Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Remember SnackWells? Dry baked potatoes? Rice cakes?

I’ve never worked with a more buttery cookbook than Gabrielle Hamilton's Prune. Everything swims in butter, but especially the vegetables. 

This raises some interesting questions. Most of us can agree that it is healthy to eat vegetables but not so healthy to eat huge amounts of butter.  But what if butter helps you to eat more vegetables? (And what constitutes a "huge" amount of butter, anyway?) What if butter makes vegetables so tasty that your son who goes weeks without consuming a plant actually eats a (buttery) tomato and says, “This is really good?”  What if a mountain of butter contributed to a pumpkin dish so indescribably salty/sweet/nutty/butterscotchy and delicious, that you drove home to reheat leftovers today rather than getting a frozen custard for lunch?

Obviously, I'm talking about actual Prune dishes.

Beefsteak tomatoes with warm French butter: Peeled, sliced, juicy tomatoes topped with sizzling salted butter. Not so appetizing when the butter eventually congealed all over the cold tomatoes, but so damned good when first brought to the table. 

Pumpkin in ginger beer with nutritional yeast: You slice pumpkin (I used red kuri squash) in wedges and pour over some ginger beer, sprinkle with nutritional yeast,* top with gobs of butter, and roast. How much butter? A third of a pound for a recipe that serves six. Does that seem like a huge amount of butter to you?  More than a stick? It seems like a huge amount to me. That’s just under two tablespoons per person. So many calories.

But then is that really so bad if it gets you to eat the pumpkin? And then after you eat the pumpkin (and the buttered beefsteak tomatoes and small pork chop) you are completely contented and full and don’t have any urge at all to see if there are Eskimo Pies in the freezer? 

I have no answers.

Ok, I guess I do have an answer. I think there’s too much butter on Prune's vegetables for everyday eating, but there’s probably too little butter on a lot of other vegetables. Habits of the fat-phobic1980s die hard.

 *Gabrielle Hamilton uses the terms “nutritional yeast” and “brewers yeast” interchangeably, but I have read they’re not the same thing. I used nutritional yeast.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Mastic fondant

The dish I most wanted to make from the minute I got my copy of Prune was the mastic fondant in ice water. The photo is so mysterious: a plain glass of ice water containing a blob of white paste and a spoon. Here’s a lovely picture of some fondant that resembles the shot in Prune. Can you see why it was intriguing?

Gabrielle Hamilton's vision for Prune didn't include headnotes explaining her recipes, so I had to turn to the internet to learn about mastic fondant. Mastic fondant comes from the apparently vast world of Greek spoon sweets: intense, sugary confections that are served in tiny portions with a glass of ice water.  Spoon sweets can be syrupy preserved fruits, eggplants, nuts, even olives, in addition to the fondant, which comes in different flavors. Mastic, in case you were wondering, is the resin from a Mediterranean evergreen tree; it emerges as sap, but by the time you buy it will look like very small, beige chunks of rock candy. Its flavor is faintly piney.

The other day, I made the mastic fondant. You grind your mastic, cook a syrup of sugar and glucose to 240 degrees, add the ground mastic, cool the syrup to 110 degrees, pour it onto a cold countertop and push it around with a bench scraper for a minute or so until it turns opaque and becomes so stiff that you can’t move it anymore. You then maneuver it into a jar for storage. When you want to serve it, you scoop up a spoonful and put it in a glass of ice water.

It all came off perfectly. I wasn’t going to serve this to anyone in my family so there was no point in waiting. I scooped myself some mastic fondant immediately, for breakfast. It was supersticky and dense with a barely discernible piney flavor. Mostly it tasted like the fondant you might find on a wedding cake, except wet and creamy.  Eating it is fun -- you sort of nibble at it and lick it and dunk it back in the glass where it softens a little more and every tiny bite comes with a refreshing film of cool water. Irresistible, though it wasn’t exactly delicious. It was more like having a delightful new toy.  I couldn't stop eating it. I ate mastic fondant all day and little else, pausing every few hours for another scoop of glucose.
just so you know I'm not making this all up
I felt like bloody hell by 5 o'clock.

Obviously, I love mastic fondant. I knew I would the minute I saw that photo of the white goo in the glass. You can probably tell from what I've written whether mastic fondant is your thing or not. I'm guessing it won't be.

I have to say, I love that Gabrielle Hamilton just threw this super-weird dessert in there between recipes for lemon panna cotta and pear tarte tatin, no context or explanation. Seriously, I love it. It makes the book more exciting, somehow.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Longest, foodiest post ever

pizza rustica
There are four categories of food in Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune
  1. food I would never make because it sounds revolting 
  2. food I would never make because the recipe is too complicated and/or the ingredients a huge hassle to find
  3. food I would happily make make because it looks tasty in a familiar way and the recipe seems manageable 
  4. food that looks so fascinating and weird that I absolutely MUST make it even though there’s a strong possibility I won’t love it. I don’t care how hard the recipe is.
The dishes in Prune are fairly evenly spread between these four categories, which is rare. Most cookbooks have a lot of dishes in categories #2 and #3 and few, if any, in categories #1 and #4.  Categories #1 and #4 are fellow travelers with vision, boldness, and arrogance, all qualities GH has in abundance.

I should say here that category #4 has always been my favorite category. There are category #4 dishes that I've been wondering about for decades, like Marcella Hazan’s tonnarelli with cantaloupe.

Here's a more detailed breakdown: 

I put GH’s recipes for veal heart, tripe, tongue, et cetera, into category #1. 

Category #2 is larger than it should be. Maiale tonnato -- thinly sliced pork blanketed in tuna mayonnaise -- looks great, but GH directs you to braise the pork in octopus broth. Not happening.  Likewise, a rice dish calls for duck stock and another dish for duck cracklings. Nope. Suckling pig is a nonstarter and I’m not asking the butcher to special order me pigeons. Also in category #2: banana bread. GH gives restaurant-scale pan measurements for the banana bread. So irritating and imperious. Screw that.

I’ve worked my way through Category #3 with fairly good results. I made her basic pork chops and oven-roasted cauliflower last winter and wrote about it. The fennel baked in cream was unbelievably rich and delicious.  I made her pancakes and that is one very obnoxious recipe. Hamilton has nothing to teach you about pancakes unless you want to be told to “measure out the dry ingredients and sift through a tamis” or “crack the eggs into a china cap set over a large metal bain.”  

I’ve made the spaghetti carbonara (good) twice and the dreamy kouign amann between five and ten times.  The poached peach with toasted almond cream was fine. I wouldn’t make that one again. The burgers were great, but I probably won’t make them again either because you can do good burgers without GH's time-consuming, cheffy twists. The smoky eggplant was lovely, but the accompanying sesame flatbread didn’t work. There’s a bona fide error in the recipe (the "1 1/4 cups water" should be 1/4 cup water), but even after I adjusted for that: problems. 

Her pan bagnat -- a version of the classic Provencal tuna-tomato-olive sandwich -- is insanely good. I made it twice in September. Recipe at end of the post.

But category #4 is the true glory of Prune. A cold pate sandwich on white bread slathered with mayonnaise and mustard? Never had one, but I’m on the case. Nor have I ever eaten bread heels and pan dripping salad. You roast two garlicky, lemony, mustardy chickens, tear them apart in the pans so they give up all their flavorful juices. Then you “put a few leaves of torn Bibb lettuce in a wooden salad bowl and slightly overdress. Set in a hot spot on a shelf above the grill until the salad looks sad and wilted. Set a couple of torn heels or crusts of bread on top of the salad in the bowl and spoon over a generous soaking of chicken pan drippings and a spoonful of vinaigrette.”


More category #4 dishes I haven't made, but plan to: Fresh Jersey tomatoes dressed with melted French butterMastic fondant -- a mysterious blob of sweet white goo that you serve in a glass of ice water. Fried mascarpone with fennel sugar. Black licorice granita

Of the category #4 dishes I've actually cooked, most have been sensational. Braised lamb shoulder with lemons. Peaches on buttered toast. Strawberry milk. Bacon and marmalade sandwich on pumpernickel. Grape Nuts with vanilla ice cream and maple syrup. I blame that last dish for at least three pounds of weight gain in 2015.

I don't think I got the salt-packed cold roast beef with bread crumb salsa quite right; I might have to try that again one of these years. The slushy frozen milk punch was too sharply alcoholic to make again, but was definitely category #4, as was a short-dough pizza rustica that contains nothing but flour, egg, butter, mozzarella, salt, and pepper. How could that possibly be anything but bland? It couldn't be. It is bland. Buttery, cheesy, floury, white, and bland. I liked it the first time I made it, but not all that much. And yet as the months passed I kept thinking about it. I made it again last night and it was exactly as remembered and I was so happy. I love this dish. The right kind of floury, buttery bland can worm its way into your heart.

I put the zucchini with green onions and poblano peppers in category #4 because I couldn’t imagine how poblano peppers (Mexican) would marry with a whole mess of sweet butter (French). The dish started to preoccupy me. The other night I made it and it was amazing. 

In conclusion, there is a lot of amazing in this cookbook. There is definitely some annoying, but there is more amazing.

I have now told you about every single dish I have cooked from Prune.

Two recipes for you. Banner day.

Zucchini with green onions and poblanos, slightly adapted

Slice 1 1/2 pounds firm, smallish zucchini into 3/4 inch rounds. Slice 1/4 pound scallions (yes, that's a lot) into 1/4 inch rings, using all of the vegetable -- don’t stop when you get to the dark green part. Thinly slice 3 cloves garlic. Chop 1 poblano into 1/2-inch pieces. Melt 3 tablespoons unsalted butter in a dutch oven over moderate heat. Add scallions, poblano, and garlic, season with salt, and let sweat for a few minutes with the lid on. Add the zucchini, season again to taste, add 3 tablespoons unsalted butter. Stir to coat the zucchini with butter and let cook for a minute or two. Add 2 tablespoons unsalted butter and cover tightly. Cook 20-25 minutes until soft and almost falling apart. This needs to be served with bread to soak up the juices, which are delicious. As you have probably surmised, it is not a diet dish.

Pan bagnat isn’t a diet dish either, but if you omit the bread and eat it as a salad, it works on almost every diet I can think of. I highly recommend trying it at least once with the bread.

1 pound fresh tuna 
2 tablespoon balsamic vinegar (I use fancy kind per GH’s instructions) 
1 pound ripe tomatoes cut into 1/2 inch dice (she says to peel and seed; I haven’t and wouldn’t)
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil 
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 lemon, supremed and chopped
2 tablespoons jarred capers 
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1/2 cup pitted, sliced kalamata olives
1 red bell pepper, chopped 
2 tablespoons thinly sliced scallions
1/4 cup red onion, thinly sliced into half moons
salt, black pepper

4 ciabatta rolls (Safeway carries them, though you can improvise with a loaf of ciabatta.)

Lightly brush tuna with olive oil, season with salt and pepper, sear in a very hot cast-iron skillet until medium rare. (Or grill the tuna -- that’s what she says to do.) Use your hands and tear the tuna into 1- or 2-inch hunks and strips. Combine all the other ingredients except the bread and nestle the tuna hunks in the mixture. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Slice ciabatta rolls horizontally, hinging, without cutting all the way through. Set on a sheet pan. Fill with the tuna -- really heap it in there and make sure you use plenty of the liquid. (You’ll have extra tuna so you could make another sandwich or two, but the tuna is good the next day on its own.) Cover the sandwiches with some parchment and weight down in the refrigerator for a few hours with something heavy, like an unopened box of kosher salt. Flip after an hour if you remember. These are messy, wet, and absolutely great.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Perfectly bent

English muffins spread with parsley butter await big, fat, grilled Prune burgers. 
Ok, Prune. Ouf. I have really dug myself into a hole with this one because instead of writing about it piecemeal the way I’ve written about other cookbooks, I got to know Gabrielle Hamilton's Prune on the sly, cheating on whatever I was doing with the blog to cook a dish from Prune every now and then. I did a lot of this over the last year and in the process all my feelings about the book changed dramatically. When I first got my copy of the cookbook I hated it with the fiery passion of the disappointed fan. Now I think it’s a masterpiece. And now I have to explain why all at once. Ouch.

Prune is not easy to love and not easy to cook from. In case you don't know what I'm talking about, Prune is a cookbook by Gabrielle Hamilton, a famous badass New York chef who runs a tiny, fetishized downtown restaurant. The book has no index, no introduction, and no headnotes. It is modeled on the massive recipe binder used at the restaurant and contains a multitude of scrawled, scolding notes from Hamilton as well as underlinings and fake stains.
The burgers -- made with beef and lamb -- were delicious. It looks like I didn't quite get that cheese melted.
The book isn't warm and friendly. It isn't charming. That's the point. You might well hate Prune, but the things you most hate about it are the very things that make it great.  It’s as if Hamilton looked at a sweet, pretty, puffy contemporary cookbook, read a few cloying headnotes, and said: No fucking way. Her book is tart, precise, bitchy, opinionated, uncompromising, personal, tight, and totally original. In my view, it was the best cookbook of 2014.

I love reading the recipes in Prune. They have a real voice and rhythm. (They also work, but more on that next time.) They can be funny. They can be sensual. Sometimes both in a very short space. Here's a segment from the recipe for sweetbreads (which I will never make):

"Thoroughly and neatly peel the membrane -- the thin, slippery, translucent 'skin' that encases the gland -- which will come off in a rather neat sheet. Trim off any waxy fat clusters which tend to cling to the underside of the gland, and gently tug out any egregious muddy brown veins. Try to pull out the tubular looking arteries as well. If you've made it this far and are not retching into a garbage can, leave the minor little capillaries intact in order not to have the lobe fall apart into nuggets. Portion into 4-ounce pieces, as possible.

Hamilton is wonderfully acerbic on the subject of organic produce, farmers' markets, and the like. From her Bloody Mary mix recipe:

"Be sure to inventory properly midweek to keep the house fully stocked so that we are not having to make Bloody Mary mix over the weekend with some crappy organic tomato juice or 'artisanal' 'small-batch' Worcestershire handshopped in an emergency at Whole Foods."

God forbid.

And here's a favorite passage of mine from the spaghetti carbonara recipe (which I have made and which is very good):

“Pay attention to the toothsomeness of the pasta -- don’t get lost in your timing and let this just boil away in the pickup until it is flabby and bloated and disgusting. . . . Ideally we want the strands slick with yellow, eggy egg yolk and smoky, salty, uriney pancetta fat, with all the granules of sweet, nutty grated parm clinging to the strands. You want to see the black pepper, taste the floralness of it, and feel the warm heat of it in the dish -- but don’t obliterate.” 

It looks tossed off and maybe even sloppy, but it's not. It's vivid. It's loose. It's great.

In the first episode of her run on the PBS series Mind of a Chef, Hamilton says that she’s a perfectionist, but that her idea of perfection is is different from others people’s. She says that she likes things “perfectly bent.” 

Prune is perfectly bent. 

Tomorrow: some food.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Eat, eat, read

Maui is pretty.
I’ve been having fun. Last week I went to Upcountry Maui on a magazine assignment and ran around looking for cool things to do and eat and found them in abundance. Meanwhile, I was also reading and reviewing two new self-helpy books by Elizabeth Gilbert (Big Magic) and Cheryl Strayed (Brave Enough), so all these inspirational lines about being generous and bold and receptive to inspiration and grateful and tackling life like a motherfucker* were floating through my head as I toured pineapple vodka distilleries and ate Spam musubi on the lush slopes of a tropical volcano. It was basically the ultimate high. I felt so energetic I started wondering if I was bipolar and having a manic episode.

Then I came home. It wasn’t a manic episode. I was just happy. Now that the homemaking/parenting years are drawing to a close, I wonder whether by embracing domesticity with such ardor I was simply making a virtue of necessity. I think I love my cozy nest of a home with the high-maintenance farm animals and 1000+ cookbooks, but I feel so much more alive when I’m racing around with my notebook trying to find the best bento box in Upcountry Maui and sleeping in a room I do not have to clean.
This was my only glimpse of beach. I was supposed to stick to inland Maui and dutifully did so. 
There are two categories of Hawaiian food and they could not be more different.  First, there is the slab of $42 macadamia-crusted ahi that you get at tourist restaurants. It is fresh, local, and good, though I always find myself struggling to finish fish like this because after few bites it becomes monotonous. The crust is delicious, but the inside of the fish is fish, bland fish. I finish, though, because it is so expensive I can't bear to waste it. Also, an ahi or an opah or a mahi mahi gave its precious life for me and I'm going to leave it on the plate? 

Then, there is the food that local people eat. For the most part, it isn't very fresh or local, not by Alice Waters standards. The plate lunch, the shave ice, the manapua, the warm $2.19 Spam musubi that you find under a heat lamp at Foodland. I was revolted by the idea of Spam musubi until last week when I finally tried it. I sat there in the supermarket parking lot eating Spam musubi and wondering what I was going to do when I got back to the Mainland and had to live without Spam musubi. Are you familiar with Spam musubi? Imagine a piece of nigiri sushi the size of a Twinkie, but warm, and instead of fish, it's topped with a slice of salty, delectably fatty, sausage-like meat. It is the best thing I ate in Upcountry Maui and I ate a lot of great stuff.

The second best thing I ate was the loco moco at a divey restaurant located in a trailer. Loco moco is a hamburger topped with fried egg and smothered in gravy, served over sticky white rice. The huge serving of loco moco I got at this dive also came with some macaroni salad and when you mixed that creamy macaroni salad with the rice and the salty brown gravy? I know how déclassé and gross that sounds, particularly when you consider that the gravy likely came from a can, but it was heaven. I had to physically push the plate away and ask for the check in order to stop myself from finishing every last bite. I needed to be able to wear my clothes home.

The red thing is a Surinam cherry from the Kula farmers' market. It was the fourth or fifth best thing I ate on Maui. It's got a super thin skin, sweet-tart juicy flesh, and a pit like a standard cherry. I couldn't figure out how to photograph it to best advantage, as you can see. If you ever have the chance to eat a Surinam cherry, do, but be sure it is really soft and ripe. 
Anyway, if you go to Hawaii, be sure you get out of the tourist restaurants and give that local food a chance. It may not be your thing, but I personally would always choose the $12 loco moco over the $42 macadamia-crusted ahi.

About those two books I reviewed. Strayed’s Brave Enough (it comes out later this fall) is a short collection of quotations from her previous work that apply to all kinds of profound life quandaries, like losing your mother or ending a romantic relationship. I’m not currently facing a profound life quandary but I still find myself flashing on her counsel ten or twenty times a day to solve the most trivial problems. Two I like especially:

"You know what I do when I feel jealous? I tell myself not to feel jealous. I shut down the Why not me? voice and replace it with one that says Don't be silly instead. It really is that easy. You actually do stop being an awful jealous person by stopping being an awful jealous person."

Don't do what you know on a gut level to be the wrong thing to do . . . It's hard to know what to do when you have a conflicting set of emotions and desires, but it's not as hard as we pretend it is. Saying it's hard is ultimately a justification to do whatever seems like the easiest thing to do -- have the affair, stay at that horrible job, end a friendship over a slight, keep tolerating someone who treats you terribly. There isn't a single dumbass thing I've done in my adult life that I didn't know was a dumbass thing to do while I was doing it."
The incredibly sweet pineapple in Hawaii might have been the third best thing I ate. 
As to Big Magic, it's imperfect, but warm and inspiring. I love Elizabeth Gilbert. You may feel differently; we can still be friends. I think she’s open-hearted, smart, and a force for good in the world. She helps me shut down the mean drill sergeant in my head who constantly yells at me for not keeping my boots spit-polished. 

I liked both the books a lot and my review is here

Speaking of drill sergeants, I’m going to cook from Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune for the next week or so. I was just flipping through the book trying to figure out what to make for Sunday dinner, resenting yet again the lack of an index. Gabrielle Hamilton is such a jerk. I wish her recipes weren't quite so good.

*Update: Cheryl Strayed word. Allusion. My father emailed me about it within 2 hours. 

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

We didn't inhale

Isabel's new home
Boy, is it hot out here in the San Francisco Bay Area. Hot and dry. Did I ever mention that our mulch caught fire last month on a day just like today? A day just like today except about 20 degrees cooler. A workman was reinforcing some concrete near the road and a warm piece of rebar he’d just sawed through fell into the fluffy, dry, redwood mulch. Whoosh! Instant fire covering about 20 square feet of the front yard. The workman came and banged on the door and I ran out barefoot and we extinguished the blaze, but it took 10 minutes or so of me spraying with a hose and him beating down flames with his shovel. We killed a lot of plants and broke some of the watering spigots. No point to this story, except: mulch? And: lucky.

California is ready for you, rain. 

I’m really betwixt and between right now, hence the lack of much interesting cooking or any posting at all. Life should straighten out next week. For real.

Here’s what’s been happening in the kitchen and out:

I've served several batches of the easy, delicious bread-and-tomato soup from Viana La Place's Verdura. According to my margin notes, I've been making this since August 1999, a year before Owen was born. That's the definition of a keeper. The recipe is at the end of the post and you should try it before the sweet summer tomatoes disappear.
almost effortless
I baked yet another kouign-amann from Gabrielle Hamilton's Prune. I love this cake madly, despite the fact that it always comes out looking burnt. 

it's all about the French butter and orange flower water
I think next week I have to write about my extensive and rewarding experiences with Hamilton's cantankerous cookbook. I've been putting this off.

One night for dinner I made the hearty riso al forno  (Arborio rice, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, olives, capers, provolone) from a recipe posted by The Wednesday Chef and it was really good. Recommend.
the kind of dish that is sometimes called "lusty"

That's about it for food.

At the very end of August, we went up to Washington and installed Isabel in her dorm at Whitman. Mark and I spent a few days observing the other kids (Birkenstocks, more bros than I’d expected at a little liberal arts school), listening to uplifting faculty speeches, traipsing from Home Depot to Walmart to Macy’s to Walgreens, buying fans, towels, sheets, et cetera. All is good. 

No. All is great. I'm not sad anymore. Not even a little. There’s a certain lightness you feel watching a very competent, composed child venture out into the world where she can grow in ways she no longer could in your care. I’ve been trying to explain it to people and this is the best I can do: Imagine you’ve spent 18 years teaching a kid to ride a bike, running alongside, encouraging, looking out for potholes, worrying she's going to fall and break her collarbone or get hit by a car.  You've really given it your all and she's gotten better and better and needed less and less help and finally you let go and now she’s disappeared to ride around the block, pedaling like a pro.

How do you feel? You feel lost for a few minutes, but then you sit down on a bench. You look around. It's a beautiful day. You gradually notice there are birds singing and there's a pleasant breeze and maybe you should wander over to that cafe and have a celebratory affogato while you wait for her to return some months from now. (It's a really big block.) You have that affogato. It is delicious. Where should you go next? So many options. Hmmm. Strange. What is the word for this bizarre feeling? Is it freedom? 

Suddenly you and your spouse start going out more, doing silly stuff you haven't done since you brought that first baby home from the hospital. You can't wait to hear what the girl has to tell you when she gets back from her ride and it dawns on you that you might have some new stories yourself.

I don't actually say all that to people. It's what I would like to convey without having to resort to a dumb bike metaphor.

Ok, speaking of silly stuff you might do with a spouse as your kids grow up, Mark and I went to a legal recreational marijuana shop while we were in Washington.  Is that what you call them? Marijuana shops? We were curious to see what it's like to buy cannabis in a store. In case you didn't already know, this is what it's like to buy cannabis in a store: You pull up in front of a nondescript building just off the freeway near a McDonald’s. You walk in and read signs telling you to put away any cameras. At a pharmacy window you show someone an ID. They admit you to a bland-looking back room with glass display cases that contain, among other things, cool little pipes. Other than the wares, it resembles a room where you might buy a cell phone. There is a United States map into which customers stick pins to show where they're from, and the whole country is dotted with pins. You somehow manage to squeeze another pin into the dense blob of pins on the San Francisco Bay Area. A friendly clerk hands you a menu with lists of marijuana products (cookies, joints, candies) and asks surreal questions like:  “Are you looking for something exhilarating? Or more relaxing? ”

I can’t remember what we said. We bought a caramel. Why not? 

surprisingly creamy and yummy
Anyway. Legal, guys! It was 100% legal. As legal as a bottle of Snapple. As legal as a Starbucks scone. And yet. I went to lunch with some casual friends the other day. I’m very fond of these two friends and we meet every few months for lunch, but I don’t know them that well -- which is a nice category of friend, the people you don’t know that well and may never, but are always pleased to see. I told them of my field trip to the marijuana shop because it seemed like a moderately interesting story. Not one of those great, urgent stories you tell when you first get together with casual friends, but the fourth or fifth story you bring out, when there’s a lull in conversation. I thought there was a lot to discuss, but my friends basically fell silent. One of them politely asked if I had a prescription for the pot and I explained that recreational pot is legal in Washington. Then there was silence again. I felt mildly embarrassed and wished I hadn't said anything. It occurred to me that some people probably still think marijuana is wrong, even if it's legal. Like abortion or gay marriage, I guess. On some level, I must think that too, given that my kids have seen me drink, but I would never smoke a joint in front of them.

Then again, I'm completely ok with them reading this post. The mental image of Mom and Dad buying a pot caramel is probably enough to turn them off drugs forever.  

Here's the soup recipe from Viana La Place. I feel like I've posted it before, but no. It's fantastic.

1 1/2 pounds tomatoes, peeled and coarsely chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
1 onion, chopped
a few basil leaves, coarsely chopped
2 bay leaves
kosher salt and pepper
pinch sugar, if needed
2 heaping cups crusty bread, cut into chunks or torn. (A stale baguette works great. Even if you have to break it with a hammer, it will come straight back to life in the soup.)
shredded sharp cheese (Parmesan, Pecorino)

1. Combine olive oil and onion in a soup pot and cook over low heat until onion is softened. 

2. Add the tomatoes, basil, and bay leaves and season with salt and pepper. Cook for 15 minutes over medium-low heat. 

3. Add 2 1/2 cups water and bring to a boil. Add the bread, stir, and turn off the heat. Taste. It might need a pinch of sugar. Cover and let sit for 10 minutes. Serve with cheese. Serves 4.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Helicopter parents and latchkey kids

Isabel back when I started this blog.
Over the past few weeks, people kept asking me how I felt about Isabel going to college and I would smile vaguely and say, “Sad, but she’s really ready to go.” 

The truth was I didn’t know how I felt.

On Wednesday, I went up to say good morning and see if she was all packed to leave for the airport and when I saw her there in her childhood bed, suddenly I knew exactly how I felt because I burst into tears. Her suitcases were lined up in the cozy room where she’d played in her dollhouse, read Beverly Cleary, had sleepovers, learned her times tables, sewed costumes, written college applications, dressed for the prom. . . 

Oh, it was so sad for me! I was abruptly and totally heartbroken. Eighteen-and-a-half years of cohabitation with this calm, thoughtful, lovely girl were over. I drove her to the airport and said a tearful goodbye. I would like to say I wept off and on for the rest of the day, but that’s a far too graceful term for what I did. I sobbed off and on for the rest of the day.

Do you know what was pathetic? Not the sobbing. What was pathetic was that I felt kind of ashamed of being so sad. I was especially ashamed of wanting to text her and see how she was doing that night. Ashamed of wanting to text her and tell her how much I missed her. Like, get a grip, Mom. At the back of my mind were two hideous little words that had never before made an appearance there: helicopter parent

I never liked that term, but I didn’t realize how much I loathed it until for a few fleeting moments I worried it might apply to me. What a contemptuous label to smack on someone whose attention to their child doesn’t fit your idea of what's appropriate.

Helicopter parents are the worst. They hover. They wring their hands. They noisily micromanage. The poor children of helicopter parents are (supposedly) flailing out in the real world because, among other things, their moms text them too much. Seriously. I've read this criticism of parents who text their college-age kids in about a half dozen different places. Eventually, it gets under your skin.

Meanwhile, the cool parents are raising independent “free-range kids," a term that brings to mind happy, organic chickens in a meadow with some buffalo under a big, blue, helicopter-less sky. Unsupervised, these kids learn to make their own decisions. They're taking the subway on their own. They're learning how to handle adversity. They're not being driven to soccer and ballet, they're playing stickball or roaming the woods. They're thriving. They probably don't even have cell phones.

When I was growing up, one of the snidest things you could say of a mother was that she was raising a “latchkey kid.” These pitiful creatures were on their own every afternoon while their parents were at work and this was considered a big problem. Unsupervised, they were forced to make their own decisions. They were taking the subway on their own. They were learning how to handle adversity. They weren't being driven to soccer and ballet, they were .  . . . well, back then it was assumed they were having sex and doing drugs. 

If you think about it, a free-range kid is really no different from a latchkey kid except, I guess, there's someone home to let the free-range kid in when she's done free ranging. Whatever that even means.

Parents are always supposedly screwing it up royally, one way or another. You can't win. And yet generation after generation, most kids have this way of growing up ok. All these labels and theories seem completely bogus to me at this point in my life, and yet there I was, hesitant about texting my own daughter.

Anyway. Wednesday was tragic. Thursday was better. Friday, I'm fine. I texted Isabel twice today, shamelessly.


I made these crunchy, chocolatey, peanutty bars and they are great but I’m not sure they're worth the trouble of tracking down the feuilletine and cocoa butter. If you have those two ingredients on hand, by all means go for it. 

I also made Laurie Colwin’s nutmeg cake for Isabel’s farewell dinner. It was her choice and a very good one. I hadn’t baked this cake in a few years and had forgotten how sticky, spicy, and delicious it is. I make it in a 9-inch pan and omit the cloves.