Does unwrapping a banana and slathering it, bite by bite, with peanut butter count as cooking? If so, then I have been doing a lot of cooking. If not, then I’ve been doing a lot of uncooking.
Summer is the season of uncooking, and I for one could not be happier. Between the gloriously warm weather and writing my PhD thesis, I haven’t much time for elaborate cooking plans. In addition, I’m finding thesis-writing to be strangely exhausting. It’s almost an exclusively mental exercise, but I find myself physically exhausted after a few hours of serious concentration. My brain isn’t capable of handling much in the way of recipes right now.
But I love to putter in the kitchen these days, even if I am in a state of Thesis Daze. The puttering feels wonderfully refreshing after all that time in front of my computer. It’s a chance to stand up, stretch my legs, fix myself a snack. My thesis looms so large and unknown in front of me that mundane tasks are tangibly rewarding. That’s good news, because one mundane task in particular has been giving me trouble, and that’s my sink full of dirty dishes.
Dishes. I have grown to hate them. Why is it that after I do all the hard work of feeding myself that I still have to deal with piles of dirty dishes? Haven’t I done enough? Can’t I just throw the dirty dishes in the trash with the other stuff I don’t want? This is, I think, my rebellion after six years of serious home cooking with no dishwasher. For six years now, I have been washing all my dishes by hand, and I don’t think I can take it any more. I desperately need either a dishwashing machine or a handsome, hungry man who will let me feed him in exchange for dealing with the mess I make. Matt is a rather sexy dishwasher and he usually shows up at my door ready to eat, but he’s here far too infrequently to be a reliable solution to my dilemma. He would be none too pleased with me if I saved up three months’ worth of dirty dishes for him to wash while he visits me!
For now, there is a different man helping me get my kitchen back in order. His name is Jace Everett, and while I don’t know if he’s a cookin’ man, I do know he’s a singin’ man. He just put out his second album, Red Revelations, and it is a gem. You may have heard his song “Bad Things”—it’s the theme song for HBO’s True Blood—and while “Bad Things” has been included as an extra treat on the new album, Jace is so much more than a one-hit wonder. Red Revelations is lusty, edgy, ironic, and smart. I’ve listened to it every day since it arrived in my mailbox. It’s all I really want to hear. Best of all, it’s the perfect sonic accompaniment to scrubbing all those dirty dishes to shiny wet perfection.
One of my favorite songs on the album is the first track, “Possession.” It grabbed me the first time I heard it. I felt like a woman possessed! The song is about lust, plain and simple. On the surface, its meaning seems pretty clear: Possession, Why don’t you own me? Name it and claim it babe, I’m your possession.
But I think (and this is what I love about Jace’s lyrics) that by making such an offer, the narrator is trying to control his own lust. Seize control by giving it up? It seems rather circular, but let’s not get carried away here; it’s just a song. An even better set of lyrics from “Possession” sounds a little like this: Naked dirty, Naked clean. Make it quick or make a scene.
Or that’s what I thought at first. Replace “naked” with “make it” and you have the actual lyrics, not the ones my dirty mind filled in for itself. I use the real lyrics as my clean-up anthem: Make it dirty, make it clean! It’s not quite as sexy, but it works for me.
Uncooking is much sexier than washing dishes. As a bonus, there are fewer dishes to wash! Jace goes well here too, even if I’m making a girly salad with strawberries and a honey-balsamic dressing. This is exquisite: a palate cleanser featuring crisp greens, juicy red strawberries, and a drizzle of puckery-sweet dressing. I’ve been lucky enough to get the greens and berries at my farmers’ market. Local strawberries won’t be around for much longer this season, so I wanted to slip this salad into the recipe archives before it’s too late.
The combination of strawberries and balsamic vinegar is an old Italian trick. There’s a reason it’s a classic: it is delicious, especially if the strawberries are very sweet or you give them a little help with a sprinkling of sugar. Either way, the combination heightens the sweet-tart flavors present in both ingredients. The perfumes burst forth like a summer thunderstorm, but afterward the mouth feels clean and sparkly. By combining that effect with salad greens, it’s doubly refreshing. Here I must confess I have an unusual habit: I often prefer to eat my salad after the main course. It feels more enjoyable to me that way. My hunger has been sated, and I can better appreciate all the subtle flavors in fresh produce. If I try to eat a salad before the main course, I’m usually too ravenous to really notice it—it’s just food. But afterward, a salad can be a work of art.
When one is writing a thesis, it is hard to make time for art, but one still has to eat. I find it handy to have a salad that, with just a few minutes of uncooking, can be beautiful, unfussy, and very easy to eat. It gives me hope that I’ll finish this thesis and have enough energy to celebrate at the finish line.
Salad with Crisp Greens, Strawberries, and Honey-Balsamic Dressing
Salads are often an opportunity to trot out your very best ingredients, and this one is no exception. My friend Shawn Marie shared with me a pour of the fancy balsamic vinegar she picked out at Whole Foods, and it is delightful in the dressing here. So if you’ve got a high-quality balsamic, don’t hesitate to use it here—you will be amply rewarded.
2-3 crisp leaves of green leaf or Romaine lettuce
5-6 perfect small strawberries
1 tbsp. honey
1 tbsp. best-quality balsamic vinegar
1) Prep the lettuce leaves by rinsing, drying, and tearing them into bite-sized pieces. Prep the strawberries by rinsing them off, drying them gently, slicing off the green tops, and then slicing the berries into thin slices. Pile the lettuce on a plate and artfully arrange the strawberries over it.
2) Whisk together the honey and balsamic vinegar. Drizzle it over the strawberries and lettuce. You may not want all of it; in which case, save it for another salad later! Serve the salad, either as a starter course or (the way I like it) as a palate cleanser between the main course and dessert.