Tuesday, May 26, 2009

In the State of Pure Pleasure

It’s difficult to say anything new about California. Part of me doesn’t even want to try. I just want to sit here with my freshly made memories, enjoying the feelings without putting words to them. But the more I do that, the more I want to tell you about my trip and how it was so nice, how Matt made me feel so loved that I actually started crying with happiness. Normally I like to do my crying at the end of these trips, when I start to dread the part where we go our separate ways. But this time I had dry eyes when we said good-bye, and instead I left my tears behind on a pillowcase in Paso Robles.

The thing about California is that it really is as wonderful and magical as everyone says it is. It doesn’t matter if your trip fits all the California clichés—in fact, it’s almost better if it does. It means you’ve had the California Experience, a delightful combination of mountains and palm trees, sunshine and wine-drenched afternoons, enough walking to stretch your legs, and relaxation deep enough to turn you into a human-shaped blob of JELL-O®. So yes, like everyone else who has ever been there, I like California. I will sing its praises. I will believe that a few days in the wine country of Paso Robles is worth several hundred dollars in plane fare and a day’s worth of groggy jetlag. I will even offer a few helpful pointers, should you find yourself uncertain about what to do while in California. This is by no means a comprehensive list; I won’t even make any promises about its usefulness. But I think it’s good advice, and I don’t mind filing it away in this nice white space for the next time I head to southern California.

* Fret not that a day of cranky, jet-lagged, fuzzy-headedness means you are going to have a miserable time in California.

I was very, very happy to see Matt in the Los Angeles airport. But I was also very, very tired from my long journey, and we still had a long drive ahead of us. So I let him steer me out to the rental car, and I nodded when he told me I had to keep him awake during our drive up the coast. We creeped out of LA, then we drove and drove and drove. My butt fell asleep during the ride, but the rest of me stayed awake—just barely. There’s nothing more frustrating than being too tired to enjoy a long-anticipated vacation with one of your favorite people. Worrywart that I am, I actually started to wonder if this meant I didn’t really like Matt any more. His company was apparently no match for my exhaustion.

But then we stopped in a little town and got ice cream, and that made me feel better. Later we made it to San Luis Obispo, where we’d be spending one night before heading north to Paso Robles. I almost fell asleep in my plate of pasta at dinner, but somehow we made it back to the hotel without Matt throwing me over his shoulder and carrying me.

The next morning, after oatmeal and a shower, we hit the road again and I felt good as new.

* When hiking in Morro Bay State Park, try not to fall off the mountain.

I really love being outside with Matt. He’s good for walking or hiking or even just sitting. When he was planning this trip, Matt discovered that Morro Bay State Park wasn’t too far from our driving route, so we took a little detour into the park so that we could enjoy some nature together. The views in the park are spectacular. It sits on a mountainside that looks over and down into Morro Bay. Inside the bay is a mountain-shaped rock called Morro Rock. The rock likes to play a little game of striptease with the fog; sometimes you can see just its top when the bottom is shrouded in mist. Other times you see patches of the rock as fog creeps eerily around it. The effect is spooky and surreal.

Inside the park, Matt and I first hiked up to the top of the mountain. The hiking path led us up, up, up to a panoramic view of California: mountains, trees, coast, sea. There was even an estuary, and Lord knows you don’t see one of those every day. Then we hiked down, down, down to the bottom of the path and started walking along a much tougher path. This one was narrow and rocky, a ribbon of land carved out from the plants that threatened to claim it as their own once again. The path wasn’t the terrifying part. The terrifying part was the near-vertical dropoff that lay just a foot or two from the path; we were literally walking on the edge of the mountain. Matt walked ahead of me, picking his steps carefully, and I followed behind nervously, trying not to let my eyes linger downward too often. The farther we followed this path, the less it resembled a path until finally we hit a rocky incline—I think there was even a tree growing in the middle of the path here—and Matt said, “You know, I’m not even sure this is a hiking path. This might be some kind of goat trail.”

A goat trail! Damn, those goats must be tough. So we turned back—Matt leading the way again; I was way too scared by this point to be trusted not to fall off the mountain—and slowly made our way back to the car. Then I could breathe again.

* When you first meet the Pacific Ocean, take it with you.

Morro Bay is adjacent to the Pacific Ocean. I had never met this ocean, but I was pleased to make its acquaintance. After our hike, we stopped at a beach to say hello to the ocean. The day was cool and breezy, but the sun was warm and we were enjoying ourselves. The beach was crowded with pelicans, who eyed us curiously. We trudged toward the ocean, waves rolling toward us, until I broke into a trot and discovered that the Pacific Ocean is shockingly cold! I shrieked as the ocean soaked my sneakers and socks, leaving me drenched and sandy. I didn’t really mean to run into the ocean; it just sort of happened. So I squished around in my wet sneakers until we got to the Paso Robles Inn, where, thankfully, there was a pool and a hot tub waiting for us.

* When visiting California, don’t forget your bikini. Or if you do, be sure to buy a new one that makes you feel like a movie star.

It sounds silly, but it didn’t really occur to me that I should bring a swimsuit with me. Matt planned this trip; all I did was show up. I knew that we’d be visiting wineries and perhaps having dinner at a fancy restaurant, but I was not aware of any plans to sunbathe or relax poolside. I was embarrassed not to have anything appropriate for the pool, but what better place to buy a new bikini than California, land of sun, sand, and swimsuits?

We stopped by a little oceanside surf shop to peruse their swimwear. I love bikinis—they always come in such beautiful colors and patterns, and I love how free I feel when I put one on. There’s something extra-special about buying such sexy clothing with a man you like. Matt makes me feel good, and wearing a bikini with him around makes me feel even better.

My style when it comes to trying on clothes tends to be fast and brutal. Anything that doesn’t fit well: NO. Anything scandalously revealing: NO. Anything too baggy: NO. Anything too tight: NO. Luckily, bikinis, with all their adjustable straps, are rather friendly to women of many shapes and sizes. A woman just has to dig deep to find the courage to wear a bikini. In front of other people. In public. It’s a tall challenge, I know, but the more women who do it now, the more likely I’ll be able to do it when I’m old. In the hot tub, Matt and I saw an older woman—probably a grandmother, in fact—who wore a bikini without the slightest hint of self-consciousness. She was tan, Matt observed, which meant this wasn’t the first recent occasion she’d worn a bikini. Her body wasn’t beautiful according to our conventional ideals of beauty, but she wore that bikini with such joy that it made us both happy.

In the surf shop, a very nice clerk assisted me, fetching different sizes and even picking out a suit for me to try. She handed me this gorgeous blue and white suit with strings in all the right places; it looked so good that I had to take it home with me. It matched me, with my very white skin and my very blue eyes, and later Matt would tell me that it matched the hot tub too, which made me laugh. I put the suit to good use: Matt and I would spend the rest of our time in California rotating between the hot tub, the wineries, and a lovely restaurant in Paso Robles called Villa Creek.

* Be sure to try the almonds.

We found a cute little cheese shop in town that sells Marcona almonds. We came in for the cheese, but the shopkeeper's almonds won my heart. Big, buff-colored, buttery, and crunchy, these almonds are in a class of their own. I didn’t even know there were different kinds of almonds, but I sure am glad we found the Marconas. We ate them plain, and I had some for breakfast on the morning we left Paso Robles. I imagine they’d be good in any dessert that really showcases almonds, like a plain butter cookie studded with Marcona almond pieces, or a peaches ‘n’ cream parfait topped with chopped almonds. But I might like them best plain, eaten with Matt by my side.

*Even lightweights can enjoy winery tastings.

I will freely admit that I am a total lightweight when it comes to alcohol. I drink very little, mostly because I prefer dessert when left to my own devices. But whenever Matt and I hang out, I drink wine with him, and I like it. I was excited about visiting the wineries and tasting so many delicious wines, but I was also very nervous about my low tolerance. I knew I could taste and spit, like so many pourers in the tasting rooms do, but that felt uncouth to me. Instead, I tried to taste everything, but as I felt myself nearing my limit, I tasted in tiny sips, just enough to sample the wine, and I poured out the rest.

The tasting room visits were really, really fun, even for a wine novice like me. I learned that even after tasting lots of red wines, I still prefer whites. I learned that there are certain flavors that emerge consistently from a particular winemaker’s style. For example, almost all the wines we tasted at Barrel 27 were peppery and hot, which gives their wines a certain boldness that demands reckoning. At Eberle, most of their red wines had a smoky, complex flavor. I’m not sure I’d ever tasted smoke so clearly in wine prior to visiting Eberle. I think I liked it—it could be fantastically delicious with the right cheese or a richly flavored bean dish.

* Take the wine cellar tour at Eberle.

Every half hour or so, the kind folks at Eberle invite guests down into the wine cellar, where all the wine-making magic happens. Sitting twenty-five feet below ground, the cellar (also called a cave) is cool and quietly busy. You get the sense that something really important is going on down here. Our tour guide led us through the winemaking process, from grape-picking to fermentation to barrel-aging to bottling. It’s impressive, the amount of care that goes into a bottle of wine. My favorite factoid was about the sustainability of the cellar: four years after it was completed, the winery had saved enough money on electricity to pay for the cost of constructing the cellar. That little tidbit of information makes me want to raise a toast to Eberle!

* Let the beauty follow you home.

California is so visually stunning that it’s a little overwhelming. It seems that everywhere you turn, there’s another mountain, another hillside vineyard, another heartbreaking sunset. Sometimes the fog creeps in and obscures all that beauty, but maybe that’s necessary to prevent you from overdosing on pleasure.

I had been dreading the trip home even before I left for California, knowing that it was going to be a very long day. Saying good-bye to Matt is always hard for me. It’s very easy to say hello to him, but the good-byes do me in. I surprised myself that saying good-bye was so easy this time—not because I would miss him any less, but because I’m learning the rhythm of our relationship. I believe we will see each other again, and it will feel like slipping on my favorite pair of jeans—comfortable, natural, easy.

It was nice not to dissolve into a puddle of tears because traveling is exhausting. Traveling while sobbing into snotty tissues makes it worse. I did my best to enjoy the trip home. I reread my copy of Bon Appétit (excellent reading material while flying), mentally bookmarking the recipes for Chile and Cheese Tart, Blueberry Shortcakes with Lemon and Thyme Biscuits, and Asparagus Vichyssoise with Mint. I revised a manuscript that my advisor and I are planning to submit soon. I tried to sleep. I failed to ignore the sobbing child two rows back, the one who sounded like she was having the worst day of her life. And when night fell, and we drew closer to sweet home Chicago, I stared out the window at a dreamy sky layered with chocolate brown, shades of latte, and cream, then topped with a deep velvety blue, the color of which is used for fancy jewelry boxes. It had been a long day. California was far behind me, but I was returning home, where all adventures begin and end.

Friday, May 22, 2009

"I Just Keep Working": An Interview with Molly Wizenberg

Molly Wizenberg is a very nice person. First she gave us Orangette, then a book, and now this fun interview. Two of those items she gave us absolutely free, which is awfully generous of her. The book ain’t a bad deal either: for the low, low price of $16.50 plus shipping, you can have it sent directly to your doorstep from Amazon. That’s what I did, and it’s the best $16.50 I ever spent. If you try it, I think you’ll agree.

I’m envious of anyone who was able to meet Molly during her book tour. Chicago was not one of her stops. I had convinced myself it would be—we are the most glamorous city in the Midwest, and everyone says we have great food—but alas, it wasn’t meant to be. As the news sunk in, I pouted for a while. I was bummed. Then I decided if Molly couldn’t make it to Chicago, that didn’t mean we couldn’t chat somewhere else, such as the electronic ether of cyberspace. So I asked nicely if she would do an interview with me, and Molly said yes right away. I was emboldened by her advice, “Stick your neck out. Definitely stick your neck out. And keep your fingers crossed.” Perhaps an interview such as this is small potatoes when it comes to taking chances, but I happen to like small potatoes. I also happen to think that one can do great things with the tiniest of steps.

I think this interview really exemplifies the spirit of life, love, and food—those words taken conceptually and this blog, which I continue to write because the process nourishes me. The opportunity to discuss life, love, and food with someone who has been such an inspiration to me was thrilling, and I’m very grateful. So thank you, Molly, and thank you, dear reader, for being here. I hope you all enjoy this treat as much as I did.

* * *

Rose-Anne: You ever have one of those lunches? You know, the kind where you just make an utter mess of your meal and yourself? I had one of those lunches at home the other day as I was wrestling with a hunk of week-old bread that was refusing to soften, despite being surrounded by a steamy bath of soup. Open in front of me was my copy of A Homemade Life. While I was wrestling, I managed to splatter soup all over the recipe for Blueberry-Raspberry Pound Cake, which is ironic because one, it’s now a cake recipe splattered with soup and two, it’s one of the recipes I’m most looking forward to making once we hit high berry season this year.

It’s easy to understand the appeal of cake, and there are a LOT of cake recipes in A Homemade Life—six dessert cakes and one savory corn cake (plus pancakes, if you want to be really technical). Molly, what is it about cake that you find so irresistible? If forced to choose between dessert options, do you usually go with cake?

Molly: You know, I’ve never really thought about it! I’m just a cake person. Some people crave potato chips, and some go crazy for barbeque, but I like cake. I’m more of a sweets person than a salty one, and I like to have dessert after dinner almost every night. I love ice cream and brownies and straight-up bars of chocolate, but if cake--preferably homemade, and not too fancy--is an option, I will usually take it. To me, it’s the perfect sweet.

Have you considered writing a dessert cookbook? My mouth waters just thinking about it!

Well, no, not really, to tell you the truth! Desserts are my favorite thing to make, but there are lots of wonderful dessert books out there, and I’ve never felt a strong urge to write one of my own. I’m happy to rely on books from pastry greats like Dorie Greenspan and David Lebovitz.

Which recipe do you think is the sleeper hit of the book—the one that most people won’t make immediately but has sauntered its way into your heart?

I love the vanilla bean buttermilk cake. With or without glazed oranges.

I was a bit surprised to find that many pieces in your book were originally published on Orangette. To be fair, there is a lot of new material as well. How did you decide between using a piece you’d already published and writing something from scratch for the book?

The blog is very personal, and a lot of my life is recorded in it. At the time that I started writing it, I had no idea that I would write a memoir someday, so I wrote whatever I wanted to, without any thought of “saving” things for later. But then, when I was in the process of writing the book, I realized that the story that I was telling naturally included some moments that I had already written about on the blog. I could have left them out, I guess, because they were already “published,” but the book wouldn’t have hung together. There would have been big gaps and holes in it. In the end, about 60% of the book is new material.

A lot of my friends cook like your dad did, with spontaneity and without much of a recipe. But Burg did peruse the family cookbook collection. What were his favorite cookbooks, the ones he flipped through most often?

He loved The New York Times Cookbook. That was his go-to, I’d say.

You are big on seasonal cooking: using ingredients and techniques that are appropriate for a particular time of year. Which season inspires you the most in the kitchen? During which season are you at your peak?

Summer inspires me the most. But--and this is sort of contradictory–I actually do very little in the way of elaborate cooking in the summertime! Summer produce is so good that it often feels criminal to do anything to it. One of my favorite summer meals is just sliced tomatoes with fresh basil, some blanched corn on the cob, some slices of fresh mozzarella with good olive oil, and some bread. It takes almost no effort to make, but I feel inspired just thinking about it.

I’m afraid I would be a terrible recipe-tester because I find it almost impossible to make a recipe exactly as written the first time. So I loved your story about experimenting in the kitchen. I especially love the butternut squash soup recipe you developed. How are you doing these days with experimenting in the kitchen? Does it make you feel nervous or exhilarated?

I’m getting better at it! Brandon is a big help. He’s very good at balancing flavors and fixing dishes that aren’t quite working, and he teaches me a lot. I still like recipes, but I also like loosening up a bit. It’s empowering.

As you were testing and re-testing recipes for your book, how did you decide that a recipe was “done?” What was your most memorable recipe-testing experience?

That’s hard to answer. A recipe was “done” when it tasted right to me, and to Brandon. It was a subjective process. As far as memorable experiences, well, for a while there, we ate buckwheat pancakes seven weekends in a row. It sounds kind of fun, I know, but it felt like it would never end. And let me tell you, there’s nothing worse than testing a recipe in the morning, on an empty stomach. When it doesn’t go right, it’s doubly annoying, because you’re hungry.

A lot of people have said that your book made them cry. If that’s true, one can only imagine how much you cried while you were writing it! Which chapters made you feel most emotional? How did you manage to complete them in spite of the tears?

I was a basket case when I wrote the chapters about my father’s death. But it felt so good to write them, to get those stories down on paper and out of my head, that I never thought about stopping. I just sort of forced my way through. I also cried through several of the chapters about Brandon, thinking about how grateful I am for him. And I still tear up almost every time I read the acknowledgments.

You’re pretty strict in your recipe directions about not using low-fat or nonfat dairy products. Is that because of personal preference, or did you test all your recipes with various products one might consider using for, say, plain yogurt? (By the way, I disobeyed your instructions. I made your Banana Bread with Chocolate and Crystallized Ginger with low-fat yogurt and I thought it was excellent. Don’t hate me!)

I won’t hate you! Don’t worry. I call for full-fat dairy products because they generally make for baked goods that are moister and have a better texture than baked goods made from low-fat or nonfat products. Occasionally I’ll make some banana bread with low-fat yogurt, as you did, because it’s what I have in the house, or whatever, and it’s still totally delicious, but I do notice a little difference. And in savory cooking, it’s even more important. Sometimes I make an Indian-spiced eggplant dish, for example, and it gets some yogurt stirred into the skillet at the very end. I once made the mistake of using low-fat yogurt, and it curdled into a nasty mess. Whole milk yogurt wouldn’t have done that.

You write in the book that you used to be more shy about cream and its buttery cousins. When did you change your mind about them? Did your cooking change quickly, or was it more of a gradual transition?

It was a gradual transition. When I was growing up, my mother was an occasional dieter, very conscious of nutrition, and I went through a period in high school and college when I was into low-fat eating. For a long time, I thought that cream and butter were bad for you, period, and to be avoided. But living in France in my early twenties, in the home of a host family to whom the nightly cheese plate was very important, helped to loosen me up. Growing up helped too. It made me more flexible in my thinking. Today, I’m very much an everything-in-moderation eater. Food is about fueling our bodies, for sure, but it’s also about pleasure, and I tend to eat with equal attention to both.

When you’re writing recipes, how do you decide whether you want to use crème fraiche or sour cream?

I almost always use crème fraiche. I like its flavor. I’ve never been a big sour cream fan.

And just out of curiosity: do you ever have days when you feel “buttered out?” Days when you just crave, say, oatmeal for breakfast and a salad for lunch?

Of course! I don’t eat butter and cream all day long, I swear. My breakfast almost every morning is a wholegrain cereal mixed with homemade granola–with 1% milk on top–and I eat a ton of vegetables and salads. I tend to crave a little bit of everything. I like sweets, but I also like vegetable soup, and Brussels sprouts, and grapefruit.

You and your blog have been receiving a lot of attention for a long time. Now you are a published author with your name on a book! Does the attention ever make you feel a bit shy? How has the additional scrutiny affected your writing?

I’m kind of an introvert, but I wouldn’t say that any of this has made me feel shy–or no more shy than I am already! It’s the opposite, really. I like that the blog and the book have made my world feel bigger and more open. Because of them, I’ve gotten to meet a lot of amazing people. My life is so much richer, and I’m incredibly grateful for that. And as far as my writing goes, I don’t think the attention has affected it, or not that I can tell. Honestly, I don’t spend a lot of time sitting around thinking about the book or the blog or the publicity. I just keep working.

How has writing your own food memoir changed your feelings about the genre?

It hasn’t, really. I have always loved to read food memoirs, and I still do. I think it’s a wonderful genre, and I’m glad that it seems to be of increasing interest to people. And more than anything, I appreciate books–all kinds of books–even more now, knowing exactly what goes into their making.

Your book has received a lot of very positive praise, and I think it’s well-deserved. Do you plan to continue writing books? Do you worry about how people may compare your future work to A Homemade Life? It could be a tough act to follow, even for you!

You’re going to give me a complex! I hardly know how to answer that. But yes, I do want to continue writing books. Right now, I’m focused on opening a restaurant with my husband, so that’s my “baby” for the moment. But I would love to do another book. I loved the process of it, and the kind of total immersion that it required.

One final question. This one is perhaps a bit nosy, but I’m so curious: how did you and Brandon settle on Seattle instead of New York (or, for that matter, anywhere else)?

We thought about my moving to join him in New York. But he was applying to doctoral programs at the time that we were trying to make that decision, and ultimately, it made sense to let that decide where we would live. He applied to some schools in New York, some in California, and the University of Washington, in Seattle. The UW program was the best fit for him and his interests, and they accepted him, so he moved to Seattle.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Make Your Own Star and Cast It into the Sky

Molly Wizenberg makes everything look so easy. It’s difficult not to be jealous of her, between her superstar status among bloggers, her impossibly romantic story of finding love through food and words, and the debut of her very first book. I admit it: I am jealous! But I’m also deeply inspired because I think that her path is not so different from my own. She’s a trailblazer for many of us, leading the way toward a life of good eating and good loving, of working hard and playing hard. And she’s terribly generous, sharing so much of herself and her life with us. Most of us are perfect strangers, but Molly opens her heart to us every week. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve read an Orangette post and felt like I could just burst at the seams with happiness.

I finished reading Molly’s first book, A Homemade Life, a while ago. Her memoir left me so filled up with emotions and thoughts that I just couldn’t write about it. I had to let everything marinate for a few weeks. In the meantime, I read it again, and again, and again. It was just so soothing, so lovely, so very happy and so very sad. It resonated powerfully with me and with the way I want to live my life. Unlike Molly, I did not grow up eating dinner with a happy family. We would gather together for holiday meals, but that was about it for eating together. My mother cooked dinner every night, but rarely did we all eat it together. In fact, when I was in high school, my parents taught night classes, so they weren’t even home for dinner. My younger siblings and I were on our own for dinner, which in some ways was nice—we ate a lot of pizza rolls!—but I’ve always loved the idea of eating with loved ones. It’s probably one of the reasons I love it when Matt and I are together: we cook, eat, and clean up together. When he’s around, it doesn’t feel like work. It’s simply part of our routine.

But cooking for one can be wonderful, too. I found it endearing that Molly has such fond memories of cooking for herself while living in Paris, and even to this day, her solo culinary rituals continue. Cooking for one is my default setting. I’m constantly perplexed by this idea that cooking for one is ridiculously indulgent or a waste of time. So taking care of myself is indulgent? Enjoying my own kitchen and my own company is a waste of time? I think these attitudes are weird. I have no plans to cease my fun, with or without a partner in crime.

As a graduate student, I’ve spent plenty of time wondering if the career path I’m following will lead to happiness and success for me. I’m also deeply in love with food and cooking, to the point where I devote large swaths of time to my belly. So I get it when Molly realizes that she no longer wants to earn a PhD in anthropology. No one understands the anguish of a graduate student like a graduate student. The hope that has kept me in graduate school is that eventually, I will have more autonomy in my career. As the daughter of teachers, I have always felt that learning is a gift and a good teacher is a treasure. Perhaps it’s not surprising then that I want to put my scientific training to work in the classroom.

I am happy that things have worked out so well for Molly after she stepped off the well-worn paths of academia. It’s easy to romanticize quitting graduate school; perhaps it’s just as easy to romanticize the choice to finish one’s degree. In the end, it’s a crap-shoot. For me, it was a war of attrition: if I just kept my nose to the grindstone long enough, eventually my efforts would pay off in the form of three little letters. But I don’t know: if I had gone to Paris to do research, I too may have found myself more interested in gastronomy than anthropology! Either way, the nice thing about cooking is that everyone has to eat, PhDs included.

One of the things I love most about Molly’s writing is that her words create a sense of place. There’s magic to be found in A Homemade Life, and she gives you everything you need to conjure up some magic of your own. Take, for example, a simple story of breakfast in New York with her then-new boyfriend, Brandon. Molly writes,

“In New York, we had no schedule. He only had classes two days a week, so we had plenty of time, albeit not much money. He lived on West 123rd Street, not far from the enormous Fairway Market, and sometimes we would wake up late and walk to get a jug of orange juice, a bunch of radishes, a baguette, and some butter. Back at home, we ate lazily at the wobbly table with the window open, the box fan blowing, and my bare feet on his lap.”

That’s one of my very favorite passages from the book. I was so inspired by it, in fact, that I had to treat myself to a baguette, some butter, and a bunch of radishes. I can tell you now that the combination is superb—much better, even, than the sum of its parts.

I’ve had enough time now to try a handful of recipes from A Homemade Life, and with one, maybe two, exceptions, everything I’ve cooked has been marvelous. I’m particularly smitten with the Banana Bread with Chocolate and Crystallized Ginger and the Slow-Roasted Tomatoes with Coriander. The latter makes the best grilled-cheese sandwich addition, and if you’ve been following along, you know that I take my grilled cheese seriously. I did try Molly’s Tomato Soup with Two Fennels. I liked it, but I didn’t love it. I also tried the Butternut Soup with Pear, Cider, and Vanilla Bean, and I think something went wrong when I made it. It was okay, but mine seemed a bit too sweet, cloying even. So if you make that soup, make sure that your cider isn’t too sweet. I used apple juice because it’s all I could find, and that was definitely too sweet. I also added too much of it, so there you go. I could even go so far as to suggest that you just use water in place of the cider—I might do that next time because I think this soup has real potential. Then there are all the recipes from Orangette that Molly included in the book—the Bouchons au Thon and the Chana Masala are particularly tempting. I love my Bouchon-inspired Egg and Cheese Muffins. I made the Chana Masala so many times that I wore the recipe out. I plan to cook from A Homemade Life for a long, long time.

Because cooking is what I do. At the end of the day, it all comes back to food: food in my hands, food in my head. I think Molly said it best when she wrote,

“That’s why this book is called A Homemade Life. Because, in a sense, that’s what we’re building—you, me, all of us who like to stir and whisk—in the kitchen and at the table. In the simple acts of cooking and eating, we are creating and continuing the stories that are our lives.”

I could waste more time being jealous of Molly. We could all wish for ourselves the kind of success she’s experienced since she starting writing Orangette. Or we could take a step back and appreciate what she’s done. Molly isn’t just following her own star. She has made her own star and cast it into the sky. And when she follows it, she blazes a trail lined with radishes and tomatoes and cakes, all of which she invites us to eat. So no, I don’t want to spend any more time being jealous of her. I’m going to make my own star, and I invite you to do the same. I think Molly would approve.

* * *

Speaking of stars, I’m taking a vacation next week! Matt and I are meeting in California for some good eating and drinking in wine country, so you won’t hear from me on our regularly scheduled day. I am thrilled to pieces about this trip and about seeing Matt, so you can be sure that I’ll have lots to tell you when I return. As an extra treat when I return, Molly Wizenberg was gracious enough to do an interview with me. It was a lot of fun, and I even learned something new about cooking. So I invite you to join us next week for more discussion about A Homemade Life and the woman who wrote it. Until then, happy cooking and happy eating!

Monday, May 11, 2009

My Mother, Kitchen Goddess

I was an incredibly picky eater as a child. It’s hard to believe now, looking back, that I was just so scared of most food. There were many things to avoid! Tomatoes were filled with gross seeds, steak contained nubs of shudder-inducing chewy fat, and milk smelled strange—not sour, mind you, just…strange. I didn’t like my mother’s corned beef or her hamburgers, although everyone else in my family ate them hungrily, showing their approval with empty plates. My parents were deeply worried about my protein intake, given that most of my food hang-ups revolved around meat. Perhaps it’s not surprising now that I grew up to become a vegetarian, and that I’m always double-checking my meal plans to make sure they include a nice source of protein. I may have lost my chance to grow up tall, but I’m determined to be as strong as I can be!

Despite my aversion for most meat, I absolutely loved my mother’s tuna fish sandwiches. It’s so odd! I disliked beef, but I liked fish? Beef is so hearty, so satisfying, so rich. Tuna is…fishy. Its flavor is sharp, almost metallic, and after you eat it, you have tuna breath, which makes the cat unusually interested in your mouth. My mom knew just what to do with a can of tuna to make it sing with flavor. I think her version started as most versions do, with mayonnaise, and she dolled it up with chopped fresh celery. There may have been a bit of onion involved, and a few shakes of celery salt, and of course plenty of pepper. Whatever she did, it was marvelous served on toast, preferably gobbled down within minutes of mixing up the tuna sandwich spread. I never had any problems putting away tuna sandwiches.

My mom was a good sport about my odd eating habits. For the most part, she let me be, although my shockingly high sugar consumption did not go unnoticed. My mom let me eat what I thought tasted good, and it didn’t matter if it was totally bizarre. I used to eat hot dogs straight out of the package. I’d fold slices of American cheese into a little cheese stack and eat the stack, one tiny slice after another. I liked peanut butter off a spoon (come to think of it, I still like that) and lots of cinnamon toast. My mom used to make something she called “French toast,” which involved buttered, toasted white bread on which she’d pour some syrup and then plunk it down in front of me. It wasn’t real French toast, but it sure was tasty. And when we ate rice, we’d top it with a pat of margarine and douse it with soy sauce. That was exotic eating at its best in our house.

My eating habits today don’t bare much resemblance to those of my childhood. Sure, I still love cinnamon toast and I think few things smell nicer than a pot of cooking rice. But I’m no longer a junk-food addict, and dinner is likely to be something a little more substantial than a bowl of cereal. Learning to cook changed everything for me, and I credit my mom’s relaxed attitude for my own happiness in the kitchen. If I wanted to cook something, that was cool with her. I remember one time we set out to make a mocha cheesecake just because I wanted to. That day, the power went out while the cheesecake was baking, so we ended up with this weird sort of half-baked, half-raw creation. I think it tasted okay; I do remember eating a LOT of this ill-fated mocha cheesecake! I have yet to try that recipe again, but my guess is that it actually tastes pretty good when made properly.

I don’t think my mother was ever really rattled by my kitchen endeavors, and for that, I am very thankful. Because of her, I have a never-ending sense of optimism in the kitchen—cooking is always an adventure. I feel good about my ability to make good food, and I don’t spend much time thinking about what happens if my cooking turns out poorly that night. I’m not immune to kitchen disappointment, but it doesn’t permeate my sense of confidence. Cooking is the one area of my life that I can lean on for reassurance when everything else is falling apart. It is my rock, my beacon of hope, my comforter. Mom gave me life, and then she gave me the tools to take care of myself. It’s hard to ask for anything more.

I may no longer eat tuna fish, but I still love the flavor of tuna fish sandwiches. You can imagine how ecstatic I was when I discovered that vegetarians have their very own version of tuna fish, a surprisingly tasty mixture of mashed chickpeas, mayo, and an assortment of vegetables and herbs. I first made it with some skepticism, but after a single sandwich, I was won over. It’s a recipe I’ve written about before, and while the classic deserves its place in my recipe archives, last week I was introduced to a newcomer who ought to become a part of my summer rotation this year.

I call it “The Robin.” It’s Robin’s sandwich, really, she of Caviar and Codfish, a blog I don’t read nearly as often as I should. I don’t know of anyone who takes more gorgeous photos or who writes as lovingly as she does about eating locally produced food. She makes me want to move to the country, right now! While I remain city-bound, I’ll just stop by her blog for delicious food and even more delicious stories. Last week, Robin gave us a recipe for a dreamy tuna fish sandwich, one made with pesto, avocado, and radishes. Yum! I wanted one, too. So I went home and made an impressive vegetarian version. I was particularly pleased that I didn’t even have to stop by the grocery store, not because I’m opposed to that sort of thing, but rather because I seem to be spending more money than I should these days. Anyway, I thought you should know about this sandwich too, if you haven’t already heard about it. Pay Robin a visit, or contemplate a vegetarian version like the one I’ll give you now. And call your mother to tell her you love her, even though you were the pickiest eater out of her whole brood.

“The Robin,” or Vegetarian Tuna Fish Sandwich with Pesto and Avocado
Serves 1

This sandwich is outstanding: hearty, nutritious, and packed with interesting flavors. I didn’t have any radishes on hand when I made my sandwiches, so I’m going to list those as optional here. I do think they’d add a nice crunch though.

Note that the chickpea mash (the “tuna fish”) makes enough for 3-4 sandwiches. I like to eat this sandwich as an open-faced version on two slices of bread, so it’s sort of like two sandwiches in one.

For the vegetarian tuna fish:
Several tablespoons of plain yogurt (low-fat is okay) to taste
1 can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
Fresh lime juice to taste
Salt to taste
Freshly ground pepper to taste

For a sandwich:
2 slices of good sandwich bread
A few spoonfuls of excellent green pesto (I used Cibo Naturals Classic Basil Pesto)
A generous portion of vegetarian tuna fish (see above)
Half of an avocado, sliced into thick slices
A radish or two, thinly sliced (optional)
2 leaves of Romaine lettuce, chopped

1) To make the vegetarian tuna fish, line a mesh strainer with a clean (unused) coffee filter. Place the yogurt inside the coffee filter and place the strainer over a bowl. Let the yogurt drain for a few minutes to thicken it.
2) While the yogurt is draining, place the chickpeas in a large bowl. Use a potato masher to mash them coarsely. Add enough drained yogurt to moisten the chickpeas into a nice, spreadable mixture. Squeeze some lime juice into the mixture and season to taste with salt and pepper. Taste the chickpeas and decide if they need any more yogurt, lime juice, salt, or pepper. You might be inclined to season them with something else—go right ahead!
3) Assemble your sandwich. Toast the bread. Slather some pesto on top of each slice of bread. Top with a few spoonfuls of the chickpea mixture. Lay the avocado slices on top and finish with the radishes (if using) and a nice handful of chopped lettuce over the avocado. Serve immediately.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Spring, with Potatoes and Peanut Sauce

Greetings, dear readers! This is Rose-Anne’s Kitchen, filling in for her. She’s been floating around on a cloud ever since her committee meeting the other day. Rose-Anne also has a wicked case of spring fever. The other night, she left my sink filled with dirty dishes so she could take a walk in that warm spring air. Normally, this sort of slovenliness does not sit well with me, but I figure that after a winter from hell, the poor dear deserves as much sunshine and fresh-grass smell as she can soak up.

Besides, I can’t complain. Things have been happily busy inside my walls. There’s been the usual, of course—plenty of soup and granola, with the occasional batch of cookies thrown in for good measure—but there have also been loaves of banana bread and lots of fresh oranges, some fun with radishes, and the first asparagus of the season. We’re both eagerly awaiting the opening of Evanston’s farmer’s market, but get this: Rose-Anne is going to be in frikkin’ California that day! The nerve of her! I mean seriously: how could she skip the market to go traipsing around wine country with Matt? It’s outrageous! I mean, I like Matt and all, I really do, but he’s a bad, bad influence on her. I’m not sure I can forgive him for this. The next time he’s here, he’d better watch for falling objects while he’s inside my walls.

To make up for this tragedy, Rose-Anne has been bringing me gifts. She gave me a new set of very thirsty towels, in gorgeous rainbow-hued colors, just perfect for drying the never-ending stream of dishes around here. She slipped a deep metal bowl into one of my cabinets, a necessary item for beating egg whites while making Orange Pudding Cake. She even bought me two avocadoes just because avocadoes are lovely. Wasn’t that nice of her?

But the best gift of all is one that Mother Nature has given me. I’m just flooded with sunlight these days as we get closer and closer to the summer solstice in June. My windows may be a bit dirty, but with the way my honey-colored floor glows, you won’t mind a bit of dirt. On the really nice days, Rose-Anne’s been opening the door that leads out of the kitchen onto the balcony. The warm air drifts inside, bringing with it the scent of fresh flowers and dirt and the sounds of children playing at the park. I just love spring.

This springtime madness has seeped into the cooking around here. Spring in Chicago can be a dodgy affair: a balmy 70 degrees one day, 40 degrees and rain the next. Some mornings it’s wool coat and scarf; other mornings it’s a light sweater, mostly because Rose-Anne likes her coat-ish sweaters. But the most obvious sign of the tussle between winter and spring is a funky, delicious salad that Rose-Anne has made multiple times in the last few weeks. It starts with a nice bed of crisp Romaine. A handful of broccoli slaw and thinly sliced radishes are next, topped by (this is the fun part) garlicky, spicy roasted potatoes. Finally a big spoonful of peanut sauce is dabbed strategically on top of the salad. Does it sound strange? It is, in a wonderful, perfectly satisfying way. Rose-Anne’s been eating it alongside a nice juicy orange and smiling in that smug, “I’m such a good cook” way of hers. I would drop something on her head just to wipe that obnoxious look off her face, but she did bring me two avocadoes, so maybe I’ll just leave her alone here.

In the meantime, dear reader, I hope your spring has been radiant and joyful. May your strawberries be fragrant and your greens crisp. And may your salads keep you satisfied, whether it feels more like spring or winter out there.

Rose-Anne’s Kitchen

Thai-Inspired Salad with Radishes and Roasted Potatoes
Inspired by Real Vegetarian Thai by Nancie McDermott

This salad was inspired by the recipe for Muslim-Style Salad with Peanut Dressing in Nancie McDermott’s charming Real Vegetarian Thai. I liked the idea of eating a green salad with crispy potatoes and a spicy peanut dressing—it sounded cool and fresh, crispy and creamy, with bites of warm potato and nutty-spicy dressing to heat things up. I love making salads—there’s something very energizing about preparing fresh, raw ingredients, just you, your knife, and a chopping board covered with vegetables. And there’s nothing like a salad to invite you to taste and tweak to your heart’s content. Salads are all about improvisation.

To make this salad, you need a bit of time, enough to roast some potatoes for about 45-50 minutes. While the potatoes are going, have a snack and make the peanut sauce. After the potatoes are done and cooling, prep the remaining salad vegetables and enjoy a very tasty dinner as a reward for all your hard work.

Note that you’ll have enough potatoes for 2-3 salads and enough peanut sauce for many salads—at least 6-8, I’d say. Normally I’d apologize for giving you such lumpy amounts of leftovers, but there are so many delicious things to do with leftover potatoes and peanut sauce that I won’t say I’m sorry. Instead, I’ll just suggest a few ideas. For the potatoes, try folding them into scrambled eggs or as the base for some Ugly Chili Fries. The potatoes can be reheated in the oven at 350 degrees F for a few minutes. Cover them with foil if they are getting too brown. For the peanut sauce, toss it with noodles or add to vegetable soup for body and peanut flavor. Or use it as a dip with vegetables!

For the potatoes:

4 waxy, not-too-starchy medium potatoes, such as red-skinned potatoes or Yukon golds
1 tbsp. garlic-infused olive oil
1/8-1/4 tsp. McCormick Grill Mates Spicy Montreal Steak seasoning, or to taste
Salt to taste
Cooking spray

1) Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
2) Rinse and dry the potatoes. Peel any funky spots. Remove any eyes, sprouts, or other unwanteds. Slice in half lengthwise, then slice into thin half-moon wedges.
3) Place potatoes in a bowl. Toss with garlic oil. Toss with steak seasoning and salt.
4) Spray a large baking sheet with cooking spray. Tumble the potatoes onto the baking sheet. Bake for 40-50 minutes, or until golden-brown and totally delicious-looking. After 20 minutes of baking, flip them over and move them around to help everything roast evenly.

For the peanut sauce:
Adapted from Nigella Express by Nigella Lawson
Makes a generous 1/2 cup

1 tbsp. sesame oil
1 tbsp. garlic-infused olive oil
1 tbsp. soy sauce
1 tsp. maple syrup
1/4 tsp. hot sauce, such as Tabasco
1/3 cup peanut butter
1 tsp. rice vinegar

1) Place all ingredients in a bowl. Whisk together until smooth. Taste and adjust the flavors as needed.

Finally, for the salad:

For one salad, I use the following:
2 large leaves of Romaine lettuce
1 broccoli stalk’s worth of broccoli slaw (prep directions are below)
2 radishes
A handful of warm roasted potatoes (recipe above)
1 tbsp. peanut sauce (recipe above)
1/2 tsp. rice vinegar
1/2 tsp. hot water

1) Tear the Romaine into bite-sized pieces and pile them onto a dinner plate.
2) To make the broccoli slaw, trim the rough outer layers of a broccoli stalk with vertical knife strokes down the stalk. Then use a box grater to grate the juicy inner stalk into shreds.
3) Trim the radishes and slice them into very thin rounds.
4) Pile the broccoli slaw and radishes onto the Romaine in alternating layers. Top with still-warm roasted potatoes.
5) Whisk the 1 tbsp. of peanut sauce with the rice vinegar and water. I do this to make a thinner sauce, which I think makes for a better salad dressing. Dab the peanut dressing in small blobs onto the salad in several places. Dig in!