I'm Thankful

For this absurdity. Even while it sort of disgusts me.

But it makes me wish I was in New York. Falko, go eat one for me, please. Celery butter, WTF. So much celery butter.

In other news, this makes me want to learn pastry baking the MOST.


Accidental Cake

I made a cake! Except I didn’t mean to make a cake. I meant to make bread. Please compare my photo to the photos from the recipe I worked from.

Can someone please explain to me why all my bread turns out dense enough to brain cattle? You could use my olive loaves as siege weapons. It’s like yeast has this malicious vendetta against me, this unfounded orneriness. What have I ever done to it? I’ve tried so many ways to befriend it: the temperature of the water, the various proofing, the sugar, the rises. And always my bread ends up so dense it is about to sink into itself into a sort of bread black hole. That said, my parents can’t stop eating it, but we’ve already discussed their foibles.

Anyway, this obviously means I have to go through the hardship of going to a bread-baking workshop, possibly one of those up in wine country in some gorgeous faux-rustic cottage with an enormous gleaming teaching kitchen where you lounge around sipping wine and chatting with your mother or riding horses while your baguettes rise. It’s a grand sacrifice, but I’m devoted.

On the other hand, I have begun to master the art of roast chicken, and both the feeling of gaining mastery and the results have been absurdly delicious. I’ve been utilizing Molly Steven’s roasting technique for a cut-up chicken from All About Roasting (yes! She has a new book! And its title is just as dowdy as her other ones, and its results and execution just as profoundly quality!), but started to get rid of those pesky wings and drumsticks and backs and just doing legs whole and breasts, however many I feel like at the mo. Works like a charm. I made her chicken Dijonnaise, a recipe that is basically a spa process for chicken, in which one soaks the chicken in mustard, bathes it in wine, and blankets it with creme fraiche; and also made her chicken pieces with oranges, olives, and apricots, a phenomenal winner.

By the end of my chicken-roasting week I was so lean with protein but bloated with success that I decided to combine the maple-craving I acquire at this time of the year with what I felt was the fundamental grasp of the process, with inspiration from a maple-rosemary ice cream Falko made while I was in New York, which he thought was fine and I couldn’t stop eating (maybe I shouldn’t tease my mother about her odd cravings quite so much).

And it worked.

And I made maple-rosemary glazed chicken with dried apricots, and it was awesome.

And if I can conquer what I felt to be my mediocre skills with meat, then bread, watch out: I will raise you. And bake you. And you will be the fluffiest and the nicest and have beautiful texture and crusts. And you will be my friend and I will call you Bready and then I will toast you. What? Isn’t that what you do to friends? Cut them up and put cheese on them? Maybe I should work on my concept of friendship.

Maple-Rosemary Chicken Pieces with Apricots

6-8 pieces of bone-in skin-on chicken, mixture of breasts and thighs
1/2 cup maple syrup
Tablespoon or a bit more of apple cider vinegar
1 shallot, chopped fine
1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh or dried rosemary
Salt and pepper
20 or more dried apricots

Mix together everything but the chicken and the apricots. Place the chicken in a bowl, pour the glaze over it, and toss lightly with your hands. Cover with plastic wrap and leave out to marinate at room temperature for up to a couple hours (or as little as a few minutes if you just want to eat as soon as deliciousness can be had) or in the fridge for up to 24 hours.

Heat the over to 375 degrees, 350 convection.

Cover a tall-sided baking sheet with aluminum foil, because glazes with sugar, while utterly delectable, tend to burn and caramelize in ways that produce tasty results but immensely frustrating dishes. Scatter the apricots in a single layer, but concentrate them in the middle, so not too many poke out when you place the chicken atop them. Place the chicken, skin side up, on the apricots, and pour any extra glaze over them.

Roast the chicken on a center rack for about twenty minutes on one side, then flip over for twenty minutes on the other side, making sure no pesky apricots try to tag along from the bottom and crisp themselves by flying too close to the sun. Flip them over once more and roast for another five minutes, just to get the perfect color. Molly Stevens recommends 40-45 minutes, and various exercises with taking out smaller pieces and browning the last few minutes in the broiler, but honestly, 45 minutes with this method seemed to work perfectly for me every time. However, do be sure to check that your chicken is done, and not pink. There are various methods for doing so, from meat thermometers to poking a knife in and making sure the juice runs very clear, or just slicing off a thick tip and seeing.

Remove from heat and eat. If you don’t want to be like me and overdose on the maple by making maple-roast butternut squash, you can make butternut squash with orange zest, or mashed sweet potato, or mashed regular potato, or, come one, use your imagination, it’s sweet chicken, it’ll go with anything.


New York: Fragments and Food

I was less than twenty minutes in Manhattan when Falko took my suitcase up to his office and pointed me in about twelve different directions at once, all of them, of course, directions towards eating establishments. He's so good to me. I walked down Madison, flustered with the utter glory of the city in all its epic vitality, its thrumminghummingbuzzing vivacity, and announced to a complete stranger (with a look of utter madness on my face, I'm sure): "I'm moving here!"

"OK . . ." he responded, tentatively but reassuringly. Probably because I seemed insane, but I like to think that he also supported my enthusiasm a bit.

And then I ate this eggplant stuffed with caramelized onions with tomato bulghar and Turkish bread, served by a crotchety Turkish man who, when asked what was good, replied "If it wasn't good, I wouldn't sell it, would I? NO. I would NOT!" It was, in fact, ridiculously good.

New York, for all that I have never actually lived there, feels like home, the way my parents' house does, the way one's true friends do: a place that makes you your best self. That reminds you of your core being. That you are a person who loves grandly, who thinks sharply, who laughs wildly, who has meals of an enormous potato knish and six Laduree macarons (and relishes the contrast).

And there are friends, too, to remind me. Friends who, without seeming to know how much, set me firmly in context of myself, more than I have been in so long. Friends who remind me of how quality people can be, how good.

And then take one to eat and drink til one literally considers laying down in the patch of grass outside of a Hindu temple and dying, or napping, or just giving up all will and consciousness. Look at that smirk on Falko's face. The steepled fingers of his plotting are just out of camera view.

He certainly knows where to find a completely amazing lemon thyme daiquiri.

And true friendship is when you both end an incredible meal gnawing the vertebra of a goat braised in massaman curry. Followed by a nighttime walk of the high line and then hot cocoa dense enough to be called a solid at Eatly. Perfection. Not to mention two meals with his excellent roommates in the same astounding and for now secret Greek restaurant with mindbendingly excellent legumes and potatoes and fried zucchini and salad and oh goodness the little fried puffs of dough coated in honey and cinnamon. I would tell you where this was but I would actually have to kill you.

And New York! It has sugar pie from Bouchon bakery! Which pie basically has a melted sugar filling, the straightforwardness of which is immensely pleasing to me. (Also an unpictured almond paste and raspberry jam croissant with toasted almonds and a crisp crust that was unthinkably delicious.)

New York has Cafe Sabarsky, the place I am always, always happiest, a place with magic in the curls of the wooden chairs and cream in the coffee and whipped cream next to every cake. Lots of cream. Maybe that's where they store the magic.

New York reminds me of human connection, tingling with hope even as one gazes down at all the massive complex reality condensed into those teeming streets.

And it has pizza with bechamel on it. With just a few lardons for good measure, you know, whatever.

And adorably named pie shops with glowing slices of salted honey pie.

Also some unbelievably soft wontons in richly savory hot oil with pickled ginger. They come into this tiny white shop in neat rows on cafeteria trays, all tucked up like babies.

And then Falko took me to see some art. But he doesn't do museums, so it was performance art. Not just any performance art, but a man handpulling noodles, which is a breathtaking process, like the art of candle carving I posted a while back. Only producing edible art, noodles with a chew and give that is fundamentally satisfying.

And then we spontaneously got off the train to see more art, an explosion of urban energy, color and shape swarming over this building in the middle of a certain city silence.

It made me remember how much I love art, and adventures, and exploration for its own sake. And on one wall, Winston Churchill reminded me that sometimes you have to stop trying to look back at every step you take and plow forward til you exit the thorny bramble, and only then reflect. But first, exit the bloody bramble.

Because as my father likes to say, though there is debate about where the quote originated: "Everything will be okay in the end. If it's not okay, it's not the end."

And you know what there will be, at the end, to make it all better than okay? Creme brulee doughnuts. Yes. Yes there will be.

Oh, New York, and all the wonders within (especially my people, and my extraordinary host): thank you. I'll be coming back ever so soon, and hopefully for a good long while next time. We're talking years.

(Apologies for the small picture size and lack of accents on various French words. Don't ask.)


Return To Tea

Yesterday I took about six thousand pictures of the teapot and jar of water sitting at my elbow as I worked, which is how I know I’m getting better. Some absolutely absurd proportion of the pictures I have taken in my life are of teapots and teacups, such that, were I murdered and my archives examined by detectives, I feel sure they would assume I was a tea accoutrements designer, or something of that sort. Actually, I would love to be a tea accoutrements designer. I realized the other day that all my favorite objects are designer kitchen gear, so maybe that’s a good life path. Ah, we’re already on a tangent; yes, I am back.

I’m at Lisa and Ricardo’s lovely apartment above a bookstore in Highland Park, New Jersey. We have made vegan versions of oatmeal pancakes and pumpkin scones using ground flaxseeds (I am continually impressed by the possibilities of vegan baking). We have celebrated Lisa’s birthday with lots of wine and food and a drink called, somewhat upsettingly, a "Victoria’s Secret", which was stickily delicious. We have kept their puppy, Owen, from eating any number of insane things. We have christened Lisa’s new Le Crueset stockpot with an herby vegetable and cannellini bean soup which settled satisfyingly into the bones after a rainy day. I have slept, a lot. We made the most absurdly delicious blue corn tortilla and vegan cheese quesadillas. Yes, vegan cheese. Vegan cheese which melts and goos and tastes of something indefinably savory but creamy and which I will crave constantly. Lisa and I have talked and talked and talked and gone to three grocery stores, and she makes me feel sane and beautiful and whole while being all these things herself. Ricardo keeps finding new Mexican foods to ask me if I’ve tried (choriqueso, guys, sounds like everything I love in life) and tosses out revelations about philosophy or libraries, exactly the sort of clever understandings I love. I didn’t realize for a while that all the philosophy grad students were doing me the favor of saying the whole term “justified true belief” instead of just their shorthand “JTC”. They have an acronym for a Socratic hypothesis! This delights me. I visited Zoe at Princeton with all its fairytale castles and autumn tinging the ends of all the branches, and there were walks and stories and two teashops, ricotta ice cream, and some seriously addicting lavender cookies. It all feels magnificently wholesome and healing.

You might have been able to tell, from the seven month silence: it has not been good. There's been a lot. There’s a vicious cycle I’ve been considering lately: the unwillingness to restrict one’s interest and desires and then the feeling of lost uselessness. And Ramya and Nabz are in Egypt, which is, let’s just be clear, very, very far away, and not all that welcoming at the moment. It feels a bit like having friends staying in Sleeping Beauty’s thorny castle, but with Skype. Thank goodness for Skype. I feel as though this summer I have finally experienced discrimination, and naively not understood til the very last moment, til now, that it was discrimination whose deadly subtle presumption placed silent and invisible obstacles in my way. So that now I know what it’s like to be barred from one’s loved ones by supposed allegiance to a religion or enemy; know what it’s like to be treated like a girl, like some invented characterization implied I would have certain flaws or qualities or allowed certain relations without questioning or discussion; to be treated, without realizing, with the assumption that my friendliness implied stupidity, that I wouldn’t notice. It has not, suffice it to say, been good.

But the best and worst part of it is when you realize that, despite all those outside forces, 98% of the pain is self-inflicted, or rather, the mechanisms for that pain are self-invented for other purposes that happen to lead there. Buddhism, of course, is based on that understanding, but it couches it in terms of desire and desirelessness, which I disagree with. Dave put it better, at lunch the other day, though I can’t remember his exact turn of phrase: it’s about learning to be absolutely fine with whatever happens. To not let one’s self be damaged by the outside weather. I have changed my rhetoric (or it has changed, the causality is uncertain), from the erosive “I don’t know” to the phenomenally destructive “I can’t” to this non-equivalent but satisfyingly aggressive “enough of this bullsh*t.” I so believe in rhetoric, in its ability to change our attitudes, in our ability to channel it to our needs. Next in the progression, I think, comes the equally-unnecessarily-confrontational “let’s do this sh*t”, followed hopefully by something milder and more boundlessly joyous. I may not know what I’m doing next year, but I like the rhetorical path I have planned even more.

So I have not posted in seven months. Honestly, I haven’t really cooked much in seven months, which should be clearly indicative of my state of mind. And this still feels kind of clumsy, these words, melodramatic and then casual, clumsy even the emotions of being okay, like learning from scratch how to feel all right; but I'm sure I'll find my tone, written and actual, again. And there are a lot, a lot of projects bubbling up excitedly on the new tide, and I have fourteen--yes, fourteen--soups to make out of The Country Cooking of Ireland, and about twenty different Mexican dishes to try (huachotle, anyone?) and a lot of traveling to do and: enough of this bullsh*t. Let’s do this.

For starters: doing New York City, hosted by Falko, which I can not even explain how much place and person excitement I am having for look the syntax can't stand it. If I die of a burst stomach, you'll know who to blame. Falko.

A lovely pot of soup, vegan quesadillas

First, find a fantastic old friend and a kitchen ember-like in its warmness and soul, and a big ol' pot.

Soak some beans, whatever you like, cannellini beans are lovely, in water overnight, or for a few hours in some hot water. Brown an onion and some minced garlic slow and low and light with a splash of olive oil. (Let the oil heat a bit while you're chopping; it's the little knowledges like knowing that if you don't, the onion will just suck up all the oil, that make the difference in spontaneous cooking.) Add the beans, drained of liquid, for a minute or two, then fill up with some vegetable stock and a can of diced tomatoes and their liquid. Bring it up to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and add some potatoes, half a pumpkin cut into cubes, some carrots. Toss in as much shredded kale as you fancy, and some rosemary, thyme, and sage, all fresh and lovely, though dried will do. Salt and pepper. And let that simmer as long as you can stand it, forty minutes at least or until the beans are tender, preferably longer. Get some Daiya vegan mozzarella-style shreds (I like that they're called shreds, it makes them sound hip and edgy) and some corn tortillas. Heat a bit of oil in a pan, very little, and place two tortillas in, letting them heat and soften a bit. Add shreds and a generous grind of salt and fold over. Brown on both sides and serve with soup. Hope it rains for the next few days.


The Gift For Soup

Spring pea and yellow potatoes in broth with a poached egg and pita toast--fancier than it sounds

I've been reading The Crystal Cave, a fictionalized account of Merlin's early years, and enjoying the book's subtle questioning of what it means to have magic; or rather, the subtle implications throughout the book that Merlin doesn't possess magic so much as engineering prowess and possibly epilepsy. I have always been fascinated by the understanding of first or true causes (see skepticism, problems of), been attracted to the magic/technology divide, to automaton ducks and chess-playing Turks and chat bots that try to replicate human conversation. I think the magic/technology question is very similar to the science/divinity question (the automaton duck falls in that intersection, certainly), and to questions of soul, mind, biology, and lifeforce. In a similar though slightly offshoot vein are thoughts about what we know or don't know, such as the premise of Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell, which is that we process most of a situation subconsciously in the first few milliseconds, letting us react with incredible quickness and seemingly profound insight. I've studied things such as the impossibility of the act of reading without significant subconscious processing, and used the famous quote by Arthur C. Clark ("Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic") in far too many essays (I know, it's so cliche, but I was studying things like artificial intelligence and robots, it was such a shoo-in.) In The Crystal Cave there are moments when Merlin preforms miracles and prophecies based on knowledge of basic math, or things he heard while sneaking around after bedtime, or memories of where he went camping once, leaving the reader to snigger at the foolish superstitions of all the folk who fall for it as magic. There are also moments where he has apparently true insight, but that's another story, and perhaps hallucination or crazy mushrooms or something.

So Merlin has The Gift, and I, people say, have the Gift for Soup. Unlike Merlin, I am somewhat uncomfortable with this falsity. I mean, soup. I don't mess around with recipes for other things, like cakes, or roasts, or whatnot; I find something that looks good (and therein, I think, lies the gift; more on that later) and follow it. There is a lot of subconscious knowledge I utilize, sure, unspoken memories of what happened the last time I tried to brown something before the butter was hot, or this one line I read about how you can chill a dough for a few minutes to make it workable, or whatever, basic things, but mostly I'm just
doing what I'm told. And with soups, well, yes, there's more leeway, because you can boil off some water, add some liquid, season to taste, whatever; soup is just so . . . liquid, and in flux, and infinitely changeable. It's easy to take risks with soup. And anyhow, most of the time I make soup by seeing what vegetables are about to go bad and tossing them in some bouillon-made stock and letting it simmer a while. I mean, how boring could you get? Sometimes I do that and then use an immersion blender, and then we have fancy pureed soup. Or, to impress everyone, I basically steal Zuni Cafe's lifestyle and put a poached egg in it, or some toast. This is not rocket science, nor magic; it's cheating.

But maybe there's no difference between cheating and the Gift of Soup. Maybe cheating
is the Gift of Soup. I swear I'm not trying to con anyone.

Now, what does seem kind of magical, even to me, is the weird little bell that goes off in my head when I look at certain recipes. I get
very strong emotions about certain recipes, just reading them, and if anyone says "womanly intuition," I'll kick you in the shins. But really, I have had a pretty impossible probability of success with recipes. I mean, I try a lot of things. Not all of them are good. But the ones I know will be good, or rather, the ones the Gift tells me will be good, have an absurdly high rate of success. It happened with panade; it happened with pork loin braised in milk (though that may just have been the malicious joy of how anti-kosher it was); and it happened with this leek and oatmeal soup.

I said, the whole week, that I was going to make leek and oatmeal soup. The gradient of expressions answering this announcement ranged from horror to complete boredom, excepting
Ramya, who trusts me, heaven knows why. My parents, who I have finally trained never to object, said "fine" in that
way that expresses skepticism while not leaving them open to my disapproval.

And this soup, rather like Susan Boyle on
Britian's Got Talent (I've pulled out my single pop culture reference now), faced its audience of mocking skeptics and sang a culinary version of a complete fricken' opera. It was astounding. We licked the bowl, and the spoon, and the pot, and made cooing noises. This soup shot through the ranks of my favorite foods to shake hands with potatoes boiled in cream. It is profound. It is revelatory. And I know I overuse perfect almost as much as I overuse Arthur C. Clarke quotes, but it is perfect. Hearty and full of the rich taste of stock, the almost barley flavor of long-cooked, astonishingly soft steel-cut oatmeal, a creaminess created by regular ol' milk, and some je ne sais pas perfection of leeks. I can't tell if it's perfect comfort, perfect indulgence, something I would serve at a restaurant, or all of the above. I wish it would stay cold so I could make it every day.

And you know how I found it? By taking a totally illegal snapshot of
The Country Cooking of Ireland preview on Amazon, while the Gift's little bell was ringing wildly in my head. Which, illegal though that act was, I will now remedy by buying this book on the strength of this recipe alone.

I can't explain this gift, guys, but I'm happy to share the results of it.

Leek and Oatmeal Soup

1-2 tablespoons butter (I err on the light side)
3-4 leeks, trimmed and sliced into thin rings (or half-rings, if you halve them to clean them)
2 cups stock, chicken or vegetable, plain and rich as possible
2 cups of milk (I used 2%, worked perfectly)
1/2 cup steel-cut oatmeal
Few gratings of nutmeg (the book calls for mace, who on Earth uses mace, I ask you)
Salt and pepper

Melt the butter in a pot over low heat, then add the leeks and cook, stirring every once in a while, for about 15 minutes, or until the leeks are not browned but are very soft.

Add the milk and stock, raise heat to high and bring briefly to a boil. Sprinkle oatmeal over and stir, then add salt, pepper, and nutmeg, taste, adjust, and return to a boil briefly.

Lower heat, cover, and simmer very very gently for 45 minutes.


Things I Miss Right Now

(Not people--those there are too many to list.)

  • Playing piano (somehow I never . . .)
  • Reading Wittgenstein (which is strange, because I've never read him, yet I miss it as though I have.)
  • Painting in a studio, early weekend mornings, all alone in big sunlit stained rooms.
  • Running outside while there's air and sunlight (been too rainy lately, though I love the rain.)
  • The emotion of everyday events; every day being different and poignant, not blending one into the next in a kind of mild usualness, with no dramatics nor joys.
  • Walking across campus.
  • Pre-bundled sets of readings, media, questions, and points to be made (otherwise known as courses).
  • Usually being by a window.
  • Snow.
  • Reading Hebrew.
  • Deadlines, assignments, always having too much to do and most of it in discreet, check-box friendly form.
  • Forward momentum.
  • Afternoons spent making immense pots of soup or 12 trays of bread pudding for Master's.
  • Being surrounded, constantly, by interesting if slightly crazy people, all active and intense and living alongside me.
  • DivSchool hot cocoa with amaretto or hazelnut syrup.
  • The walk to the piano room around midnight.
  • Trains.
  • Wearing coats unironically.
  • Friends, near by, not just catching up but actually living alongside one another, making food for each other, going out, snuggling.
  • Intellectualism not looked at as frightening or too intense; discussions of prisons and Foucault late at night and discussions of the Good and Plato and nuclear physics in the stairwells.
  • Stairs. There don't seem to be stairs in California.
  • Adventures.
  • The roof with the observatory.
  • Thought that could be let out, to others, in discussion or papers, molded and prodded and pushed into beauty, and not just cycling in my head stagnating, going nowhere.
  • Every day having eight beautiful things within it, a warm drink while it was raining, a great interaction, a brilliant reading, a sparkling class, a great hug, flowers, falling leaves, etc.
  • Light.


The Jam Detail

I have a lot of thoughts currently in an inchoate state about learning, developing, appreciating, and curating new ways of life, lifestyles, modes of being, but until I get them all sorted out, here's a superficial and yet highly pleasing detail in my current lifestyle, that sort of gets at what I mean: I make jam. Mostly this is because I buy fruit, too much fruit, all the time, and it just breaks my heart when it starts browning and wilting faster than I can consume it (and I assure you, I am a champ, almost inhuman, consumer of fruit).

My grandfather is a lot like David Sedaris' father in Me Talk Pretty One Day; he'll eat everything, even, if he thought it was a cookie, his hat. I am not a Depression-era housewife; I throw things away when they transmute into other lifeforms or become more hole than garment. But there's something so lovely about a mild savior complex, the ability to fix a small hole in the shoulder of your favorite cardigan with just a thread and a needle, the ability to transform a few cups of dying fruit into a jar of jewel-bright sweetness. And it's not just the saving, the feeling of worthy thriftiness, but the process of it, and the product, the whole bundle: the pull of a needle and thread through cloth, becoming suddenly aware of the texture of fabric and the precision of your fingers; the smell of bubbling fruit completely perfuming your house, the viscosity forming as you stir; and then wearing that sweater again, with your favorite comfy jeans; or having that jam on yogurt, bread, or as a tea.

Perhaps it also helps that it's so very easy to do these things; fixing a hole takes less than ten minutes, making jam may take longer but mostly involves you being driven crazy by the bright, extraordinary scent of fruit calmly simmering away on your stovetop, and the only negative effects are possibly some burnt lips from desperate tasting attempts.

So yesterday, there was a rather sad blood orange hanging out on my desk. That, along with the synchronicity of the revelation (made by Ramya) that the lemon tree in my backyard (which I assumed for years was just a normal ol' lemon tree that just happened to produce astounding lemons) is actually a Meyer lemon tree, and this blogpost landing in my RSS feed, all resulted in me making blood orange and Meyer lemon marmalade. It was absurdly easy. It made the house smell astounding. And then I boiled water and made the marmalade into tea for my herbal-tea-only-drinking mother and she swooned--swooned!--and everyone was happy and everybody drank the rind-bitter, jam-sweet, orange-pink deliciousness.

Jam! Marmalade! Jelly! At the crossroads of thriftiness and an appreciation for process, you sit like a perfumed non-Newtonian fluid. I like you.

Oh, and don't forget apple butter.