Friday, May 26, 2017

A furious rant

mi abuela, making tortillas
Really. This is a ferocious rant. Probably not what you came here for, but if I’m going to blog at all, this is what I’ve got today. 

I woke up yesterday morning to the audiotape of Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte assaulting reporter Ben Jacobs in Montana. It was horrifying. If you haven’t listened, you need to. Perhaps even more chilling than the attack, though, was the parade of moral midgets, including members of Congress, who justified Gianforte’s brutality, even reveled in it. We all know there are thugs out there, but who wants to see them defended by fellow citizens, let alone lawmakers? Who wants to find out that the sickness is systemic?

It appears to be systemic. Thanks, Trump. While I don’t think he’s the source of this ugliness, he unleashed and legitimized it. I am more disgusted with my country than I have ever been in my life.

Also trending on my Twitter feed yesterday morning was a sad, tawdry little story out of Oregon. Two young women went down to Mexico, learned how to make tortillas, started a food cart in Portland selling burritos made with their fresh tortillas, and gave a kind of dippy interview to a newspaper. This utterly banal story led to venomous charges of cultural appropriation and, apparently, death threats. In the comments thread and follow-up articles, so-called progressives alternately vilified and belittled the tortilla-makers for “appropriating” Mexican culture. (There were a lot of comments in support of the women as well, which is heartening.) One minute the women were attacked as “horrid” colonialist predators who viciously robbed secret tortilla recipes from impoverished Latina grandmothers, the next they were mocked as frivolous “Beckys” who thought it would be “cute” to filch someone else’s cuisine for their darling little cart.

The women shuttered their business a few days later and vanished from social media. 

A lot of reasonable people disagree with me, but I don’t believe cultural appropriation is a problem. I think the crusades against cultural appropriation are illiberal, mean-spirited, divisive, stifling, unAmerican, riddled with contradictions, ahistorical, and often just a flimsy excuse for self-righteous leftist scolding  — and worse.  I am pretty sure the critics in Portland who went after the tortilla makers were less interested in helping Mexican abuelas they’ve never met (and never will) than in scolding and shaming white girls. They were getting off on putting white girls in their place. There’s a lot of that going around these days among leftists of all races, including whites. Young white women seem to piss people off just by existing. 

But that’s not my concern right now. I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t think there was a more serious problem with this saga than the loss to Portland of a white-owned food cart

These scoldings — these intemperate tirades from the left — exact a price. All liberals end up paying that price, even those of us who despise the culture of scolding. We’re paying the price right now and it’s miserable. Meanwhile, cultural appropriation foes like those in Portland continue to blithely, arrogantly run up the tab. 

I’ve always been a liberal. I want liberal candidates to win elections, liberal laws to be enacted, liberal values to prevail. I would argue that going after people for cultural appropriation is not just illiberal in itself, but it impedes liberal political progress, by which I mean winning elections. Pillorying white female entrepreneurs is not how we, on the left, persuade white people in places like Montana to embrace the Democratic platform. It is not how we get people to stop voting for turds like Greg Gianforte. Indeed, these petty cultural tirades are one reason why white people in Montana vote for turds like Gianforte. Anyone who thinks voters in Red States don’t hear about tortilla nonsense in Portland doesn’t watch enough Fox News or check in at the National Review. Right-wing media outlets make damn sure their audiences know about it every time a yoga class is canceled because of  “cultural genocide.” Oh, those hilarious, asinine libtards! You can see the journalists licking their chops when they get to report that a Latina student at some elite college has decreed white girls can’t wear hoop earrings because it’s offensive to the “black and brown bodies who typically wear hooped earrings” and asks: “why should white girls be able to take part in this culture.”

Why indeed. And a good follow-up question would be: Why should ordinary white voters embrace this bullshit? Honestly, why? If the face of liberalism is a supercilious, censorious, self-righteous snot who rails against young white women because they sell tortillas, we have an electoral problem. Also, I need a new party.

Look, I don’t think the left is the primary driver of recent repulsive behavior on the right. Far from it. But some of us seem to be doing everything we can to make things even worse. I’m a white, lifelong liberal with a Latina grandmother who actually showed me how to pat out tortillas — and if I find this stuff obnoxious and alienating, it sure isn’t winning over harder hearts and minds. I hope the cultural left enjoyed its little “triumph” in Portland, that the “victory” of putting two naive young women out of business was sweet.  Because the electoral victory of the despicable Greg Gianforte —  a real, substantive victory that unfortunately requires no scare quotes —  is anything but. 

Back to more palatable fare soon.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Morning in America, May 2017

You can also eat it straight out of the jar. 
Jennifer, looking at her phone while still in bed: There’s no way Trump is going to serve out his term.

Mark: Well, you know what I think.

Jennifer: Right, you think he’s going to serve his term and get re-elected.

Mark: I think he’s going to serve all four years. Of course he is. He loves this stuff and what’s going to take him down?

Jennifer: Nope. Something is going to happen and he is going to resign. It will be sudden and swift. Let’s make a bet! You agree to go with me to the orangutan sanctuary in Borneo someday if he leaves office before his term is up. If he makes it to the end, I agree to go on the driving trip around the Great Lakes.

Mark: I’m not going to bet something that would make one of us unhappy.

Jennifer: I wouldn’t mind going to the Great Lakes.

Mark: Really?

Jennifer: You’d truly mind going to the orangutan sanctuary?

Mark: You know I would.

Jennifer: How about this: We get a dog if he leaves office, we don’t get a dog if makes it to the end.

Mark: I’m not going to bet something that would ruin our lives.

Jennifer: How about this: If he stays in office the full four years, we move to a townhouse without a yard or any animals.

The conversation petered out at this point because I get bummed thinking about the townhouse. Our imminent move to a sterile townhouse when Owen leaves is an ongoing joke that I increasingly worry is not a joke.

I went upstairs and pulled out the jar of Alton Brown’s overnight coconut oats that I mixed yesterday. I’ve been wanting to try this recipe since I first opened EveryDayCook back in December, but kept postponing because it looked incredibly fattening. I finally got tired of wondering what it tasted like.

What did it taste like? Ambrosia. The internet is packed with recipes for oats-in-a-jar that look like this one, but I have never tried any of them so I can’t say if Brown’s version is better or worse, only that it’s delicious, a creamy melange of oats, chia seeds, flaxseed meal, and nut milk topped with with crunchy coconut flakes. I ate my oats slowly, as I would a pudding, savoring every exquisite bite. I will be making this again, probably within hours.

I’ve made some adjustments to the recipe. Brown calls for 75 grams coconut milk and 75 grams almond milk — but he doesn’t specify the type of coconut milk. Does he mean the thick, rich coconut milk in a can? Or the thinner, lighter coconut milk you find in jugs in the refrigerator section of the supermarket? I went with the latter and used Califia Farms unsweetened, blended coconut and almond milk. But really, you could use any milk you want — soy, cashew, dairy. I also felt you could use less syrup and go easy on the dried fruit. I omitted cinnamon. 

You need a scale for this. 

Alton Brown’s Coconut Oats

150 grams mixed nut milk (see headnote)
12 grams maple syrup (or less)
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
40 grams rolled oats
30 grams dried fruit (or less, or add fresh berries when you eat the oats)
2 grams chia seeds
3 grams flaxseed meal
pinch of salt
toasted coconut flakes for topping

Shake the milk, maple syrup and vanilla in a pint jar until well blended. Add everything but the coconut flakes and shake the jar again, very vigorously. Screw on the lid. Refrigerate overnight. Top with the coconut flakes. Serves one.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Cultivating my garden

Overgrowth of poppies has made it hard to walk up the stairs, but I can't bring myself to tear them out. 
I’d kicked my Twitter addiction and was back to appreciating the tangible world around me, but then came last week. There I was puttering around the yard one afternoon, happily planting lavender, nice middle-aged lady having a nice middle-aged lady day, when I glanced at my phone, shrieked, sat down in the dirt, and that was all she wrote for gardening. 

Trump is so much worse than I thought he’d be — and I thought he’d be terrible.

But since I have nothing original or interesting to add to the national conversation, I’ll tell you how to make injera. 
They aren't supposed to look quite like that, but they tasted great.
Injera is the soft, super-sour Ethiopian flatbread that resembles a giant pancake and is used to scoop up whatever meats and stews are served at an Ethiopian meal. It’s delicious. Something about the sourness piques your appetite, makes you want to eat more and more and more which is the last thing I need, but that’s beside the point. It was a longstanding goal of mine to make injera at home and my various attempts had all ended in tears. Most injera recipes in books and on the internet simply do not work. Period.

Which is why a few Saturdays ago I found myself in an Ethiopian cooking class trying to fry onions in a pot without any oil. One of the odd features of Ethiopian cuisine, at least Ethiopian cuisine as taught in this class, is that you add oil after you’ve cooked the onions. I’m not sure why. The teacher certainly didn’t enlighten us. It was a strange class. To start with, it was held in a vast hangar-like warehouse in the dark reaches of which people seemed to be soldering metal and repairing cars. The teacher was a petite Ethiopian woman with minimal English who had no printed recipes to distribute and seemed curiously grudging about sharing information. She assigned each of us a work station stocked with rudimentary foodstuffs and we proceeded to prepare unnamed legume-based stews according to haphazard verbal instructions. You had to guess what the ingredients were — was that red powder paprika? Cayenne? Berbere? I still don’t know. She’d wander by periodically to tell you that now it was time to chop the onion or add the salt or turn off the hotplate, and then a few minutes later she’d wander back and reproach you because whatever you’d done was wrong. I have no idea what we made and couldn’t begin to replicate any of it. 

Except the injera. I was there to learn to make injera and I learned to make injera.

If you’ve never wanted to make injera, you should stop reading because you will fall asleep. If you’ve  always wanted to make injera, the following formula worked perfectly at the warehouse and adequately — though not perfectly — a week later in my own kitchen.  You will need to track down two special flours — dagussa and zengada — and you will need some sourdough starter. I had thought injera was always made from teff flour, but our teacher used dagussa and zengada, which she told us were varieties of “finger millet” flour, but that may not be correct. I can’t confirm. (I find something very creepy about the term “finger millet.”)

Once you have your flours and starter this is what you do: 

In a bowl, combine 1 part dagussa, 1 part zengada, and 2 parts all-purpose flour. Add some starter. We didn’t measure in the class, but at home, to four cups mixed flour I added about 1/2 cup starter. Now add enough warm water to make a thin, creamy batter. Mix well. Cover the bowl and let it sit for three or four days on your counter. It will bubble and begin to smell intensely sour.

When you’re ready to cook, heat up the closest thing you have to a non-stick skillet. In class, the teacher used a dedicated round electric skillet to cook the injera, but a cast-iron pan worked well for me. When your skillet is really hot, pour some batter into it, swirl it around to completely coat the pan as you would a crepe. Pop on a lid. After a few minutes, lift the lid and if the injera is cooked (not wet on top, but not desiccated — you’re aiming for tender, pliable, spongy), remove the bread from the pan and make another injera. Proceed until all the injera are cooked and serve with Ethiopian entrees like this, which worked well.

They were not enthusiastic. 
The flavor of my injera was lovely. The texture, not. It was somewhat rough and leathery, and it never rose, never achieved that little “lift” of proper injera. I briefly considered trying to go for perfect, fluffy, spongy injera like you get in restaurants, but decided that there were other things I’d rather do with my free time. I was satisfied with my imperfect, tasty injera and crossed Project Injera off my list.

A few things I’ve done rather than perfecting injera that you might enjoy as well:

*Watched Srugim. Sweet, droll Israeli TV series about the romantic travails of young, religious Jews whose courtship rituals are no less rigid than those of Elizabeth and Darcy. Window into a world I know nothing about. Charming and fascinating. (Amazon Prime.)

*Watched Obit. Documentary about obituary writers at the New York Times. It’s funny! Also informative and actually rather uplifting. Trust me, you’ll be glad you saw it.

*Worked a lot in the garden, which is good for the head, hell on the hands. Wear gloves.  

I love these little guys.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

The world really has been shaved by a drunken barber

Saturday afternoon, Owen said, “What are you making for dinner?”

I said, “Nothing. I’m not cooking anymore.”

Owen: “I haven’t had a healthy meal since the last time you cooked.”

Me: “Maybe you should have thought about that when you made gagging noises every time you walked through the kitchen and saw me cooking.”

Owen “I didn’t make gagging noises when you were making meatloaf. I always like when you make pasta.”

Me: “Are you saying you want me to start cooking again?”

Owen: “You’re just trying to get me to say that.”

Me: “Well, if you asked me to start cooking again, I’d be really happy.” 

Owen: “I’ll see how long I can hold out. I don’t want to give in.” 

Me: “Oh, come on.”

Owen: “Does this mean you’re not going to write down all your good recipes for me when I leave home so I won’t starve?”

Me: “I’ll still do that.”

Owen: “What about the ground beef with fish sauce? I love that. I never complain about that. You could make that tonight. What ingredients do you need?”

Me: “We don’t have the ingredients and I’m not cooking tonight.” 

Every now and then, I stop cooking for a while because the family narrative around my cooking — “Mom and the crazy stuff she makes that no one likes” — becomes too tiresome. Also, I can be lazy. Conveniently, I can justify the laziness by reminding everyone (and myself) about the lack of appreciation.

This has been one of the longer strikes.

But I couldn’t keep it up. I never can. I started to feel like I was betraying something important to my identity, not to mention my body, when I found myself making a meal of some black olives, a spoonful of peanut butter, and a mini Mr. Goodbar.

And Owen’s daily queries as to what I was cooking for dinner began to seem plaintive. I do actually sort of like that boy.

Strike over.

Monday, I made the fish fingers from Alton Brown’s excellent EveryDayCook. You chop up some white fish (I used cod) and mix it with breadcrumbs, egg, mustard, mayo, and seasonings, form it into fingers, fry these in just a little oil, and serve with homemade tartar sauce. Solid recipe here

Owen had to leave for a school play before I officially served dinner and he hovered over the pan, trying to get me to cook his fish fingers faster so he wouldn’t be late. He wolfed them down in about 90 seconds, no gagging sounds or complaints, and when he left half a fish finger on the plate he said, “The only reason I’m not finishing that, Mom, is that I really have to go.”

The kid was trying. 

Last night, I picked Owen up at his ceramics class and on the way home we stopped at Safeway so I could buy ingredients for Alton Brown’s breakfast sausage carbonara. Brown calls for whole wheat pasta in this recipe and I told Owen that while whole wheat spaghetti was healthier, he might not like it and maybe we should get regular pasta. He voted for whole wheat. Not sure why.

I made the carbonara, which is very similar to other carbonaras, but a bit eggier and subs breakfast sausage for pancetta. Mark took one bite and pushed the bowl away on account of the whole wheat pasta. Owen had seconds. He didn’t say the carbonara was “great” because it wasn’t, but neither did he treat it as something I’d cruelly inflicted on him. 

Whole wheat spaghetti really is pretty bad. 

The recipe is here, though I don’t recommend it. I prefer this carbonara.

If I keep playing my cards right, I think the cooking narrative in this family is going to change for the better.


And now a weird little story that has nothing to do with food

The other day I went to a matinee screening of Frank Capra’s 1941 Meet John Doe, which I’d been wanting to see for years. The film is about cynical plutocrats and the pure-hearted John Doe, played by Gary Cooper, who inspires downtrodden, divided Americans to start talking to each other and unite around their shared suffering. 

My fellow moviegoers were very elderly, which is always the case when you go to a matinee in the suburbs midweek. I was probably the youngest person there by twenty or thirty years — and I’m not young.

About five minutes before the end of the film, two old women came in, not realizing that there was another half hour before the showing of the next film. One of the women was talking very loudly in a growly old lady voice and she did not lower that voice even when it should have been obvious that there was a film in progress. She had reached the age of obliviousness. She was leaning on her companion’s arm as they walked slowly down the aisle and she kept saying, “I can’t see anything. Where are the chairs?” 
This inspired a barrage of fierce “Be quiets!” from the audience. 

The women paused at the row behind me and the loud one began fumbling around trying to find the flip-down seat, issuing full-throated instructions to her ancient companion. She was flustered. I got up and helped her into her seat because I am, as everyone knows, an angel.

The woman kept talking during this painstaking process. Just as I sat back down, another old woman from elsewhere in the theater stood up, walked over, glared at the woman behind me, and said furiously:  “You need to be quiet!” She returned to her seat.

I could have sworn I heard the woman behind me say “cunt” but I simply can not believe she really did and prefer not to. Plus, an instant later she remarked with innocent delight, “Look, it’s Gary Cooper!” She pronounced “Gary” like “Harry.” 

This last, happy outburst inspired an old man now to get up and walk over. “Stop talking!” he hissed. It was as if he’d missed his first opportunity to issue an in-person rebuke, goddamnit, and he wasn’t going to let this one go by.

I really can not convey how bizarre this was. 

Two minutes later, the film ended. I ran out of the theater.

If you haven’t seen Meet John Doe, you should. Gary Cooper was impossibly handsome and the film is sweet and uplifting and made me cry. It is particularly poignant given how everyone seems to hate each other in our country right now. The film delivers a lovely message about showing charity and generosity to our frail fellow humans, a message that at least two people in the audience with me seemed to have missed completely.

It really does seem like people are suddenly meaner. Whether this was an anomaly or a sign of the times I have no idea, but in my many thousands of misspent hours in movie theaters, I’ve never before seen anyone — let alone two people — actually get out of their seats and march over to scold someone.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Swimming sadly under a small pond of ketchup

I caved and bought A Meatloaf in Every Oven by Frank Bruni and Jennifer Steinhauer, not because I wanted a meatloaf cookbook (I so didn’t) but because I’ve always loved Steinhauer’s writing and consider Bruni’s book about colleges essential, sedative reading if you’ve got a kid slogging through second half of high school. The two New York Times writers bonded over meat loaf (“In a given series of emails we’ll toggle from Senate filibusters to sauteed shiitakes, from Obamacare to oregano.”) and I expected their collaboration to be funny and clever. It doesn’t disappoint.

Tasty sample passage: “Perhaps this is your personal memory of meatloaf: someone’s mother’s overcooked, underseasoned, sort of needlessly, unpleasantly crunchy slab of meat, swimming sadly under a small pond of ketchup. Not that we hate ketchup. In fact, we embrace it. We date it. We want to marry it. But we also want it to see other people.”

There are chapters here devoted to lamb meatloaves, classic meatloaves, meatless loaves (tuna melt loaf, kasha loaf), and meatloaf side dishes. In their day jobs, Steinhauer and Bruni report on politics and the penultimate chapter collects meatloaf recipes contributed by members of Congress. Chuck Schumer cooks barbecued chicken in the same pan with his very plain meatloaf, which does not appeal to me at all. Nancy Pelosi makes a bison-and-veal loaf — “and things get mysterious with the appearance of cumin.” Paul Ryan shoots deer, grinds them up in his own power grinder, then desecrates the poor venison with Lipton onion soup mix and Progresso breadcrumbs. I’m sure it’s lousy. Paul Ryan is dead to me. 

Now, if Adam Schiff had a meatloaf recipe. . . 

Last night, I tried out the Swedish meatball loaf, an homage to Ikea’s Swedish meatballs which I have never tasted, though apparently the company sells a billion of these “bouncy” textured meatballs per year. You flavor a beef-pork-onion-bread-egg-cream melange with nutmeg and allspice, bake, top with a creamy gravy and some raspberry jam. The meatloaf required significantly more time in the oven than indicated to reach the suggested internal temperature, but otherwise the recipe worked perfectly.  Isabel (home for spring break) brought a friend to dinner and he complimented the meatloaf. It may have just been good manners, but he seemed sincere and I glowed with matronly pride. In any case, he didn’t get someone’s mother’s overcooked, underseasoned, sort of needlessly, unpleasantly crunchy, slab of meat. 

Although I didn’t really want a meatloaf compendium, I suspect I’ll use this one a lot. Meatloaf is easy, cheap, and satisfying, and flipping through the book this morning I wondered if I could get away with making meatloaf again tonight. (Conclusion: No one would mind but me and I would mind.) 

On another subject, I have mixed feelings about the writer Walter Kirn who can be a sour, contrarian cuss, but he’s never boring and he wrote a big-hearted, sad, inspiring essay in this month’s Harper’s. I urge you to seek it out in print if you can’t get past the paywall. Without listening to the radio or checking the internet, Kirn drives from Montana to Las Vegas through Idaho and the “big and biblical” landscape of Utah, observing and pondering what he encounters in the physical, visible world, from bumper stickers and elderly McDonald’s cashiers, to mules, truckers, and Mexican restaurants. There’s a lot of wonderful stuff in this essay. I would like to have the haunting final sentenced tattooed — or maybe branded — on my forearm so I have to look at it every time my twitching hand reaches for the phone for a quick, agitating, empty Twitter fix:

“In a supposedly post-factual time, deep attention to the passing scene is a radical act, reviving one’s sense that the world is real, worth fighting for, and that politics is a material phenomenon, its consequences embedded in things seen.”

Really, you should read the whole story. 

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Ruining a Russian Count's Castle

David Plotz, CEO of Atlas Obscura and longtime host of the Slate Political Gabfest, wrote a cracking review of Samarkand and Taste of Persia the other day in the Piglet, but one line stopped me cold:

“I ended up cooking a full meal from each book: A soup, a vegetable, a starch, and a meat.”

Pardon? What kind of “full meal” has a soup course, but no dessert?

I wondered if perhaps Taste of Persia and Samarkand didn’t contain any appealing sweets, but feast your eyes, my friends

That is a photo from the pages of Samarkand of an Uzbek cake called Ruining a Russian Count’s Castle. The very existence of cake called Ruining a Russian Count’s Castle makes me glad to be alive. 

I decided to make one.

I haven’t learned the origins of the Ruining a Russian Count’s Castle cake, nor the source of its name, as research materials on Uzbek cakes are scant, even online. But then I only spent about seven minutes looking. What I do know about Ruining a Russian Count’s Castle: You can use a base of profiteroles, meringue, torte, or sponge cake. Atop whatever base you opt for, heap a mound of cream, stud with meringues (cocoa-flavored or plain), and drizzle chocolate over all. Here’s the range of ways a Ruining a Russian Count’s Castle might look. What a world. 
flat as a pancake, loaded with prunes
I had my doubts about the Samarkand recipe. The base cake was dense and flat, barely an inch tall, and full of prunes and walnuts. The whipped cream topping called for heavy cream and sour cream but no sugar. This felt wrong, so I added sugar (and would do so again.) The instructions have you slather some of this cream on the cake, then crush a few of the cocoa meringues into the remainder of the cream so you can create a stiff mound that will hold the rest of your little meringues. You end up with a wonderful monstrosity of a cake. 

This seemed like a novelty cake, a stunt cake, and I didn’t expect it to taste good. But we loved it. There’s so much going on. You’ve got your little crispy meringues to nibble on, then a layer of cream with delectable bits of sugary crushed meringue. Beneath this you get to the layer of pure, tangy cream and then the dense, nutty torte. As soon as you get tired of any one element, you can move on to another, and they're all delicious. Mark asked if the fruit in the torte was cherry. It’s a good sign when someone thinks a prune is a cherry. I was sorry to have to tell him otherwise.

Total delight this cake, both the idea of it and the thing itself.

I also made an easy sesame-ginger brittle from Samarkand and have spent the last few days trying not to eat it all up at once. You boil honey, sugar, and water together, add sesame seeds and whole almonds, cook for a bit, add butter, candied ginger and baking soda, pour over a cookie sheet, cool, break into shards, eat a caramelly, crunchy piece, try to resist eating a second piece, eat a second, try to resist. . .  and so on. Ten minutes to produce this tasty treat. Fifteen max.

Plotz made a good call on Samarkand.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Spring Cleaning

rose-flavored cronuts, more beautiful than delicious 
Inconsiderate Food52 once again scheduled the Piglet to begin during so-called “Ski Week” when there’s no school and a lot of people go skiing. We dont ski, but I took Owen to see some colleges and wasn’t able to bird dog the competition the way I would have liked. 

Or would I have liked? While I’ve been reading the Piglet judgments loyally, I just haven’t gotten excited yet and have no strong feelings about any of the books. Is it because there have been no rude, controversial, totally lame judgments? Because I’m obsessed with politics, not cookbooks?

A little spring cleaning before moving on to new cooking adventures:

*Alton Brown’s Big Fat Greek Chicken Salad is a great, healthy chicken salad, full of protein, vegetables, Greek yogurt, feta, olives, and flavor. It’s a dream dish if you’re on a low-carb diet which I was for a couple of weeks. I put some of this in a Mason jar to take on the airplane when Owen and I went to look at colleges and it wasn’t half as embarrassing to eat while sitting in the middle seat as I thought it would be. I used rotisserie chicken. Worked great. You should try it.  

*Low-carb diet ended abruptly the first night in Savannah, Georgia at a barbecue restaurant. I made it through the savory portion of the meal without succumbing to starchy sides, but then pear cobbler and sweet potato pie happened. Southern dessert are so generous and sweet and fat and forgiving. I love them bigly. No regrets. The sad thing is (or maybe it’s the happy thing), I didn’t feel any worse after eating all that sugar than I had during my abstinence. I slept fine, plenty of energy, good mood, didn’t balloon overnight, wasn’t suddenly overcome with cravings. The next day: fresh shrimp, boiled peanuts, peach cobbler. Heaven. Continued to feel great. Owen determined that he loved the Savannah College of Art and Design and so we moved on to the next leg of our journey where there were no tempting carbohydrates.

*Rural western Pennsylvania. Terrible food and we saw more Confederate flags than we had in Savannah, where I don’t think we saw any at all. I don’t have much nice to say about our experience of rural western Pennsylvania, so I will be brief. We toured one sweet college and we were supposed to tour another but there were addicts in the hotel parking lot and bed bugs in the bed. I told Owen he could not go to school in a town where this was the highest rated hotel on TripAdvisor. Feel free to call me a snob, but you did not see those bed bugs. 

a "fully-loaded" halo halo.
*So we skipped the second school and drove to New York City instead. Brilliant decision. Cronuts at Dominique Ansel, halo halo at Lumpia Shack, a Monte Cristo sandwich at Shopsin’s, steak at Peter Luger, a grilled cheese sandwich at Marlow & Son. . . . plus some sightseeing, theater, and Pratt. One of my favorite trips ever.

Now we’re home in California and I should probably go back on my low-carb diet before the good fruit starts coming in. 

This is the year of the Big Lebowski sweater.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Shudder Shot or Screamshot?

I saw the jug of unsweetened almond-coconut milk in the fridge the other morning and got this idea that it would be tasty mixed with vanilla protein powder and the cold coffee left at the bottom of the pot. High protein! Low carb! Caffeine!  Like a treat, if not a treat. So I made myself a big dishwater-colored “shake” and sucked it all down in about 20 minutes. What happened next helped me understand how all how those mysterious liquid diets work. My appetite was obliterated. Nuked. Razed. I didn’t feel satisfied so much as blunted and dull, but I did not think about food for the rest of the day.

Ten hours after the shake, I made dinner, and even then I had little interest in eating. I made the lamb chops from Naomi Pomeroy’s Taste & Technique, which I had hoped would be as extraordinary as the salmon from the night before. The method was almost identical: You sear your meat in oil in hot pan, add butter, finish in the oven, basting with the butter. Results: fine. Nothing special.

Last night, I tried Pomeroy’s method for cooking chicken breasts which is — guess what? —  almost exactly the same as her method for cooking salmon and lamb chops. Sear in pan on stove, add butter, finish in oven. A few fussy steps in there, easily eliminated. I think the key to this recipe is that she has you brine the chicken for an hour, which transformed the drabbest meat on the planet into something pleasantly salty and alluring. 

I like this book and its plain, satisfying dishes. As always, once I get started with a book, I want to try everything.


On another subject, you know that hideous moment when you go to take a picture with your phone and it reverses and suddenly you’re treated to the image of your own face from a severely unflattering angle that accentuates double chins and wrinkles? I’ve always thought there should be a name for that moment and when this horrible thing happened to me the other day as I was preparing to photograph lamb chops it came to me: Screamshot. Genius. I told Owen, who was the only other person in the house, about my new word, and he looked at me with utter disdain. He said everyone in the world was already familiar with the phenomenon and “screamshot” was an incredibly dumb name. Why would anyone want to scream? 

There’s a word for someone who asks that idiotic question: sixteen.

Mark prefers “Shudder Shot.” 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Crazy and complicated, plain and simple

bright and crunchy
Just when you think youve licked your addiction, a day like yesterday comes along and Twitter gives gives gives and then gives some more, like a broken slot machine. Mark and I were recovering from a rich dinner and slightly queasy new episode of Girls when I checked my phone one last time and whoa. If you know what Im talking about, great. If not, go read a newspaper! Today I met someone who had no idea what was going on in the world and while this is often sane and refreshing, sometimes I want to say: Dude, you are missing out. 

Anyway, I didn’t sleep well after several hours of Don Lemon and Twitter, but in fact the insomnia had more to do with the rich dinner I served than the news. Pivoting now to cooking.

As cookbook lovers know, Food52 announced its 2017 Piglet finalists yesterday. I own several of the titles (Koreatown, Deep Run Roots, Dorie’s Cookies), know something about a few others (Simple, Sirocco), and hadn’t heard of most the rest. At the library, Naomi Pomeroy’s Taste & Technique was on the new arrivals shelf so I grabbed it. This handsome book will teach you to make aioli, braise short ribs, and saute kale, presumably, hopefully with better results than ever before. After flipping through the book a couple times, I was respectful, if not bubbling over with enthusiasm. After cooking a meal from its pages, I am respectful and more enthusiastic, if not bubbling over. It takes a lot to get me bubbling these days. 

big and strong

The meal I cooked: pan-roasted salmon and long-cooked green beans. Here’s what went on my grocery list: salmon and green beans. It’s that kind of cookbook. 

To make the vegetable, you immerse trimmed green beans in a pint (!) of warm olive oil and let them simmer very gently for an hour or so until they’re drab and almost falling apart. I thought I didn’t like overcooked green beans, but it turns out I do. They required a lot more salt than the recipe indicated and a slightly longer cooking time, but otherwise the recipe was flawless and the beans very, very good. I may re-use some of the oil to try the long-cooked broccoli variation.

drab and soft
The salmon was even better. The salmon was sensational. Probably the best technique I’ve tried for cooking salmon, and I’ve tried plenty. You season your salmon filet then sear, skin-side down, in a hot, oiled skillet for three minutes. Melt a hunk of butter in the pan, baste the top of your fish, pop in the oven for a few minutes, baste some more, and serve. You could add lemon and capers to the butter, I suppose, but it was delicious as was. My one qualm: It was superrich, particularly when served with green beans poached in a pint of olive oil. But we loved this salmon, loved this meal, and I have already decided what dishes to try on Thursday and Friday nights. 

Today I put the leftover salmon into a green salad dressed with the cacao nib vinaigrette from Alton Brown’s EveryDayCook. Salmon and chocolate vinaigrette? I know. But it was fine. I made the dressing a few days ago and have used it on several salads with lovely results. You grind some cacao nibs, infuse into olive oil over low heat, mix with shallots and balsamic, and end up with a unique and tasty vinaigrette that would work especially well, I think, on a salad of spring greens, fresh cherries, and cheese. But it worked great on salmon salad, too. 

Other stuff:

*The fudgy mocha brownies from Dorie’s Cookies overwhelmed me. Too tall, too bulky, too nutty, too much chocolate, too much coffee. I served these bruisers to my in-laws, who are chocolate fiends, unlike me, and even they approached them cautiously. Not a fail, but I wouldn’t make them again.

*The narrative of villainy and greed that unfolds in Jane Mayer’s Dark Money beggars belief. I had taken it on faith that the Koch brothers were evil because that’s what the people I respect and the news media I follow always said. But I couldn’t have told you why the Kochs were awful; I would have muttered something vague and tried to change the subject. I’m only on disc 7 of this audiobook, but I can now tell you why the Koch brothers are terrible in gruesome detail. The narrator mispronounces a word every ten minutes or so, but otherwise does a great job with this informative and enraging book. 

*Finally, I enjoyed this interview with Slate book critic Laura Miller. You should read it for yourself, but here is my favorite passage: “It’s such an act of grace to give someone else ten or fifteen hours out of your own irreplaceable life, and allow their voice, thoughts, and imaginings into your head. I can’t respect any writer who isn’t abjectly grateful for the faith, generosity, and trust in that. I think there’s an unspoken, maybe even unconscious contempt for reading as merely “passive” in many people who obsess about writers and writing.”  

I am abjectly grateful to anyone who has given the last seven minutes of their own irreplaceable life to allowing my voice, thoughts, and imaginings into their head. 

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Dorie's Cookies

mediocre picture of a great picture in Dorie's Cookies
All cookbooks and cooking this morning. Dad, you don’t need to keep reading.

I want to make every recipe in Dorie’s Cookies and if I were skinny I would do so in an orderly and compulsive fashion starting today. I love this cookbook.

First of all, it’s gorgeous — bright and brash and almost abstract. It really pops in the sea of muted, matte-page books with their scenes of staged rusticity. The close-up shots of cookies depict them not as trivial consumables, but as strange, magnificent objects in and of themselves. It’s a big departure for Dorie whose previous books were somewhat stodgy in their design, as Gabrielle Hamilton pointed out in her unfriendly review of Around My French Table. I wonder if Hamilton’s sharp remarks stuck in the back of Dorie’s head. (I am calling Dorie “Dorie” because she seems to be inviting that with the name of her book and her friendly persona. Calling Gabrielle Hamilton “Gabrielle” would be unthinkable.)

In addition to being lovely to look at, Dorie’s Cookies is a big, heavy book. You can get lost in its 482 pages. Hundreds of recipes, countless variations. Amplitude. Bounty. Generosity. Wonderful qualities in a cookbook.

But is there really anything new left to say about cookies? 

To quote an amazon reviewer:

 “For some reason, I had assumed that it would be more like a "cookie bible"... a source of standard, well loved cookies from all over the world. Not at all! Dorie's Cookies is more like a Senior Thesis on cookies- like Dorie sat around in her kitchen trying out recipes that turn traditional cookie making on it's head.”

Exactly. There are classics here, but there’s a lot of invention too. I usually approach inventive recipes with caution, but I’ve made scores of Dorie’s recipes over the years and can only remember a few duds. She anticipates your questions. She warns you of pitfalls. She tells you that the dough might crack and what to do if it does. She offers alternative ingredients in case you don’t have espresso beans on hand. I would guess that in elementary school, Dorie Greenspan sat in the front row and always did the extra credit. Even though she was the teacher’s pet, everyone loved her because she was truly nice.

She’s not a schoolgirl, though. She’s a total pro. 

I overbaked my coffee malteds (see upper left corner) but they were nonetheless delicious.

That’s a long preamble to a paragraph about a simple recipe, the first I’ve made from the book. The coffee malted is a basic butter cookie flavored with malt powder and coffee. Easy. Unusual. Delicious. I “whipped these up” just before my in-laws arrived for dinner last night. My father-in-law ate about a half dozen, my mother-in-law probably ate three, Mark made an ice cream sandwich with his, I ate two and 2/3 cookies, and Owen, the only underweight member of our party, ate 1/3 of a cookie.

Coffee malteds:  A

The other dish I served my in laws last night wasn’t so awesome. If you’re tempted to try the pork shoulder with pineapple, sesame, and broccoli in this month’s Bon Appetit, I would suggest you don’t. It’s just too tricky. The recipe says to cut a pork shoulder into 1-inch steaks, but doesn’t account for how fatty and ungainly a pork shoulder is. I ended up with these disjointed, floppy, uneven steaks, something Dorie never would have countenanced. I could have really used some advice. The meat required twice as long on the stove as indicated and was still rare in random places. One bite was fatty and tough, the next dismayingly soft and pink. The broccoli and pineapple added little. I was bummed. 

Pork with pineapple and broccoli: C-

But then I brought out the cookies.  

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Grant me the serenity

Thomas Friedman, The New York Times, January 25, 2017:

“He can make you so nuts — he can so vacuum your brains out — that you find yourself slumped on the sofa all day refreshing Twitter, eating a big bowl of your son’s Honey Nut Cheerios, Cheerio by Cheerio, dry, for lunch, with a piece of prosciutto, for dessert as your whole personality drains out through your left heel and you find yourself in an agitated trance 24-7, not to mention fat.”

I took some liberties with the second half of Friedman’s quote.

I’ve written about my addiction before, but I think I finally hit bottom. At least I hope that was bottom. My only goal for January 25, 2017 was to stay off the internet. Because my laptop has been used primarily for monitoring Twitter in recent weeks, yesterday I did not touch my laptop. When I had thoughts that required expression, I wrote them on pieces of paper with a pen. I read stuff on paper. I finished Ian McGuireThe North Water, a novel full of pus, blood, sodomy, and frostbite in which the protagonist shelters in the hollowed-out carcass of a freshly-killed polar bear. It’s gross. It’s great. Leonardo DiCaprio should star. Then I started and almost finished Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House which is one weird, excellent book. 

When I came across words I didn’t know, I walked over to the dictionary and looked them up. Dimity, in case you’ve ever wondered, is a kind of thin fabric with checks traced by thicker thread. The curtains in Hill House are dimity. I wrote down passages I admired in my notebook, like I did in the olden days.
If your handwriting reflects your character, does that mean that by improving your handwriting you improve your character? Asking for a friend.
I read the newspaper, on paper and cut out bits that I liked and taped them into my notebook like I did in the olden days. 
There was a really cool story in the food section of the NYT yesterday about the beauty of burned foods. It included a recipe for burned toast soup, but I am most curious about that kazandibi.
When I felt bad about accomplishing absolutely nothing and started spiraling into a self-loathing existential crisis, I reminded myself that my only goal for January 25, 2017 was to stay off the internet and congratulated myself on how well I was doing. I looked at some cookbooks and remember how delightful that can be. I decided I wanted to make and eat Gabrielle Hamilton’s lamb shoulder with a celeriac remoulade and some juniper sorbet for dessert.That meal is happening tonight. I felt more and more and more like myself. My powers of concentration returned. Everything slowed down. It was wonderful. It was such a relief. 

At the end of the day I allowed myself 20 minutes on Twitter, just enough time to catch up with my boyfriend Keith Olbermann and watch clips of an ABC interview with this sad, bloated old man who was lying about stuff that no one cares about but him. I discovered I had already lost my taste for it. On a food diet, you get hungrier and hungrier. On a Donald Trump diet, you feel better and better. Today, I am positively jubilant.

To quote the protagonist of The Haunting of Hill House, “The warm wind would come down the city street where she walked and she would be touched with the cold little thought, I have let more time go by. . .

Time goes by no matter what, I just don’t want it to go by as I slump on the sofa in an agitated trance, eating Honey Nut Cheerios and reading about our pathetic president.