey.

My husband labels hangovers by how long it takes after the evening in question to drink a similar amount again. So, for example, if you go out with friends and decide the next day that you’re going to wait a couple days before drinking that much again, you have a two-day hangover. If you have a two-month hangover, you probably had a pretty fun night.

So here I am with my Gatorade and a waifish bowl of Rice Krispies, nursing my twisted innards back to health with foods I normally never touch, wondering if perhaps I have a three-book hangover. I haven’t stopped long enough to find my goals for 2013 yet, but I know somewhere in that list, maybe between “eat more raw beets” and “find a good way to organize photo files,” I’ll put something like “be quiet” or “wear slippers more often.” There will still be cooking and writing and snapping and oh, yes, parenting, but hopefully, there will also be sitting.

You’ll forgive me, I hope, for starting the year off with a whimper. It’s so inconvenient to cook with a cat wrapped around one’s legs.

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Moving forward

On Wednesday, I was driving to a doughnut shop with my grandmother. The previous night she’d been present at the launch party for Pike Place Market Recipes, and there in the car, sun streaming in, we somehow found ourselves talking about whether chutzpah is passed down from generation to generation, like long eyelashes or nice feet. Of course, she’d never use that word; June is the antithesis of a Jewish grandmother. She called it resilience, I think.

And then, to illustrate her point, she started talking about poetry. I warned her that if she was expecting me to participate in the conversation, she might need to reconsider, because my knowledge of poetry is sketchy at best. But I did have one excellent English teacher, in the twelfth grade. His room was plastered with quotations students had painted on the walls over the years, and one, in particular, spoke to me that year. I carried it around in my head for ages, to ski races and biology exams. So perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised when June quoted just that one, verbatim.

Invictus
By William Ernest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.



In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.



Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds and shall find me unafraid.



It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

Redux: Life is not about tripping and falling into a bubbling vat of Cream of Wheat. It’s about a graceful dive into whatever pool awaits, performed with as much moxie as one can muster.

I don’t know how often June thinks of that poem, but it’s back on my radar, for sure. These days, it feels like everyone I know has a pool waiting. It’s a book proposal. It’s chemo. It’s a sick child. It’s one of a whole host of things, all different, which for whatever reason may be daunting or frightening or annoying or downright terrifying. For some people, it’s just life in general, and really, that’s enough on its own. Everyone has their thing.

For the last (almost) decade, my pool has been lupus. Sometimes the whole pool dries up, and I almost forget it’s there, but this is not one of those times. This is a spring of new IV treatments that give me heroine addict arms, and lifting my child carefully, and trying to find a pair of earrings that are easy for me to put in. I hate that it hurts to type, and that when I wake up in the morning under a cloud of brainstorm, I pause for a second before opening my computer, weighing whether I’m ready to move my fingers that much. But it’s also been an extremely happy, exciting time. (Did I tell you? I wrote a cookbook, and I love it.)

So on mornings like this one, I sit quietly on the couch—my child has been sleeping past six recently, for reasons I don’t understand but won’t question—and warm my hands on a cup of coffee. Then, I write, because moving forward is almost always the best option.

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The Uncle Josh Haggadah Project 2012

Chocolate-Basil Passover Cake

I’m just Jewish enough that every April, I remember Passover’s coming. I remember matzo ball soup and brisket and that we should all feel very lucky, but I never quite remember the Passover story. I know there was something about Moses and a basket, but who’s son was he again? And what’s this about parting the Red Sea? Or was it the Black Sea? Forget remembering all four questions.

Luckily, I have a brother who remembers everything, and can write. Every year, Uncle Josh’s Haggadah Project (PDF) frames the Passover story in modern times, pairing a practical Seder guide (which I desperately need) with political commentary.

Take the story of Moses:

Although a child of extreme privilege, as Moses grew he became aware of the slaves who worked for and were laid off by his adoptive father at his corporate offices around the world. When Moses saw that his new father figure made millions of dollars and paid an effective 15% tax rate while the other 99% of the population paid more while trying to make ends meet on measly salaries, he joined the “Occupy Giza” Movement and wound up killing a distracted CEO who wandered into the camp while making deals on his Blackberry.

Or the tale of why the Jews made matzah:

Fearful that that the sometimes progressive but often backward magic underwear Pharaoh would change his mind, our people fled in a hurry. Instead of packing fresh bagels and lox and a nice baguette with organic brie like they imagined normal Jews would, you know, if they ever went camping, our people had to slap together some flour and water and bake it pronto. Only later did they realize the stuff had the texture of saltines and the flavor of cardboard. We called it Matzah, and we eat it as a mitzvah eight days a year instead of bread, which always seems like a good idea on the first night but gets old after half a box.

On the first night of Passover, I’ll make a chametz-filled cake in the shape of a train for my kid’s third birthday, and forget Passover exists. On the second night, I’ll do brisket or chicken or whatever seems most Passover to me at the time, and I’ll read Uncle Josh’s Haggadah, which is themed “for the Great Recovery” this year. (That seems so appropriate for me.) We’ll eat flourless chocolate cake spiked with basil. On the third night, I’ll celebrate Easter with my husband’s family, and we’ll eat leftover cake and I’ll feel guilty we’re not doing Seder twice, like some people do.

And then I’ll take another bite of cake.

Uncle Josh’s Haggadah Project 2012 (PDF of full Haggadah, by Joshua Howe)

Chocolate-Basil Passover Cake (PDF)
A true torte typically replaces a cake’s flour with nuts or breadcrumbs, so I won’t call it that, but this deeply chocolaty, dense confection, rimmed with dark ganache, just almost too decadent for the word cake. It’s a take-off on a chocolate-basil truffle I tasted Seattle’s Theo Chocolate a few years back.

Note: If you have a double boiler, use that to melt the chocolate.

TIME: 40 minutes active time
MAKES: 8 to 10 servings

For the cake:
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, cut into 16 pieces, plus extra for greasing the pan
4 ounces chopped bittersweet chocolate (65% to 75% cacao)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup sugar
1 packed cup fresh basil (leaves only)
3 large eggs, room temperature
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

For the ganache:
4 ounces chopped bittersweet chocolate (65% to 75% cacao)
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon heavy cream

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and center a rack in the middle of the oven. Butter an 8-inch round cake pan. Line the bottom of the pan with a round of wax paper or parchment paper, and butter the paper.

Place the butter and the chocolate in a small saucepan and melt over very low heat, stirring constantly. Remove the pan from the heat as soon as the mixture is smooth, transfer to a large mixing bowl, stir in the vanilla and salt, and set aside.

Next, make a basil sugar: pulse the sugar and the basil together in a food processor until the basil is very finely chopped and uniformly green in color. The sugar will look slightly wet.

Add the basil sugar to the chocolate mixture and whisk until smooth. Whisk in the eggs one at a time, blending completely between additions. Sift the cocoa powder over the batter and fold it in until no dry spots remain. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth out the top with a spatula.

Bake the cake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the top of the cake barely begins to crack. Let cool for about 5 minutes, then invert the cake onto a round serving plate.

While the cake cools, make the ganache: place the chocolate and the cream in a small saucepan, and stir constantly over very low heat until melted and smooth. Using a flat spatula or knife, spread the ganache over the top of the cake, letting it drip down the sides, if desired. (Hint: Using the ganache immediately will mean a thin coating that drips easily down the sides of the cake; in this case, it’s best to frost the cake over a cooling rack, then transfer it to a serving plate. You can also let the ganache cool a bit, then spread it just on the top, more like a thin frosting.)

Serve warm or at room temperature. To store, let cool completely, then cover and keep at room temperature up to 3 days.

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Filed under Cakes, commentary, gluten-free

Guilt Taste

My strongest Jewish trait, besides my nose, is an extraordinarily large capacity for feeling guilt. I feel guilty for not walking my dog. I feel guilty for not doing yoga when I walk my dog instead. I feel guilty for eating the right things, when other people can’t, and I feel guilty for eating the wrong things, when I really ought to know better. I would feel guilty for feeling guilty, if I could just find the time.

You’d think I’d be smarter than to expect it would be any different with avoiding certain foods. Recently, though, it’s been somehow surprising that cutting out out gluten, eggs, and soy has added a huge amount of guilt to cooking and eating. I feel guilty for not taking the last bite of my son’s mangled bagel and cream cheese when he offers it, all smiles, and for not eating the eggs from our neighbors’ chickens, now delivered to our porch each week, usually nestled between my running shoes and the stroller. My eating habits are changing, which means a whole new series of daily guilts: post-polenta dishes before 8 a.m. Quesadillas for breakfast. Granola bars at 2 p.m., when my gluten-free lunch sucks so much that I decide not to eat it. Pho for dinner, because the people who brought gluten-free take-out pizza for dinner forgot to request that gluten-free crust, and now don’t they feel guilty and it’s all because of me. I’ve been trying to get over it. Really, I have. It’s just that I seem to have guilt taste.

A few weeks ago, I indulged myself in a visit to Seattle’s Burke Museum, where an exhibit called Hungry Planet: What the World Eats, modeled after the Time Magazine “What the World Eats” photo gallery and Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio’s book, Hungry Planet, features photos of what families from around the world eat in a week. Now there’s a way to feel guilty, right? Not so. As I strolled through with Jill Lightner, my editor at Edible Seattle, and Angela Murray, the magazine’s social media editor, we balked and gawked and giggled and talked and made guesses at what various packages with foreign words on them actually contained. We loved how many bread rolls the German family ate, and marveled at how beautifully packaged the Japanese strawberries were, and pondered how that Ecuadorean family who walks their own root vegetables three hours each way to sell them at the market could cook so! many! plantains in one week. More than anything, I was shaken not by images of poverty, but of wholesomeness.

Taken as a whole, the photos left me with one overarching impression, which was that first-world countries eat a lot of packaged shit. There seemed to be an indirect correlation between the wealth of the family and the freshness of their food. The American family’s weekly grocery pile had an astonishing number of boxed items, grouped with more soda than my house sees in a year and many, many stops at fast food joints. We stared, quietly, each (I think) wondering what her own guilty pleasures were. Together, the three of us schemed. Even though none of us usually shops weekly—not for everything, anyway—we gathered up our weekly foodstuffs, and took photos. (Click here for Jill’s week.)

Pawing through the photographs, I expected to be horrified by my purchases. I buy macaroni and cheese for my toddler, and before last August, I usually shared it with him. Yes, I also buy him fish sticks, only Trader Joe’s, where I shop about once a month, was out of them this week. Yes, I made it to the farmers’ market this week. No, I don’t always. I rarely buy what I define as my “favorite” milk, Fresh Breeze, more than two weeks in a row, because my shopping habits aren’t that reliable. I let my two-year-old pick out our yogurt based on the packaging, but for whatever reason, I only only only buy beets at the farmers’ market. I expected to learn from my photos, but I didn’t expect to be particularly pleased.

Here’s what gathering this big pile of food taught me immediately:

We eat a shit ton of food.

I’m not writing any books or big projects right now, which means this is probably a minimum of the food we go through in a week.

Having the luxury of buying food in tides is huge. This week, I didn’t buy spices or even any “ethnic” foods, really, but I bought a lot of snacks. Next week, I’ll need cumin and pepper and fennel and coconut milk, but because of one thing or another, we’ll be eating out much more, so the pile will be smaller. But it’s a crapshoot.

Having a two-year-old means we eat much more fruit.

I am brand-conscious, but not very brand-sensitive. I prefer cheese X but will often buy cheese Y if it’s convenient.

I stink at planning meals and following the plan, but excel at using whatever’s in the fridge.

I love how impulsive our cooking habits are. I bought Bisquick mid-week because my son spotted it at Target, but he also learned to shell peas and eat them raw. I’ll take both over neither.

But you know what? Looking at this pile of grub, I don’t feel the least bit guilty. I was thrilled to see how much produce I brought home, and now, a week later, at the fact that we’ve eaten it, and also the extra load of produce I nabbed at the market midweek.

I wondered whether I’d purchased less meat than usual, because my perception is that we eat more than I would choose to in the best of all possible worlds, but the chicken breasts are still frozen and the bacon is thawing as I type. We ate a whole chicken this week, and some sausage, and that’s it. Not bad, compared to my own assumptions.

I was also thrilled to see that as a whole, my kid’s snacks are relatively healthy. Sure, I buy kiddo Clif bars for the car, and handfuls of hippie fruit leathers, but there are no cookies or candies or boxes with cartoon characters on them. I’m pretty proud of that.

This is how we eat. If it had been a pop quiz, sure, the photo might look different. Then again, maybe it would have looked the same.

I encourage you to do the same. One Sunday, shop for the whole week. For kicks. Put everything out on your dining room table, then look at it. Take photos, and post them, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Then, open your eyes. See what you find.

Below is a list of what we eat in a week. To participate, post your link below and on Edible Seattle’s post, and we’ll include you when we compile links! Remember to include where you live (even if it’s outside Seattle), who’s in your household, and a list of what you purchase.

Jess Thomson
Phinney Ridge, Seattle
2 adults, 1 2 1/2-year-old

Meats:
1 pound bacon
1 whole chicken
1/3 pound salmon fillet
1 dozen eggs
1 pound chicken breasts
8 ounces salami
8 ounces sliced roasted chicken
1/2 pound sausage (not pictured)

Dairy:
1 pound sharp cheddar
8 ounces feta
8 oz shredded mozzarella
6 ounces goat cheese
4 ounces grated Parmesan
6 4-ounce yogurts
6 8-ounce yogurts
10 ounces sliced Havarti
Spinach and Kale Greek Yogurt Dip
Greek yogurt – quart
Tapioca pudding
2 quarts whole milk (only one pictured)
Quart 2% milk
String cheese
Butter – 1 lb

Produce:
2 Onions
3 Shallots
2 lg Fennel
1 pound Carrots
2 Beets
2 Sweet potatoes
1 l b Yukon gold potatoes
Clementines
5 grapefruit
Bunch leeks
4 bananas
1 apple
Small bunch broccoli
1 pound trimmed kale
1 pound peas
1 pound bag broccoli/cauliflower
1 english cucumber
Grape tomatoes
2 pounds shelling peas (not pictured)
1 pound lacinato kale (not pictured)

Dry goods:
Meusli
Polenta
GF flour
Garbanzo flour
Brown rice
Dried apricots
Corn pasta
Rice pasta
Quinoa
Rice cakes
2 jars olives
3 cans garbanzo beans
28-ounce can diced tomatoes
Pistachios
Hazelnuts
Chicken broth
Sugar cookie mix
3 boxes mac & cheese
Crackers
1 pound coffee
1 pound chocolate
premade polenta
4 snack bars
2 kids’ snack bars
8 fruit leathers
1 box Bisquick (not pictured)

Drinks:
Orange juice
6 pack beer
3 bottles wine

Breads:
2 bagels
Loaf seedy bread

Didn’t buy but usually buy:
Cream Cheese
Sour cream
Apple juice
Any Asian/ethnic products
Any spices
Any baking materials
Out of season fruit
Sweeteners
Tea
Eggs

Ate out:
2 lattes (usually more, weird week)
Sushi
Frozen yogurt
Dinner at Bastille
Breakfast at Portage Bay
1 matcha latte

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Loves

You’ll forgive me, I hope, if I profess a bit of newfound freedom these days. I’m still not particularly great at sitting on the couch–perhaps I never will be–but in the kitchen, I’d adjusted to being tethered to my own recipes, for my own projects, and people, I am free. And can I just tell you something? I still like to cook.

I was a little afraid there, after I turned the last manuscript in. I thought perhaps I might have overdone it. Might have just cooked my little heart out. Might have gotten so into writing cookbooks that I forgot how to love using them.

But oh, it’s so on, this cooking thing. Not in a fancy way. In a we need to eat but we also need to eat by 6 p.m. or the kid will implode sort of way. In a hey, look what I’ve missed in the last 16 months sort of way. Thought you might want to see what I’ve been loving recently:

Polenta for breakfast

Rice Pudding and Caramel Apples, from Around My French Table, by Dorie Greenspan

Fennel Baked in Cream, from Leite’s Culinaria

Mushroom and Herb Polenta, from Plenty, by Yotam Ottolenghi

Crispy Sesame Kale and Italian Spinach with Garlic and Raisins, from Big Vegan, by Robin Asbell

Cocoa Brownies and Deep Dish Greens with Millet Amaranth Crust, from Clean Start, by Terry Walters

Okay, so it’s not an extensive list. That’s kind of what I love about it. I love that it means that after what seems like a really busy year in my kitchen, I’m letting the kitchen lead me.

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November Links

November. It’s November. November is the month before December, in case you were wondering. December is the sneakiest month, but for me, November is always the busy month. It’s the time we taste and stir our eggnog for Thanksgiving, and when we set our clocks back and forget to tell our small children about it, and the month, supposedly, that the leaves will flee the trees in Seattle. In our house, it’s when we’ll finally see the relatives we wait all year to see, and when my sister returns from traveling around the world, and when we start plotting winter ski trips in our minds. This time around, there are other things, as there always are. We’re building a new dining room table out of giant reclaimed boards. (By we, I mean my husband; I’m in charge of chairs, which will remain shrouded in mystery and perhaps also this fabulous fabric, but perhaps not.) We’re debating a replacement for our 33-year-old furnace. We’re finding preschool options for our 2 1/2-year-old. We’re doing life, you could say, in all its unglory. And today, for once, that feels like it’s allowed. So for you, some links:

Edible Seattle’s holiday issue is out, with my photo (that one above) on the cover. That recipe? It’s for birdseed brittle, a take on peanut brittle that sneaks quinoa, millet, and emmer flakes into perfectly crisp candy. (What I didn’t know when I was making it is how thrilled I’d be today that I can still eat it.)

425 Magazine, the magazine that focuses on Seattle’s east side, did a little ditty on food bloggers this month for their food issue, featuring food bloggers and recipes no more than 140 characters long–yep, a recipe in a tweet. (They all sound delicious.) Click here to see my recipe for Marinated Spiced Feta.

I’m hemming and hawing over Thanksgiving recipes, of course. My friend Megan reminded me of this pumpkin ricotta cheesecake, which I loved. I’m debating these little sweet potato snackers as an appetizer, which I found at The Kitchn, and wondering whether my grandmother would balk at Heidi’s banana bread, which isn’t exactly traditional. I’m stewing over cider-brined turkey ideas and wondering what I’ll do if my brother shows up with part of an elk. (Elk posole? Pulled elk sandwiches? Elk sausage stuffing?) There’s this autumn coleslaw to salivate over, and dinner for friends tomorrow to plan.

Most usefully, perhaps, I’m planning gorgeous little treats for Will Bake For Food, the food blogger bake sale on Saturday that draws treats from bloggers all over the city to raise money for hungry holiday mouths. You should come, and eat.

Soon, there will be more to tell. There will be exciting things in my mailbox and possibly yours, and trips for Dishing Up Washington to tell you about (like driving around in Walla Walla wine country, above). And that cake–that deep, dark chocolate cake, studded with calimyra figs and laced with pistachios and crushed, toasted fennel. That, I have to tell you about. Soon. But today, other things.

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Throwing stones

Getting a recipe from a chef, with the intention of including it in a cookbook, is really pretty easy. First, you pick up the phone and call the guy, or the gal, or the person they’ve chosen to represent them to the press (read: the person who takes the blame for the chaos on their calendar and threatens them with brutal whippings if they fail to comply to your timetables). You explain your project, and they profess undying love for you and it and the prospect of seeing their name and restaurant in print in six and a half years. (They can’t wait!) And then you get the recipe.

Or not. There’s always a little hiccup between the time you ask for the recipe and the time you press “save” on your own version, because only in a very small minority of cases does the person in charge of the business end of the knife have the writing skills to get a cohesive recipe together, the organization to get information to you before you’ve seen the same season twice, and the experience cooking at home to understand that we don’t all cure our own prosciutto and that eight quarts of stock is not a quantity most soccer moms can cook on one podunk kitchen burner.

Here’s how it really works: in June, a chef says he’ll send you a recipe by August 1st. On August 10th, you write him to remind him you’re still waiting. (You should have known to lie to this one about your deadline.) On September 1st, after several more emails, most of them from him promising he’s going to work on it THIS WEEKEND, you promise you’ll march yourself into his kitchen the very next day. Magically, the recipe arrives.

First, you gather the ingredients. You wonder whether he’ll mind if you change house-cured anchovies to regular oil-packed store-bought anchovies, knowing full well that in his true opinion, you’re ransacking his recipe and misrepresenting his restaurant. You create a mini internal struggle between the two of you in your mind, all over the anchovy, before even picking up the phone. Four days later, with his permission, you change the anchovies, then move through the ingredients list, pausing only briefly to consider whether your general tourist audience will be petrified by the mere mention of preserved lemons. You elaborate on coddling eggs, because surely there’s someone in your readership who thinks it has something to do with raising them without time-outs or swear words. You want your reader to end up with something that works, something that tastes so good they’ll make it again, something that’s true to the chef’s original intention—but you also need to make sure the reader starts cooking in the first place.

And so it goes for each recipe (all 75 you’re trying to translate). You scale flaky, creamy lemon bars down from a recipe that serves exactly 384, toying and tinkering until you’ve found a recipe that works and tastes almost if not exactly the same as the bakery’s, and uses 2 eggs, rather than 2 3/4 eggs. You insist on a recipe for homemade lebnah, because no, not everyone knows how to make it. (But for the record, it’s painfully easy: greek yogurt, salt, olive oil, stirring, cheesecloth.) You delicately skirt the directions for dehydrated olive oil. You beg chefs for permission to offer substitution suggestions for lamb stock, mustard oil, and pickled green garlic, not because you aren’t thrilled to use these things—you’re thrilled yourself, because they taste so good—but because you know this particular cookbook has to be a mixture of things that are a little exciting for those who qualify for that loathsome category, “foodie,” and things that are downright doable, for folks with any level of cooking skill and mouths they can’t make patient with an extra martini. And when someone picks up this book, in the spring of 2012, you won’t have any control over what page they see first.

One thing is clear: most of the recipes from chefs, both from Seattle and the rest of the state, are awesome. They’re creative and intelligent and unusual and useful. But sometimes, they’re also really long and complicated. So with that latter group of home cooks in mind, while you’re waiting for chefs’ recipes to come or not come, you test things that please you with their simplicity but scream “Washington” just as loudly—homemade corn dogs, like the ones for sale at the Chesaw Rodeo, and braised goat shanks that take no more work than a weekday pot roast, and potato soup from a farmer in Colville. You make grits with a smoky Mt. Townsend Creamery jack cheese called “Campfire,” and pair them with collard greens made with bacon, yes, but also apple cider and cider vinegar, for sweetness almost equal to the tang, but not quite. You layer local goat cheese into gratins, and make the easy herbed baked eggs a kind, kind woman made you at her bed and breakfast, before a horse ride through Washington wine country. And in their own sweet time, the chefs’ recipes float in.

And then, just when you feel like the number of chef’s recipes you have on hand to test might suddenly surpass the number of recipes you’re alternately asking, waiting, or begging for, and you’re thinking snarky things, a chef emails you, out of the blue, from Bainbridge Island. “So, about that simple bone marrow recipe. How was it?” Oh, gosh. You know the one. When you tasted it at the restaurant, it was topped with a gorgeous, sharp-sweet huckleberry and onion mostarda, and the recipe was written perfectly, with clear directions on how to buy the bones, what sort of knife to use for scraping them, and why it’s best to roast them on a shallow bed of salt. It fits neatly on one page. But you haven’t tried them yet. The huckleberries, once fresh-picked, are in the freezer in an unmarked paper bag. You even have the perfect spoons, the little teensy ones a friend sent you from Spain. “Um. Um.” You stammer. “I was hoping to try them this weekend.”

And so it is that writing this book has become, in a way, a nice, long stay in a culinary glass castle, where I alternate between throwing miniature private fits about the ineptitude and disorganization of restaurant chefs, and loathing myself, for being equally inept and disorganized (or more). I bitch about quantities fit for a fundraiser rather than a dinner table, then I’m humbled by recipes that appear on my e-doorstep in mint condition, from Seattle chefs like Tom Douglas and Holly Smith and Lisa Nakamura and Rachel Yang and Ethan Stowell, to name a very few, and remember that each and every one of these chefs is not giving me their recipes for fame or fortune (no, certainly not fortune), but because they’re proud of what they do, and proud of their place in the state’s general food scene. They’re proud, and deservedly so.

And in the end, when I’m done acting cranky and undeserving, and think how cool it will be when all these recipes and mine are bundled together in a project that’s as much a dinner guide as it is a relic of the Northwest’s gustatory times, I’ll be proud to have them all, too. I won’t remember who was late or who I had to call three times for an oven temperature. I’ll just remember that I want to go back to their restaurant, to eat, and to smile.

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A good, good place

Tomme for lunch at Alpine Lakes

This month, I have an intern. (Stop laughing. But I admit, I think it’s a bit ridiculous, too.)

She’s learning how to write a recipe, sure, but I can see her absorbing the same things I took in when I interned with cookbook author Kathy Gunst a decade ago—which kinds of peas are easiest to string, and how to give salmon a good pan-searing, and why dried Bings aren’t always interchangeable with dried Rainiers. She’s finding, like everyone does, that for every ten things you learn when you research something, only one or two end up being important, and there are one or two more that you miss entirely, until you find them.

But more than anything, she’s teaching me. She’s teaching me that I’m doing what I love. She’s reminding me that I’m no longer a compliance analyst for an asset management firm, and that even though I stink at balancing work and life as much as anyone deep in the trenches in [fill in the blank] might, the fact that the two are seamlessly intertwined for me is still thrilling. And I hope, more than anything, that beyond teaching her how to get the fishmonger to cut a nice, even piece from the head end of the halibut for grilling, I’m teaching her the importance of doing something that motivates her to wake up at 5:30 a.m., without an alarm, simply because she’s excited for the day. Because no matter how much I bitch about the parts of my job that aren’t quite as glamorous—dishes, invoicing, pitching, taxes, and always more dishes—I still have a pretty major crush on how I spend my days.

One year ago, I wasn’t feeling so lucky. My body wasn’t cooperating at all. My previous cookbook proposals had fallen flat. I was constantly sore and nauseous, thinner but weak.

But today—Annie, honey, you may have been on to something that worked for you, but today I don’t really need tomorrow, because the todays have been so much fun. Today, I’m healthy, for once. I’m juggling more projects than I should, bouncing between photo shoots and recipe testing marathons and writing binges, allowing myself to fall behind my normally strict self-scheduling for the first time in a long, long while—something so unlike me that it makes me wonder if perhaps, in this good, good place, there’s a new me to be found.

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And this week, I’m starting a new project. It’s another cookbook. (See? Madame Jacqueau was right. Everything comes in threes. Last fall, when I wrote about being phoenixed, I knew this was coming, too.)

Dishing Up Washington will be a thorough, entertaining, and delicious overview of the state’s foodways, told through recipes (150 of them, to be exact). It seems like an enormous number to me right now, but February 2012 also seems like a long, long ways away. (Apparently the advantage of writing your first book in 5 1/2 weeks is that from then on, every deadline seems generous.)

Lara Ferroni, the gorgeous eye behind Cook and Eat (among other things)—and someone I feel a special kinship with because she’s the only person I know who’s also survived writing a doughnut cookbook—will be the book’s photographer.

This week, we captured spring. Tuesday, she photographed a silky pea soup with nettle-sorrel pesto and pea vines, and Amy Pennington’s minted pickled asparagus, and grilled spot prawns with a curried caramel dipping sauce, and saffron clam chowder from Lisa Nakamura at Allium.

Catha link holding Cutie Patootie

Today, we took a giant road trip, out Route 2 toward Leavenworth, down to Wenatchee, and back on I-90 with a stop in North Bend. Catha Link, the cheesemaker at Alpine Lakes Cheese, surprised us with lunch before taking us down to meet the lambs – that black one up there is Cutie Patootie, who cuddled into my lap like a golden retriever after greeting Catha, all licks and nuzzles. There was salad with Catha’s intense sheep’s milk tomme melted onto apricot jam-smothered toasts. Afterward, down the road in Cashmere, we bit into fat, creamy lemon bars at Anjou Bakery. If this is Washington, I will live here forever.

Someday soon, I’ll probably whine about my life. I’ll say I’m overcommitted, or uninspired, or tired, or just plain cranky.

But right now, I’m in a good, good place, and I couldn’t be happier.

Coffee and lemon bars at Anjou Bakery in Cashmere

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On the border of Spain and Germany

IMG_5907

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking Jess, good God, didn’t you ever take a geography class? I did, but sometimes geography just gets in the way.

Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. The manuscript for Pike Place Market Recipes is due in nine days. Technically, I have five entire uninterrupted hours to work on it right now, which is why instead of buckling down with a French press and a sheath of notes, I’m blogging. (Procrastination is alive and well.)

The thing is, there’s something about writing a cookbook that’s bugging me. It’s about how we use cookbooks. Yesterday, I was interviewing Uli Lengenberg, the German master butcher and owner of Pike Place Market’s Uli’s Famous Sausage. He’s a big bear of a guy who ferries links around the city on the back of his motorcycle, wearing a canary yellow helmet. And when it comes to recipes, he has opinions.

Yesterday, I asked him what he tells people when they want to know what to do with his sausages. He was emphatic that a recipe is just a guideline, and I couldn’t agree more. “You don’t die if you don’t cook like the recipe says,” he said, hands waving in the air above his tiny little spectacles. “Your love for creating something tasty and enjoyable will always be bigger than the need to follow a recipe.” Yes, Uli.

And my biggest challenge, in these next nine days, is to somehow create a book that gives people perfect guidelines for great food without making them feel totally wed to the recipes. I don’t want the book to prevent people from (as Uli calls it) cooking from their hearts.

As we talked, his love for food spilled into the air, in a genuine, helpless way, circling up around his helmet and his big black work boots and the beer taps halfway between us and the meat case. He explained a concept that I’m very familiar with, but that doesn’t (to my knowledge) really have an English equivalent. Literally, mit fleischeinlage means “with a meat ingredient,” but like so many words in any language, in German, einlage also means “orthotic.” Uli explained that in German, cooking something mit fleischeinlage means that you add to it what you have, and that all of those little things—leftovers, half-dead vegetables, special ingredients that you only have in miniscule quantities—are what add up to make a dish special. All those little things are what support the dish.

When I got home, I took some of his chorizo out of the freezer. I’d been saving it to remake a recipe from the book for Spanish Chickpea and Chorizo stew, but given my conversation with Uli, it didn’t seem like I should hold myself to the written recipe if I had chorizo on the brain and a fridge full of mismatched ingredients. I ditched the chickpeas, and threw in potatoes and cabbage, and a bunch of spring onions that have been sulking in the back of the produce drawer. They’d been back there, forgotten, since I bought them thinking I had to and then cooked spring asparagus instead.

Simmered down for an hour, the stew looked like a remarkably gentle collision between Spain and Germany—the rich, red color of pimenton de la vera and the chorizo crumbles swam around the whitish shredded cabbage and potatoes, somehow coexisting happily, like when my dog and cat are both in good moods and they curl up on the couch together.

At the end of our conversation, Uli told me that he always asks people what they want to cook when they ask him for advice. He doles it out, but always, always volunteers to also show them how to eat it. Might have to pack some of this stew up and head down to the market.

But first, the book. I need to write it mit fleischeinlage.

The UnRecipe
Spanish-German Chorizo Stew starts with good chorizo. Crumble a few fat links into a hot soup pot, and let them cook until your house smells like a different country. Add a big handful of chopped alliums – whatever mixture of garlic, onions, and leeks your refrigerator offers up – and then add about 5 chopped carrots and 3 chopped celery stalks. Season the mixture with salt and pepper and a good dose of Spanish pimenton, then add two peeled and chopped russet potatoes, half a small head of green cabbage (nicely shredded), and enough chicken stock to cover it all. Oh, and glug in some sherry vinegar, because you want a little tang. Bring the stew to a simmer, and go do something else, but every once in a while, come back and stir it.

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Definition: Post-Fine Dining

I don’t break fingernails, primarily because I don’t have them. If I did, however, I’d be grateful for the touchpad that controls the sheers in the rooms at the new Fairmont Pacific Rim hotel in Vancouver, B.C. With little yellow lights that guide wandering hands toward instant, automatic communication with the little elves that run the drapes, there’s very little chance a person could chip a nail. This is important, because in the Fairmont’s fitness center, you’ll need healthy fingertips to press the buttons on the treadmill that control the music, television, and fan. (The gadgets that control which pores you sweat from haven’t arrived yet.)

At a hotel, it’s usually clear what constitutes luxury: Pillow mints are replaced with papaya pate de fruits. You’d rather cuddle the towels than hug your own child. And goddammit, how do they always know your name?

Once upon a time, really fine dining was easy to define, too. It meant speaking in soft voices, reading menus without prices, and knowing that no matter where you sat, there would be a white-gloved hand prepared to catch your wayward escargot shell. Waiters were presenters and retrievers. Chefs were performers. And your job, as the diner, was to simply enjoy, and hope your server didn’t pant too loudly.

Today, fine dining is harder to describe. Some old-school restaurants still exist, of course. They’re still expensive, and they still switch your napkin from white to black if you wear dark pants. But as diners look for more than a good performance – toward innovation, and creativity, and novelty, and personality on their plates – the things that make a restaurant nice have changed.

On Monday night, I visited L’Abattoir, a Vancouver restaurant that opened last July under the direction of two guys in their early 30’s. The floor is funky tile, or simply wood. The walls are brick. The table settings, with their relatively plain silverware, are almost boring. The light fixtures are made from canning jars. Yet somehow, despite being approached by two homeless men on my way in (the restaurant is located in a part of town known as “Blood Alley”), L’Abattoir feels like the fanciest restaurant I’ve been to in years. The chef cuddled baked sablefish, sautéed black trumpet mushrooms, and a puff of parsley together on a bed of garlic butter sauce with the care of a new mother. Bacon wrapped lamb tenderloin in a careful, crisp embrace. In a take on lemon meringue pie, a buttermilk panna cotta was shrouded in white meringue spikes, then presented on a bed of the very essence of lemon, somehow solidified. No one pulled out a chair for me, and not a single top button was done on the servers’ shirts, but I somehow felt intensely coddled – carefully watched, as if the attention the chef clearly gave the food evaporated off my plate, formed a little cloud over my head, and rained straight down.

In my book, luxury depends on two things: what you’re used to and what you like. I’m accustomed to pretty good restaurant food. I also like it, as a general rule. But like many in the new generation of eaters currently flooding even high-priced restaurants, I live a relatively unfancy life in other realms. I buy much of my clothing at discount chain stores and consignment shops. I don’t own a television. I don’t want for much, but compared to my parents’ generation, I eat out at a higher socioeconomic level than I live, work, or play. And I don’t think I’m alone. L’Abattoir calls it “post-fine dining.”

So, a few questions: For you, what defines fine dining? How has that changed in your years eating out? Is its transition to a less formal experience a harbinger of a sea change in dining out?

Full disclosure: I was in Vancouver on a hosted press trip. My dinner was paid for by the restaurant.

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Stewing

The Cookbook Stack

It’s been so long since I had the opportunity to properly obsess over the stream of cookbooks flowing into my house that many of them can no longer even be considered “new.” Just the same, I’m making my mental lists: recipes to make, recipes to pass on, recipes to horde for the perfect occasion. Essays to read. Tips to internalize. Books that inspire. Books that turn on. (Books that turn off.)

There’s a stack that travels from my kitchen counter to my dining room table to the bureau in my bedroom, depending on where I have space and whether I want the house to look cleaner than it really is. It’s more or less the same-sized stack that accumulates every so often, made up of books tagged with little scraps of paper where they need more attention. Only this time, in the midst of planning a cookbook of my own, the stack looks suddenly different.

Like a teenager with a brand-new set of braces, I’m suddenly hyper-aware of details that might have completely escaped me a year ago—things like how the color of recipe titles contrasts with the page, which recipes they’ve chosen to photograph, how the recipes are organized, and whether I think the headnotes are giving the right kind of information. Most importantly, I’m trying to figure out what it is about a cookbook, exactly, that makes me use it.

The answer, as far as I can tell, is a little complex. The average cookbook in my household enters through the front door, but beyond that, they all have pretty disparate paths. There’s an immediate split, for sure: standing at the door with my purse falling off my shoulder and a toddler hanging off my hip, there are books I open and books I don’t open. But the eventual pleasure derived from each set of books might be the opposite of what you think: If I’ve heard good things about a book, and/or know that it might be interesting for some particular reason, I don’t usually open it right away. I place it on the counter, where it sits until I have time to pick it up with both hands. Books are usually only opened when they land on my doorstep unsolicited, in which case I’m more or less expressing surprise and outrage at something having entered my personal realm without my express permission. These books aren’t doomed, by any means, but I admit there’s a definite difference between how I approach books I recognize and those I don’t.

In any event, hours usually pass. Then I open the book. From there, after much geekery, I decided cookbooks have four possible paths before the actual cooking begins:

Per the flowchart above, cookbook may be:

1. Rejected. This book holds nothing for me. I would have no compunction starting a fire with the pages, and it will not garner a spot in my downstairs cookbook collection. There are very few books that fall clearly into this category, but when they do, it’s miserable.

2. Regifted. Often, I find a book that I think is interesting, but for some reason or other I don’t think I’ll use it as much as another person might. This can be a good or a bad thing. It may mean that I’ll buy the book multiple times as a gift, but it also may mean that I just don’t have the heart to actually throw it away.

3. Perused. I leaf through the pages, making mental notes of which recipes I might actually follow—which, for me, means opening the book, buying some or all of the ingredients, and cooking more or less in the same general vein as the recipe. (For someone who writes them for a living, I very rarely actually follow recipes.) Sometimes, I leave the book on my counter for a day or two, until I have the chance to bastardize a recipe in my own special way. Once I’m finished, I tend to memorize how happy I was or wasn’t with the recipe, and shelve the book – in which case it’s a success – or use it to decorate my house, as described above, until I have a chance to call yay or nay. Most typically, the books that spend the most time traipsing from counter to counter are those I deem the most successful. In rare cases, I cook something I don’t like, and the book gets a spot in the basement.

4. Devoured. For me, the difference between perusing and devouring is a matter of posture. A book is perused standing up. A book is devoured sitting down. If a book is interesting enough to cuddle with, there’s a pretty good chance it will earn a spot on the kitchen cookbook shelf (which, theoretically, gets cleaned out every so often). Devoured books get assaulted with sticky notes, and typically birth a cascade of other ideas, most of which are scribbled on the back of junk mail envelopes. They follow the same path as perused books, only they get priority status, a veritable red carpet into the week’s dinner rotation.

Once it’s cracked, I use a book like most people use a thesaurus: for ideas, and for education. When I open cookbooks, I usually open four or five at a time. And like good new words, good new recipes stick with me—not their ingredient lists and instructions, verbatim, but their concepts. That pasta dish with lemon, anchovies, and olives, from Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef? It introduced me to mixing lemon and olives in pasta, which I’d somehow never done before. I made it without the pine nuts, because I didn’t have them, and I only made a half recipe, which I regretted after bite number two. I’ve made three variations since then, each a bit different. But I know people who wouldn’t dare turn on the stove without having every ingredient listed in a recipe on hand, people who would always make a recipe the exact same way they made it the first time if they liked it the first time, and people who would never try a recipe for something they hadn’t tasted before. We’re all different.

Until yesterday, I’d forgotten that there are times when I simply don’t know how to use a cookbook. (You’re not the only one.)

Take Amanda Hesser’s hefty new tome, The Essential New York Times Cookbook. With 1,400 recipes that chronicle America’s culinary history of the last 150 years—from a New York perspective, anyway—the thing’s a giant red linebacker of a book, and it scares the shit out of me. I have many books like hers on my shelves, but they seem like books that have always been there. They’re fixtures. It’s rare to put a book like that on the shelf for the first time, especially when you know it’ll be there when your kid goes to college.

When I saw Amanda speak at an event last night, I peeked into it to read the recipes she referenced as she spoke, and found they somehow had as much personality on the page as they did when she talked about them. But when I got home, arm aching from carrying two of the suckers, the book intimidated me again. I put it on the high counter between the kitchen and dining room, and looked at it in a way I’ve never done, peeking in fits and spurts. I’d walk by and open it at random (Shredded Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Pine Nuts from 1990), have a little swoon, then snap it shut. After a quick email check, another opening: Snow Pudding from 1877. Some tea. Cream of Carrot Soup from 1974. The book is a culinary cave of wonders.

And I can’t help but wonder myself, as I stare at it now, whether this book will somehow be used differently. I clearly won’t marvel at the photos, because there aren’t any. I won’t bring it to bed, because I don’t tend to do that. (To paraphrase what Tom Douglas said last night, people who read cookbooks in bed need better lovers.) And goodness knows I won’t cook my way through the entire thing. Will the historical nature of many of the recipes encourage me to – gasp! – follow a recipe from start to finish? Maybe every book I have is used differently, based on some signal it sends my brain telepathically the moment I first crack the binding.

Which brings me to the question I ask every time I look at this here stack o’ books: How different are we in our cookbook use? How does the way we use cookbooks change over our lifetimes, and over the lifetime of the books themselves? I feel like planning my book, I’m making a stew I want everyone to like, and I have to decide what to put in it right now. Like Thanksgiving, in a way. Only 75 recipes long.

Oxtail Stew with Wheat Berries, Carrots, and Kale 2

Decision anxiety is a common problem for me in the kitchen, too. Last weekend, I initially bought beef oxtail to be used in an oxtail bolognese, again from Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef, but it somehow turned into a variation on the oxtail, farro, and root vegetable stew from Ethan Stowell’s New Italian Kitchen.

Of course, I changed things. (I always do.) But the resulting stew – a rich mix of shredded oxtail, carrots, and kale, much more like the stew I tasted at Tavolata once than the stew in the book – was exactly what I wanted. Yet somehow I was sort of depressed to think that no one else would ever make the same variation.

Ultimately, I’d like to follow a good cookbook from the inside out. I’d like to plant a little video camera inside, say, the aforementioned oxtail stew page, and send the book around to everyone I know, so it can record what people add and subtract, how they shop for it and how they serve it, or whether they even pause to look at the recipe at all. Ideally, the camera would also be able to tell me, in retrospect, every time the recipe inspires the user to cook or create down the road – which, to me, is the essential sign of a successful recipe.

Thus far, I haven’t heard of such a camera. So for now, I’ll have to rely on this old-school internet thing, and wonder what the big red book (and its little cousins) will bring in the months and years to come.

You tell me: How do you use a cookbook?

Oxtail Stew with Wheat Berries, Carrots, and Kale

Oxtail Stew with Wheat Berries, Carrots, and Kale (PDF)

It only takes a slower trip past a good butcher shop to learn that there’s more to cook from a cow than steak and hamburger. Cooking the oxtail for this stew, an uber-rich mixture of ancient grains, beef, and kale adapted from a recipe for oxtail stew with farro and root vegetables in Ethan Stowell’s New Italian Kitchen, is criminally easy—you just stick it in a pot with some water, and it stews itself into a rich, fragrant stock while you do something else for a few hours nearby. I just might call it The New Beef Stew.

I won’t lie. Picking the meat off the bones is a project. (Think eating ribs, only you use your fingers instead of your teeth, and you have to do it for everyone at the table.) But I’ll make you a promise: If you make this unctuous, beef-rich stew, filled with tender shreds of oxtail, and don’t feel it was worth every second of your time, call me, and I’ll come take it off your hands.

Since oxtail is often sold in many different sizes – because, you know, cow’s tails aren’t exactly evenly cylindrical – it might help you to think of needing roughly enough meat and bone to cover the bottom of a 9” by 13” pan in one layer.

Start the stew the night before; the fat on the stock is easier to remove if you let it cool overnight.

Makes 8 servings.

4 pounds oxtail
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 small onions, chopped
2 shallots, chopped
4 large cloves garlic, chopped
3 ribs celery, sliced into 1/4” half-moons
1 cup wheat berries
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
1/2 cup crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup dry red wine
5 large carrots, cut into 1/4” half-moons
1/2 pound lacinato (dinosaur) kale, ribs removed, chopped into 1/2” pieces
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Hot pepper sauce, to taste

Place the meat in a large, heavy-bottomed pot and add water until the meat is covered by about 2 inches. Bring to a simmer and cook, turning once or twice and skimming any foam that collects on the surface off with a large spoon, for 4 hours, or until the meat is tender. Use tongs to transfer the meat to a platter. Set the stock aside to cool to room temperature.

While still warm, pick the meat off the bones, discarding bones and cartilage but keeping as much fat as you’re comfortable with. Package the meat in an airtight container and refrigerate overnight. Once it’s cool enough to handle, transfer the stock to a vessel that fits easily in your refrigerator, and refrigerate overnight.

At least an hour before dinner (or up to 2 days before), heat the soup pot over medium heat. Add the olive oil, then the onions, shallots, garlic, and celery, and cook, stirring, until the onions begin to soften, about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, remove the stock from the refrigerator, and use a spoon to remove the white cap of fat that has formed on the top.

Add the wheat berries and thyme to the pot with the onions and cook, stirring, for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes and wine, and bring to a simmer, stirring. Add the stock (it should have the consistency of Jell-O), bring to a simmer, and cook for 20 minutes at a bare simmer. Add the carrots, kale, sherry vinegar, and reserved meat, along with enough water to submerge the chunky ingredients, if necessary. Season with salt, pepper, and a few dashes of hot sauce. Simmer for another 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Check for seasoning, and serve hot, with crusty bread.

Oxtail stew and the cookbook stack

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The break-up

Evidence of a break-up with gluten

A year ago today, I was watching Groundhog Day at Swedish Hospital. We thought it was funny, because as my husband and I waited for our son to be born, we lived the same test-filled days, one after the other, over and over again.

Toward the end of the movie, I went into labor. (Thank goodness. Something had to make the movie more interesting.)

These days, eating gluten-free, it feels sort of the same, only there’s no adorable pink prize at the end. I would love to tell you it’s been one big shining fabulous adventure. But recently, to be honest, my kitchen has hosted string of disasters, day after day: Carrot cupcakes that volcanoed up and over the metal tins and puddled on the bottom of the oven. Blueberry-lemon muffins that would have made great scones, if that’s what I’d meant them to be, but tasted more like pastries left out in the sun three weeks too long. A gorgeous pork roast, stuffed with leeks, apples, and dried cherries, that tasted delicious, but lacking a glutinous binder, fell apart completely on the serving platter. I even messed up a gluten-free pancake mix somehow.

But. I’m doing it. I have not eaten gluten for three weeks. Meals have been relatively easy, because there are so many foods that are naturally gluten-free. Baking is another story. Like anything, it’ll take practice, and patience. I certainly never anticipated having to learn how to bake all over again, but that’s apparently what I’m going to be doing for the next . . . (How long does it take?)

Thankfully, I’ve got memories to tide me over. Remember that weekend of break-up sex with gluten? It was fabulous. I recorded it, in every sordid detail – how my lips felt after one last kiss from a Bacon Deluxe with Cheese at Red Mill. How I shoveled in a Frisbee-sized cinnamon roll, just twenty minutes after First Breakfast, because it might have been my last. How I fantasized writing gluten a little love note (on purple paper in colored ink, natch), asking him whether he liked me or not, because the suspense was unbearable. If you like me, please check this box.

For the whole story, read “A Glutton for Gluten” at Leite’s Culinaria.

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The Uncle Josh Haggadah Project, 2010 Edition

No one writes a modern Haggadah quite like my brother. He does it every year. I wish I could be half as funny.

For those of you new to the story of Exodus, here’s a little hint: This isn’t quite the same as the original. Think of asking a Shouts and Murmers author to rewrite the Bible. You should probably swallow your matzo before reading.

Here’s an excerpt from Exodus:

For a number of happy years long ago, our ancestor Jacob and his son Joseph lived simple, sustainable lives in the prosperous wine country of Canaan.  During a famine, however—caused by a combination of climate change and poor planning—Jake and Joe were forced to give up their small-scale sustainable winery and get jobs as bureaucrats in Sacramento (then known as Egypt), where food and middle-management white collar positions with healthy benefit packages were equally plentiful.  Jacob retired in a time when 401Ks still had value, and his son Joseph soon rose to high position writing environmental policy in the Pharaoh’s court.  Led by Joseph, our people were well-respected and well-regarded, comfortable and secure in the power structure of the time despite an innately unnatural suburban lifestyle and a general dearth of good bagels.

Generations passed and our people remained in the central valley of Egypt.  As rulers came and went, a new Pharaoh ascended to the throne, propelled by a personal fortune made in internet salesmanship and a relentless, self-aggrandizing television ad campaign that positioned her as a prohibitive favorite for a job that nobody else really wanted.  The new Pharaoh felt threatened by the strangers and immigrants in her people’s midst, and noting that we wore funny hats, smelled of gefilte fish, and routinely failed to watch our fair share of NASCAR, she ordered our people enslaved.  Fearing rebellion, Pharaoh decreed that all Hebrew boy-children be sent to semi-religious charter schools in the suburbs.  Blocked by activist judges opposed to bussing, however, she decided he would just kill them instead.

The whole shebang:
A Fool’s Haggadah (PDF)
By Joshua Howe

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A good purge

Tomato/Chickpea Curry

That weekend of break-up sex? It was mostly fabulous. (I’ll tell you more about it later, here.) The upshot is this: I got the second round of celiac disease tests back, and they were normal. Which is great, except for the fact that the first gliadin antibody test was still screamingly positive. The doctor suggested I try a gluten-free diet for a couple months, to see if I’m one of those (and apparently there are many of us) who don’t test normally.

So that’s it. That’s what I’m doing. My hope is that on Hogwash, you really won’t notice all that much. Not eating gluten means eating a lot of other things, you see—things I’ve always loved, like fresh produce and great meats and cool new grains. I don’t think it’ll be that hard. Right? Right?

But packing up all the gluten in the house—that was hard. I decimated our pantry, rejecting anything made with wheat, rye, or barley. While my neighbor’s and nanny’s baking drawers grew, I celebrated what might possibly be the first time in history that the contents of my kitchen will fit comfortably within its boundaries. The more I stacked on the counter to give away, though, the more I started to panic: No wheat flour. No bucatini. No saltines!

Newly organized cupboard

So I did what I do best in times of change: I organized. I put all the alternative grains into one bin, all the rices into another. I gathered gluten-free pastas (thank goodness for that assignment) in one place, and stacked gluten-free flours together on the same shelf. It all seemed more promising that way. More controlled.

(For the record, if I were a superhero, I think I’d be the one in charge of reconstructing hopelessly disorganized spaces. I’d swoop in, shooting thunderbolts made of paperclips, and tie offenders up with rubber bands. I’d have secret headquarters inside Storables. I haven’t started marketing myself yet because I just haven’t found the right tagline. Or name, for that matter. The leading candidate, Super Stapler, is too Office Space and just not feminine enough. Please let me know if you’re in the business of building superhero brands.)

Anyway. In my purge, I found two giant bags of unsweetened medium-flake coconut. I have no idea why I bought that specific size, or why I bought two bags, but there they were. I couldn’t stop the normal gears from turning. Coconut cake, I thought. But wait, I . . . can’t. I’m sure I’ll be able to make a gluten-free coconut cake someday. I’m positive it’s not difficult, and that it could taste really, really good. But right now? I feel like a moron. Like none of the organs I normally use to cook and eat food will ever function the same way again. Like I have to somehow learn everything from scratch: Coconut. What is coconut? (This might be the closest I ever come to knowing what it’s like to change one’s sexual orientation.)

I scrapped the cake idea. Macaroons, I thought. Macaroons are a scoop-and-dump operation, and even in their most Americanized form, they’re almost never bad. And they’re often gluten-free. The recipe on the back of the package beckoned. I stirred, and scooped, added a bit more coconut, and some tangerine zest, and dumped, imagining them dipped in chocolate. They puddled on the baking pans, flat and sticky and unappealing.

Was I being mocked? Did I just flunk macaroons? I think I did.

I backed up and started again. Think simple, Jess. I thought of my mom, who’s getting a knee replacement tomorrow. She’ll have to learn how to walk all over again, with more or less the same body—it’ll just be rearranged a bit, that’s all. I’m lucky this little habit shake-up doesn’t require three days in the hospital, right? I have (almost) all the same ingredients, on the grand scale of food. I just have to learn new ways to put them together.

I finished my little pep talk. Then I launched into an Indian-inspired meal, pouring an easy tomato and chickpea curry over quinoa, simmering spinach in coconut milk and ginger, coating chicken in a spicy yogurt mixture. (I do eat more than chickpeas. I swear.)

Then something else happened: I fell miserably, violently ill. I never even tasted my food. My husband took the baby so I could writhe in peace for the first terrible 12 hours, then I spent the next 3 days in various stages of one very bad mood, hardly eating, perfecting my best amoeba impersonation. I couldn’t touch the Indian food. In fact, I still can’t, which is why there’s no recipe here today. (But if you’re looking for a quick no-fail diet, have I got the flu for you!)

Battling sickness without saltines was a new challenge, for sure. I’ve worked up to eating Rice Chex (with milk now), quesadillas on corn tortillas, and rice cakes with peanut butter. (Hello, high school.) Meat and vegetables are still in the no-fly zone. But, on the plus side, my first few days of eating gluten-free have been relatively easy, because I really didn’t have to eat at all.

So there you have it: My new sort-of plan. I hope to be gluten-free through the end of April, and reassess then.

Thanks, by the way, for all your support. You guys have been awesome.

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Cold front

Olympics from Space Needle

Deep breath.

Here’s something you probably didn’t know about me: I have a damp spleen. I didn’t know that about me either, although I suppose if I’d thought about it, I’d have come to the same conclusion. It’s inside my body, after all, and I hear it’s damp in there.

The recent diagnosis comes from my new acupuncturist. To be fair, he’s my first acupuncturist. I’m seeing him because I have lupus, and a back injury that still hasn’t quite healed, but mostly—and most importantly, perhaps—because I’ve lost my appetite.

No Western doctor I’ve come across seems to think this is a giant problem—apparently many women have appetite failures after having children. Physically, it’s a convenient natural counterpoint to a recent pregnancy, and to too many years of steroid treatments, sure. But with all due respect to people who are actually missing limbs, I have to say losing my hunger feels a little like an amputation.

I’ve never had an appetite problem before. Or, if you look at it another way, I’ve always had an appetite problem. I’ve always been the one who gets hungry two hours after a meal, no matter how big. I can test recipes all day and gorge on every single one. My workday often consists of eating breakfast, snacking at a coffee shop, having two lunches, testing a recipe, grocery shopping, then launching into dinner. I grew up with a mother who examines what everyone eats extremely carefully—“would you like to eat that, or glue it to your thighs?”—so my idea of teenaged rebellion was baking a batch of cookies and eating the whole thing. If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you can relate.

But in the last few months—and if I’m honest with myself, I’d have to say it’s been a bit longer, even—I’ve learned that approaching the world stomach-first has its drawbacks. For one, I’ve built my career around said organ. Walking into a restaurant when I think I’m ravenous, finding only one or two things that sound even mildly appealing on the menu, then picking at my food does not feel normal (or productive, for that matter). I have phantom hunger; it disappears the moment something good hits the table. I’m eating out of habit, but it feels like I’m no longer tasting. It’s become so disappointing (and at times, embarrassing) to sit down over and over, expecting to love what someone has put in front of me, only to discover that I feel like eating about four bites—especially when the person cooking is me.

Once in a while, things taste good. Pasta’s been okay. I do seem to have an appetite for soups—hence the recent streak of hot and sour, and the fact that I went out for pho three times last week—but overall, it feels like something inside me has simply died. And it does not feel good.

So a few weeks ago, I started seeing this acupuncturist. He looks like your average software engineer: white as Wonder Bread, with a gentle, kind demeanor. I trusted him the moment we met. When I see him, he does the whole acupuncture thing—you know, hair-thin needles in strategic places—and he also suggested I start tinkering with my diet.

I hate the word diet. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it has the word “die” in it, because in my mind, controlling what you eat, in the strictest sense, kills the part of eating that’s most enjoyable—the impulsiveness of trying something new, the serendipity of combining flavors that work well together. But Chinese medicine isn’t the only medical culture to claim certain people benefit from eating certain things. Remember when it was popular to eat for your blood type? And oh, yeah, thousands of years of ayurveda?

To start, since I’m apparently what Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) defines as a “cold” person (keep those jokes to yourself!), I should be eating “warm” foods—both physically warm foods and energetically warm foods. I’ve started with the former, trying to avoid putting anything in my mouth that’s actually cold (which is harder than you might think, even in January), and I’m hoping to branch out into the latter, which is, as they say, a whole other can of worms.

After a few weeks, I’ve noticed significant improvements with both the joints affected by lupus and my back pain. I’m peeling apples again. I’m checking my car’s blind spot without wincing. It’s awesome. (To be fair, I’m also tinkering with my traditional medications, and doing regular old physical therapy for my back, both of which may be helping, too.)

But this appetite thing? Still pretty much MIA. And if the acupuncturist is correct, we may actually be dealing with two separate problems—one of appetite, which in TCM is often spleen-related, and one of actual taste, which is more often heart-related.

So, now you know what I’m working on in the kitchen these days.

(Phew. That feels better. I was so nervous to tell you.)

Has this happened to you?

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