Welcome to part two of a three-part series about my recent trip to Chicago! If you’d like to read part one, hop on over here. Part three will be posted tomorrow as part of a tandem post with my fearless writing partner, a.
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Where does a homesick kitchen rat set up camp when home is 900 miles away? In other people’s kitchens, of course!
Last week’s trip to Chicago was challenging. It turns out that living with twin baby boys and their frazzled parents for a week is an idea that ought to set off warning bells in one’s head. On the surface, it sounded great to me: I’d get to spend lots of time with the twins, and then after they went to bed there’d be time to catch up with the parents and enjoy some grown-up company. Daphna and I would cook dinner together like we did in the old days, and we’d eat and laugh together at the table, basking in the happiness of their new family life.
Perhaps I was naive, but my fantasies of our time together were way, waaaay off the mark. I didn’t realize that I even had such expectations for my vacation until I felt ignored, like an old toy left in the corner. I don’t expect anyone to feel sorry for me; my life is easy and carefree compared to the chronic exhaustion of life with two babies. But the truth is, making that transition from Friend of Non-parents to Friend of Parents is not easy. It requires a quiet grace as your friends channel 99% of their attention and care into their children. It requires letting children become the focus of your time with your parent friends. It may require cutting outings short because someone is hungry or tired or bored. A Friend to Parents needs to be able to take care of herself and make herself useful if possible.
In these situations, I find that it’s a dicey proposition to assist with childcare. I like babies a lot, but I think it can be hard for new parents to get comfortable with other adults taking care of their kids. Parents have a sense of worry and possessiveness toward their children that I don’t share, simply because I’m not the parent. Even between parents of the same child, there are squabbles about eating and sleeping issues, and I am not going to jump into that hornet’s nest. I prefer to make myself useful in other ways, and the way that comes naturally to me is to head into the kitchen and make dinner happen.
It was in other people’s kitchens that I found the sense of home that eluded me during this vacation. I still missed my old Evanston kitchen, like the way my coffee smelled while it brewed in the morning or the way the honey-colored floors felt cool and smooth under my bare feet. In these new kitchens, knife in hand and vegetables sitting perky and fresh on the cutting board, I felt an old comfort that comes from doing something you’ve done a million times before. I liked the simplicity of the task: chop, sauté, season, taste, serve.
I was tentative at first as I approached these foreign kitchens. I didn’t know where anything was, or if the ingredients or supplies I wanted could be found in those kitchens at all. So I made do with what was available—a folded up towel became a baking mitt, celery in a soup became a red bell pepper instead, vegetable stock became water with a generous pinch of salt. I let myself focus on the task at hand, and my sadness gave way to a sense of purpose: I am here to cook. I am here to take care of others by feeding them.
One of the great things about writing a food blog is that your recipes are only a click away. I love writing this blog for lots of reasons, but having access to all my favorite soups and stews? Unbelievably nice! It’s like having your own personal menu available all the time, complete with special recipe and ingredient notes. I feel all warm and fuzzy just thinking about it now.
My cooking adventures started in Daphna’s kitchen, where we trotted out Lydia’s Stew, served over brown rice and eaten with amazing salad of farmers’ market spinach, pecans, sliced pears, and bites of Maytag Blue cheese. That cheese was really something else: it had the funky tang of blue cheese with a smooth creamy texture that just melted on the tongue. It was swoon-worthy, memorable, delicious. Together, I think Daphna and I ate half the wedge in one night. I’m already scheming about where I might find my next wedge of Maytag Blue.
Next I joined my friend Ammie in her kitchen, where we made an outstanding dinner. We each picked a recipe—braised fennel for me, stewed turnips with white beans for her—and we sipped ginger lemon tea while our vegetables slowly cooked their way to tenderness. I’m not the biggest turnip fan in the world, but the bitterness of turnips, the sweet-tart flavor of tomatoes, and the soft creaminess of white beans is a lovely, lovely combination. And the fennel! Oh my. Two fresh fennel bulbs, braised in a bath of olive oil, Meyer lemon juice and zest, a pinch of salt, and water. The fennel turned soft but not mushy, and as the braising liquid cooked off, the fennel caramelized to the brink of burnt. Burnt wasn’t the plan, but when we topped the fennel with thick shavings of Parmesan cheese, the result was fantastic—vegetal, sweet, savory, meltingly good. That recipe is a keeper. Then, as if that weren’t enough for one night, we had rum raisin ice cream sandwiched between sweet-salty oatmeal cookies, and my taste buds declared themselves smitten with homemade ice cream sandwiches. Wow.
For the third memorable meal, I met Ammie and several of our cooking friends at the snazzy new apartment of our friend Anna. Anna set out deep bowls of homemade guacamole, and Ammie made an addictive black bean salad that she adapted from the Chicago Diner Cookbook (a neat little taste of the vegetarian food scene in Chicago—I love my copy). We made almond crust pizzas topped with thin slices of zucchini and generous handfuls of Parmesan cheese. For dessert, Anna had peanut butter chocolate chip cookies waiting for us—tempting us before dinner even, as they sat cooling on the counter—and we admired her beautiful new place with its green walls, hand-carved tree seat, and gorgeous view of the city as seen through the window above her desk.
On my final night in Evanston, Daphna and I found unexpected success with her pantry and an old recipe from the archives, Black Bean Soup with Rice. This soup is an old favorite of mine, but I always found it a little annoying that as it sits around, the rice slurps up all the water and makes the soup thick and sludgy. Sitting in D’s refrigerator, we found a solution to the sludge problem: leftover brown rice. We’d made a huge batch of it while cooking Lydia’s Stew earlier in the week, then tucked it away in the fridge for future use. Daphna is a fan of the well-stocked pantry, and with just a few substitutions, we were able to able to make a hearty, well-seasoned black bean soup with sweet kernels of corn and chewy-tender grains of rice. We amped up the deliciousness factor with a giant green salad topped with Daphna’s signature homemade croutons. The croutons are made almost entirely by feel in her well-loved cast-iron skillet. She melts butter and olive oil together and adds big cubes of leftover bread to the hot fat. At some point, she adds a spice market’s worth of seasonings, including onion and garlic powders, smoked paprika, and, if memory serves me, salt and pepper. I have a sinking feeling that I’ve forgotten a few of her seasonings, which is deeply disappointing because I loved those croutons. The bread got a little toasty but remained surprisingly soft and tender, like little pillows of savory chewiness.
Now that my kitchen is in Texas, I don’t cook for others very much, and that’s a shame. Admittedly, I always have a selfish interest in any meal that I plan to eat. I love to eat and I care what I put in my belly. But last week, while I was busy chopping and stirring in other people’s kitchens, I was reminded of how much food and cooking matter. I love to cook, and cooking food that other people will eat is a special treat for me. There are moments when cooking a meal or even just making someone a snack is the best way to show how much that person matters to you. Cooking, especially the home cooking that I love most, is an act of love, whether it’s self-love when cooking for one or love for every person who shows up at the dinner table. To cook is to say to someone, you matter to me. Your happiness is important to me, and look, I made this soup for you! Let’s share a bowl of it and enjoy this meal and this moment together. And if that’s not enough, well, there’s always dessert to look forward to. Cooking and eating together is the coziest way I know of declaring that this time and this food are sacred. Yes, we all have lots of worries—about our kids, our waistlines, our wallets—but eating well is a way of fortifying ourselves against the challenges that wait for us in the future. Eating well is a way of claiming now as important.