Green pea, mint, and bacon risotto

If anyone out there is re-doing their kitchen I have one piece of advice: for the love of all that is holy, do not go with black granite for your counters.

We inherited ours from the previous owners of our humble abode. They are out of sync with the rest of the very 1912 house, but that isn’t why I hate them. I hate them because 1) they look dirty when they aren’t – water spots, for example, can be seen from two rooms away – and 2) they look clean when they aren’t. Coffee grounds and grease splatters aren’t as obvious as one might hope when one is cleaning, and – I cannot begin to express the degree to which I wish I didn’t know this – mouse droppings blend right into the surface.

Mice have taken refuge from the rain this winter by scurrying into our house. They seem to find particular comfort hanging out in the closet in my study. They also enjoy the space behind the bookshelf in the kitchen. They are not eating our food, which is odd because our food is crazy awesome delicious, but they are leaving droppings on the counters every now and again and while that makes me not thrilled with the mice, it makes me furious at our counters.

Then this morning I edited the pictures I took of dinner last night and a new surge of hatred welled up inside me. After months of shooting dishes in the light box I made out of white foam board and packing tape (it folds down for easy storage!), my kitchen is finally staying light enough late enough for me to take pictures of our dinners in natural light. And so shoot I did, but I was in a rush and didn’t bother to check them very carefully. I’d forgotten that when the sun is shining into the kitchen from the west the black granite counters act as a mirror – as you can see from my hands and camera reflected in the surface of our evil counters above.

We brought our bowls into the dining room (onto a glass table that requires endless cleaning to look streaky at best) and tucked into the risotto of green peas, mint, and a bit of bacon topped with plenty of pecorino cheese and black pepper that came to mind when we were at Zuni Sunday night for spur-of-the-moment drinks and nibbles with a friend. My dashing husband’s mussels with peas and mint and our friend’s risotto with sorrell and pancetta were each tasty, but I saw them as perhaps benefiting more fully from one another. I’ve written here about Zuni before, so I won’t sum it up again, but we grabbed a table in the bar (walked right in and sat right down at 6 on a Sunday – I didn’t steal the table from anyone, but I did see it from half a block away, make a decided and serious bee line for it, and feel like a rock star for nabbing it). As always at Zuni, I felt very much in San Francisco in the very best of ways.

I couldn’t help, though, eying that shiny copper bar: easily stained and highly reflective, but you would be able to see mouse shit on it from a mile away.

Zuni
bacon
mint
peas
rice

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Spring reading

As regular readers might imagine, I’m not doing so very much on the cooking front recently. I spend a lot of time propped up in bed or on a couch with my leg on a cushion, often with ice on it, waiting to see the surgeon next week and make a plan. At some point each day I hit the pool and do some very wonky looking laps as I gamely try to flutter kick even remotely evenly or sit on a stationary bike with no resistance and move my legs around for a bit. For awhile there I was doing things like walking – slowly, slowly – to meet people for lunch or going to cocktail parties where there weren’t any chairs, but I see now that that was not such a great idea. Moving is good, but too much at this particular stage just makes everything stiffer. I’m trying to keep it to some light pacing around the house as I talk on the phone.

So I work and I read. I am not a hot-off-the-presses book reader. I tend to read things as they make their way to me. Recommendations trickle in or people even send me their favorites or my dashing husband leaves something on my night stand. As always, my barometer for listing something here is simple – these are the books that made me stay up late and wake up early:

The Keep by Jennifer Egan, which I just finished and made me want to write this post. Um, crazy good. The kind of amazing writing that can simultaneously inspire one to write and make one wonder why they should even bother.

Drop City by T.C. Boyle about a hippie commune that moves to Alaska. I kept waiting for everyone to die or something tragic to happen. The number of times I was practically holding my breath in fear of what the next page would reveal was stunning.

Freddy and Fredericka by Mark Helprin was a nice, long page turner whose absurdity tickled me to no end. I mean, the Prince and Princess of Wales need to “conquer” America – anonymously and without resources – to take the throne? Sign me up!

Something to Tell You: A Novel by Hanif Kureishi is about psychiatry, London, love, sibling-ness, Pakistan, parenthood, strip clubs….

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan is a kids/young adult book I read out loud to my son. Its conceit is that the Greek gods are alive and well and Mount Olympus hovers at the top of the Empire State Building because the gods simply move to the center of Western Civilization (capital W, capital C) as it changes. There are demigods and heroes and monsters and all kinds of insanity. We’re onto the second book now and I’m trying not to do what I did with the first one, which was to stay up very late one night reading ahead because I just couldn’t wait to see what was going to happen.

I loved The History of Love by Nicole Krauss so much that I’m scared to read Great House: A Novel – What if it’s not as good? What if I’m disappointed? How will I go on? It gets moved between my night stand and my study, with brief visits to the living room coffee table, taunting me, tempting me.

“The Pube Is Dead, Long Live the Pube” by Jess Vacek in issue #3 of Death magazine. Hands down it is the smartest, funniest, saddest thing I have ever read about pubic hair. Seriously. May your spring be “wild and rangy and strong.”

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Kimchi, a torn knee, and being a koala bear

I started this batch of kimchi – spicy, fermented cabbage (or other vegetable) that supposedly wards off colds and flu if only because it contains so much vitamin C – with high hopes. I was itching to go on my trip and would be gone just long enough – 6 days – for the kimchi to ferment in my absence. So I coarsely chopped 2 pounds of napa cabbage, put it in a large bowl, covered it with a brine of 3 tablespoons of kosher salt dissolved in 6 cups of water, and let it sit overnight. I then drained it (keeping the brine), and tossed the cabbage with 6 julienned green onions, about 2 tablespoons of finely grated ginger, and 2 dried red New Mexican chiles that I had stemmed, seeded, and ground in a clean coffee grinder. I packed that whole mess into a pitcher my adviser from grad school gave me as part of a wedding present, covered it with the brine, and sealed it shut with a piece of plastic wrap against the surface of the mixture and the sealable lid.

I set it on the bookshelf in my cool, dark study and headed up in British Columbia to ski with my dad, my brother, my Very Tall Cousin Sam, and two of my uncles.

To be a bit more specific, to heli-ski.

We are not insane. We do not, as one friend of mine thought, jump out of helicopters. Helicopters fly us to the tops of mountains and, with a guide who knows a thing or two about mountains and snow and skiing, we ski down glaciers and through forest glades. It is insane and fabulous and I’m eternally grateful that my dad is crazy enough about skiing that he thanks me for tagging along on such adventures.

As I glided down the mountain on the last run of the first day in snow the guys kept talking about being crotch-level but was up past my waist in spots, I turned around a tree and felt my right ski hit something deep under the snow – A rock? A tree branch hidden in all that snow pack? A snow gnome?

My ski twisted around, pulling first my knee  – pop! – and then my whole body down with it. I couldn’t stand, much less ski. The pity party was brief, but it was intense. My goggles – clear all day despite the falling snow – fogged up from the hot, concentrated tears.

“Do you think if we braced it you could just slide down on your left ski?” Todd, our guide, asked me. “We’d have someone ski right with you.”

“I think so,” I said as I packed snow around my knee to try and numb it as my eyes darted back and forth trying to make sense of this horror. I thought of telling everyone to ski ahead, not to worry about me, but I realized that it was completely and utterly out of the question. Not just this group, but all three groups of skiers out that day would now have their schedules re-arranged around my blown knee. We shared a helicopter.

Before long another guide, Jeff, skied up and unstrapped the leg brace from his backpack.

“So, Molly” he said in his Canadian accent, with that long “o” sound emphasized and my name pronounced with a slight, melodic lilt, “have you ever hurt this knee before?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

He looked at me quizzically.

“Not enough to remember,” I clarified. I had hurt a knee five or six years ago, but it healed and I still can’t remember which one it was.

In several inches of fresh snow he tried to arrange a brace made for a large man so it would fit onto my 29-inch-inseam leg.

“I’m afraid this is one size fits all,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said, “they never actually do.”

After a false start during which snow kept the straps from sticking, he secured the bottom end around my ankle and strapped the section around my knee as tightly as possible. He then lifted me out of the snow and reached for my skis, which my brother had dug out of the snow.

“Just grab onto my back,” he said, “and lift your foot up as much as you can.”

My family jokes about skiers who don’t carry their own skis. We scuff at those who can’t tighten their own boots. We mock people who don’t seem to know how to put on their skis. And here I was, clutching onto a man highly trained in all things mountaineering as he bent over in the snow not just helping me get my skis on properly, but actually holding my leg in one hand and my ski in the other as he literally snapped my boot into the ski for me as I winced in fear of the possible pain.

To top it all off, this graceless snow-encrusted ballet was performed while 10 pairs of male eyes – I was the only woman in the group that afternoon – watched. I was embarrassed and grateful and resentful. Just when I thought I might burst into tears from the bitter combination of pain and shame, I found myself sort-of standing, skis on, poles in hand.

“So,” Jeff said, as though neither one of us should be contrite or bitter even though I was pretty sure we each should be both, “what we’re going to do is I’m going to slide down and you’re just going to follow me, okay?”

“Okay,” I said, ever the good student.

“Don’t worry about turning or anything,” he explained, “we’re just heading down and across. Just keep all your weight on that left leg, eh?”

We slowly went across and a little bit down. My heart breaking as we ruined a perfectly good line of fresh powder.

“You’re doing great, Molly,” he said as I stopped myself from running into him by angling uphill into the untracked snow around us. “That’s just what you want to do.”

After another across-and-a-little-down move he said, “You’re doing awesome.”

“Jeff,” I said, laughing, “your strategy is working. I respond very well to positive reinforcement and compliments of all kinds.”

He turned around and smiled.

“Most people do.”

We slowly continued across and down through and between the trees until we got to the bottom of the glade. Straight ahead was the long, bumpy traverse to the helicopter landing that we had been skiing to from different parts of the mountain most of the day. It included a few tricky turns to avoid a creek bed and ended with more trees to ski through but with much less snow left between them.

Jeff slid down a bit to talk to Todd.

I heard Todd say, “You’re going to do what?”

And Jeff say, “mumble mumble something something.”

“What are you guys talking about?” I asked. It was bad enough being a problem and knowing that I couldn’t offer much in way of a solution, but being talked about as I struggled to awkwardly balance a few feet uphill made me acutely aware of the burden I was.

“We’re just figuring out how to get you to the helicopter,” Todd said.

“I thought I was going to just keep doing this,” I said.

“You can’t,” Todd said, shaking his head with a bit of disappointment, probably having noted the grimaces and sharp inhales I’d taken every time my right leg had come into play as I made my oafish way down the hill, “not if you can’t put weight on that leg. You’ll never get across the traverse.”

“You remember what it’s like, La” said my brother, standing beside me like a mother hen. “You really have to make those turns.”

“Oh,” I said, looking at the guides, waiting for further info, picturing some crazy situation where I balanced against a fellow skier’s shoulder or was pathetically guided down between someone’s skis like a child learning to snowplow.

“So,” said Todd, “Jeff here is going to carry you.”

I looked around at my family and fellow skiers and noted, “Well, that’s not humiliating.”

They laughed. I then waited a moment, hoping they would tell me the real plan, the plan that didn’t play up what a feeble hurt girl I was at that exact moment. The plan – now sounding really good – that involved skiing me down the hill like a child.

“Even getting a toboggan in here is a real hassle and will take forever,” Todd said, sensing my doubt, “plus, it would be really uncomfortable for you on all this stuff coming up. This will just be easier and faster.”

I had hoped they were kidding.

“So, just slide down to me if you can, Molly,” said Jeff.

They weren’t kidding. They were handling the whole situation in a calm and humorous manner, but they weren’t kidding. As guides they had seen some serious shit. My knee was nothing compared to the injuries and accidents they had handled and trained for, but it was still their job to get me safely back to the lodge.

So slide I did. Jeff and I then engaged in the artless reverse snow wrestle of getting my skis off.

As Jeff took off his backpack I tried to figure out how on earth I was going to jump onto his back with the leg brace on. What with him still on his skis and me now sunk down into the snow without mine, he stood about 20 feet taller than I did. I realized someone would probably need to lift me up and I died a teeny bit inside. This was going to be really, truly, embarrassing. And awkward. And difficult.

“So,” he said, “how we’re going to do this is I’m going to carry you in front,” he patted the bottom of his rib cage with both hands, “facing me.”

I stared at him blankly. It ends up that I hadn’t really explored how humiliating things could get.

“With your legs around my waist,” he said.

“You’re kidding,” I said, because, well, that was simply insane.

“It’s way easier for me to balance that way,” he said, “trust me.”

When a Canadian with a big smile and a kind voice who has already shepherded you down through a forest you couldn’t imagine getting out of tells you to trust him, you do.

“So I’ll just hold you by your legs,” he said holding his hands out in front of him, “and you’ll hold on up top,” and he gestured around his neck.

I nodded meekly and said, with more than a touch of resignation, “Okay.”

“Okay,” he said, “so here we go. Ready?”

Like a sick and tired child, I reached my arms up and around the neck he bent down to offer me, hopped up as best I could, and I clung to him for dear life.

He started into the traverse. To the degree that I had been able to think about it, I had figured the ride down was going to suck. I assumed it would be jarring and jerky, as he struggled to maneuver on difficult terrain while loaded down with an entire extra person outfitted in full ski gear and, fearing low blood sugar above all else, with a fair number of dense snacks in her pockets. I figured he would strain and pant and I would generally feel guilty about making him suffer. But, in the words uttered with awe and a touch of envy by my brother that night at dinner, “that guy can ski.” I felt like I was floating. It was all the motion of skiing with none of the impact. It was, quite simply, awesome.

Perhaps he was trained to keep people calm or maybe you just can’t overestimate the polite in a Canadian or possibly he is just a nice guy who wanted to normalize the crazy vertical lap dance we had going on, but after we were a few yards down the hill, once it became clear to all that this crazy plan was going to work, Jeff asked, “So, Molly, where are you from?”

We engaged in cocktail party chit chat about hometowns and work as I looked up at the tree-covered mountain and gray, snowy sky behind us.

“I’m sorry I keep grabbing your ass, eh” he said, “but it’s the only way I can keep steady.”

“That’s okay,” I said, thinking that it was amazing how a perfectly placed Canadian “eh” could really lessen the pervy implications of that statement, “I have a kid. I know how hard it is to carry someone. Whatever you need to grab is fine by me.”

After I made it into the helicopter and out of the helicopter, into the van and out of the van, into the lodge and up to my room, into clean clothes and down to the bar – all on crutches as outsized for me as was the leg brace – the skiers in the other groups all wanted to hear what had happened. I took the beer someone ordered me, turned down the shocking plethora of painkillers that were generously offered up, and told my tale of the snow gnome and the collapsed knee. The men tried to deduce what my injury actually was: A torn ACL? Perhaps the meniscus was damaged? The women wanted to know if, as they had heard tell, Jeff had really carried me down the mountain.

“He did,” I said.

“Well,” one of the women said, “I wouldn’t mind being carried by Jeff.”

“Me neither,” said another, “he’s hot.”

The fact of the matter is that all heli-ski guides are hot. Male, female, young, old, they all have a general air of hotness about them. They are fit and really good skiers and have secret mountain knowledge and, at least to me, that makes them pretty hot. Is Jeff hotter than the other guides? Isn’t the firefighter who carries you out of the burning building by definition hotter than the other firefighters? I could have simply thought to myself, yeah, and he smells like skiing all day in the cold snow, too. But both the pot-stirrer and the story-teller in me kicked in.

“Yeah,” I said, “plus, he smells like pine trees and he likes to talk about feelings.”

The ladies howled.

“Seriously though you guys,” I said, back-tracking a bit, “he’s a really nice guy. He’s so polite that he actually apologized for grabbing my ass.”

A universal “he grabbed your ass?!?” was shouted through the bar and the die was cast.

Ass-grabbing jokes proliferated and I heard that at lunch on the mountain the next day Todd tried to auction off an afternoon ride with Jeff. I was happy to play things out that way because the damsel-in-distress role is not one I relish. I like to imagine that I can take care of myself, or at least put on my own skis and get down a hill. So I let the jokes hinting that the whole thing was hot or lewd carry on because it deflected attention away from me and onto him, and because that was the funny part.

The obviously true part is that I did need rescuing. I was hurt and slightly panicked as I waited for that leg brace. I may be more dame than damsel, but I was definitely in distress. I suppose that if I had been all alone I could have found a way to get down the mountain. I could have removed a layer of clothing and wrapped my knee up tight. I could have slid down, partly on my left ski and partly on my grab-able ass. It would have been slow and painful but possible. Yet whether carried like a koala bear or dragged out on a toboggan, I wasn’t getting to the helicopter on my own in any timely or graceful fashion.

The also true part is it wasn’t just my small stature, but the fact that I’m a woman that made carrying me both physically and culturally possible. I’m not so sure the plan to carry the injured party would have been floated had I been a man, even a small man. I’m also pretty sure that were I a man I wouldn’t have accepted the plan quite so quickly, if at all. Having been there and knowing my injury and seeing the terrain, carrying me really was the quickest way out. Being a small lady hasn’t always been the greatest when skiing, but this time it worked out in my favor.

The more true part is that when my son was a baby I became obsessed with the fact that I couldn’t remember being a baby. It wasn’t that I wanted anyone to push me around in a stroller or carry me in a Baby Bjorn, but I wished I could remember what it was like. Now I know. It feels like a layer of gravity has been removed. You’re not in control and you need to hang on and trust you won’t be dropped or thrown or fallen upon. It is oddly intimate. It is very sweet. And it is wonderfully, touchingly human.

But no one wants to hear about any of that over beers.

My ACL is torn, my meniscus wasn’t left completely out of the picture, and I’m looking down the nose of surgery and months of physical therapy. In the meantime ice and ibuprofren are my constant companions. That’s the cloud. The silver lining – and it’s not as inconsequential as I would have guessed if I’d ever thought about it – is that I know what it’s like to be carried down a mountain.

Plus, after all that, I came home to find a batch of perfectly fermented kimchi waiting for me. It was as if my pre-koala self had known my post-koala self would need something bright, something spicy, something full of magical, curative powers.

Canada
cabbage
korean food

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Yep, that’s me


To answer the email questions that have been pouring in from friends and colleagues – yes, that’s me. The girl with the dark hair on the left. It was the best fake dinner party I’ve ever been to.

I’m equally semi-pictured in the book The One-Block Feast: An Adventure in Food from Yard to Table by my friend and former boss Margo True. It is sitting here on my desk making me feel very lazy for not making my own beer. Or growing my own chickpeas. Or even really keeping a garden of any sort. It contains detailed instructions for keeping bees or chickens, cultivating mushrooms, and making cheese. Not to mention garden plans for four seasons and recipes for using it all. Margo’s curious nature and boundless enthusiasm for all things food comes through on every page. I imagine if I get up and follow any of the instructions I’ll feel like she’s right there beside me, cheering me on.

I won’t be doing that for awhile, though. I’m on rest and re-hab after a slight mishap on the slopes. Remember how I claimed that I’m always glad to have gone skiing? That sentiment was put to a test. I’ll tell you all about it soon – I’m still waiting for word from the doctor and to get a few pictures from fellow skiers. Cooking around here will be simple for awhile, and I will be neither making my own salt nor pressing my own olive oil any time soon.

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Sausage omelet

If you have never had a cheese omelet with a sausage patty or two tucked inside, please, do yourself a favor and go fry up some sausage patties, set them aside to drain while you whisk up an omelet, sprinkle on some cheddar, plop on the sausage, fold it up, and enjoy. This is how they make the “cheese omelet with sausage” at the Buena Vista Cafe in San Francisco (if you click on that link, beware – a very loud cable car will rumble through your computer), a fact that this friend and I discovered together one morning after a none-too-brief dip in the San Francisco Bay from the cozy base of the Dolphin Club. We needed warmth and nourishment and the Buena Vista was happy to oblige us. You may run into some tourists having too many Irish Coffees (BV proudly claims to have invented them), but their moods tend to be as jolly as the servers are sour and it’s all part of the grand experience. If you swam extra hard that morning, I recommend a shot of aquavit (one nice thing about the BV is no one blinks an eye at that breakfast beverage order – it is, actually, a suggestion on the breakfast menu); if not, the ever-filling cup of coffee is good, too. If you’re at home, roast up a few cherry tomatoes, as my clever friend did. They cut the heft of the sausage omelet quite nicely indeed.

San Francisco
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sausage

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Frumpotopia

I’ve taken some flak for the article I wrote about Dominique Crenn and her new restaurant (Atelier Crenn) in the March issue of Elle magazine. Rather, the article has received some flak. Until today. Today I received the flak in Leah Garchik’s column in the SF Chronicle.

I could take you through the life of a magazine story, but it’s too much like seeing cheap sausage being made and I’m afraid it would upset the sensibilities of my more delicate readers. Why, they would never be able to turn to the printed word with confidence again! (Did I ever tell you the one about how an editor at Sunset decided a piece shouldn’t be in the first person and so had me quoting myself in a bylined article? And that they ran it like that after I pointed out the problem? That was one for the books, I tell you!)

I could patiently explain to the people of San Francisco that, as far as New York editors are concerned, they should consider themselves lucky to be acknowledged in the pages of a national magazine at all, that in exchange for that coverage a stereotype will need to be offered up because complexity is not mass market. But the East Coast – West Coast thing has been played out in other media with greater conviction than I will ever be able to muster. I am unwilling to kill in its name.

I could explore the tension inherent in running a food/restaurant/chef story in a fashion magazine, but my head spins on parsing out the relationship between style and trend and fad in each world – i.e., are jeggings more like pastured eggs or Himalayan salt? The mind reels.

I could, even, question the journalistic methods of reporters who don’t bother to dig down even one layer deep. I mean, I’m easy to find. Are things so bad at the Chron that they’ve taken away their google machines?

None of this really matters, though, because in the end the problems some people in San Francisco have had with the story are not problems for me at all. Specific phrasings aside (see above), I rescind not the points in the story that have ruffled local feathers!

First, the San Francisco dining scene is not currently at its apex. Don’t get me wrong, there is lots and lots of good food to eat. Lots. But the vast majority of it is an awful lot like what I make in my own kitchen. I am not complaining or criticizing, merely observing, but it is rare I go to a restaurant where my synapses start firing and I’m excited about what’s happening in the kitchen on any conceptual level. Taste level? All the time. Conceptual level? Not so often.

Second, the whole frumpotopia thing. While I cannot defend the use of the “word” frumpotopia, my objections to it are purely linguistic (there is a mismatch in the syllable emphasis in the two words that are blended here – specifically the switch of emphasis to the first syllable of the “utopia” part of the blend – that is awkward at best). I may be a pot calling the kettle black, I may be throwing stones inside my glass house, but, people, let’s face it, San Francisco is not a chic town. There are stylish and fashionable individuals, to be sure, but chicness is not a city-wide phenomenon. When the SF style – quirky, personal, with a hit of vintage but not too recherché – works, it’s amazing and I love it. I love it more than New York sleek and Paris chic combined. But it doesn’t always come together so perfectly, nor is it truly the norm. One sees an awful lot of fleece and yoga pants, draped linen and Keen sandals on these streets. Let’s just say it’s not a sophisticated presentation. Comfortable? I’m sure. Stylish? Not even one little bit.

Dare I come out and say it? Dare I call San Francisco provincial? I do it in private all the time. Look, the city is not small-minded nor full of country bumpkins, but it is neither capital nor population hub of its state, never mind its country. The Bay Area may be home to over 9 million people, but that’s a big area and San Francisco itself contains less than a million souls in its 49 square miles. I adore this city, but I find its inability to laugh off the slightest critique– not to mention the insistence of so many of its inhabitants that they simply can’t imagine living anywhere else (sorry, peeps, but in that way we tend to be a narrow-minded lot) – to be, yes, provincial.

Take it on the chin, San Francisco. You know I love you. Plus, who doesn’t want home to be all tasty and comfortable?

San Francisco

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Après ski

When I cooked up this green chile turkey chili I thought I was saying: “Hey, you guys all seem pretty cool and our kids get along and thanks for inviting us to your gracious mountain chalet and I hope you find this tasty after a day of skiing.” With maybe an addendum of: “I was not raised by wolves and I know how to be a good house guest.” And, perhaps, just in case I am as much like my father as I’m starting to suspect: “Oh, and I’m sorry about leading the kids down that black diamond run at the end of the day. My bad!”

What I ended up needing this chili to communicate was: “Oh my god. I want to die. I cannot believe I am so lame. I don’t know what I was thinking. I am so sorry I got my snow chains tangled onto my tires as I tried to take them off. I don’t know what I was thinking. I wasn’t. Obviously. It would be bad enough if this just delayed getting everyone home after a long day of skiing, but the fact that you needed to lie down on the slushy mud-filled parking lot to get them off for me because I was paralyzed by fear that I would be stuck there all day waiting for AAA and couldn’t think clearly…. Words can never express my embarrassment, much less my gratitude. Please, please, please, for the love of all that is great and good on this green earth, may the taste of this chili erase any memory of the incident from your mind.”

Along with trying to infuse the chili with amnesiac powers, I’m also hoping that skiing worked its mojo. I’m hoping that my hosts are like me: that at the end of a day of skiing, they are always glad to have gone.

Crazy-ass storm off the Pacific closes I-80 in the middle of the day and turns it into a parking lot well past midnight, extending a 2 hour 52 minute drive into a 6-plus hour extravaganza during which I literally slapped myself to stay awake driving on dark, icy mountain roads at 3 a.m.? Happy to have done it as soon as I click into the skis.

Even the day I messed up my knee a few years ago (all better now, thanks!). That run before the fall… that was some good snow. I am not sorry to have gone out that day. Sorry to have taken the run-out at that speed, perhaps, but not sorry to have skied.

Skiing involves a certain level of hassle. There is equipment to manage and layering decisions to make. You can take wrong paths and end up in places you didn’t expect to be and don’t think you can get out of. It can be free and easy, with turn effortlessly flowing after turn until all of the sudden you lose your rhythm and the next turn takes more effort than you think you can muster.

As I find myself telling my son when he thinks a slope is too steep or too bumpy: I know it’s hard, but you can do it.

And I suppose I could now say that these are life lessons the slopes make clear to me. I suppose I could think that I should live a bit more as I ski: take a few more risks, be a bit more in the moment, trust that the best runs come after beginnings that require very difficult moves indeed, know that the best snow is usually found where few others make the effort to tread.

I wish I could think about any of that with clarity, but I’m not in the moment. I’m not home at my computer writing this post and calming reflecting on the fun I had this weekend. No, I’m still standing next to my car, heart beating wildly as I scan the emptying parking lot for a time machine to take me back just three minutes so I can remember to unclip both sides of the chains, desperately wondering what the hell to do to solve the problem myself quickly, without fuss, and not inconvenience anyone.

But if you gave me a choice between not going skiing and thus avoiding this shame spiral or having a day of skiing and the resulting wild grasping at shoulds and coulds and woulds? I would choose the skiing-plus-shame option. Every time.

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Chocolate chip cookie secrets

I have two secrets to my favorite chocolate chip cookies. One is an ingredient, the other is a method. I suppose I have guarded these secrets to some extent, but then no one had ever asked for them. People will compliment the cookies and I will say thanks and that tends to be the end of the conversation.

These may not be your favorite chocolate chip cookies at all. If you like crisp cookies, for example, move along, these cookies are not for you. These cookies are soft and a bit chewy and quite thin all at once, which is what I look for in a chocolate chip cookie. No cake-y nonsense here. They have oats in them because, again, that’s how I roll. They do not have nuts because I could take or leave nuts in my chocolate chip cookies but I live in a house simply filled with people who say “no” to such shenanigans.

(I just did a quick search on dictionary.com to make sure shenanigans isn’t one of those phrases with historically racist implications and found it is of “obscure origins.” The Oxford English Dictionary traces the first use of it in the April 25, 1855 edition of Town Talk in San Francisco. Let it be known that I am local even in my use of comically out-dated slang!)

They have a bit of nutmeg, which even if you don’t like thin-soft-chewy cookies I recommend you try adding to whatever ridiculous cake-like or crispy wafer-style chocolate chip cookie recipe you prefer. It adds a je ne sais quoi that people won’t detect other than that their hand is shoving yet another cookie into their mouth.

And the key to getting that texture I like so much? Melt the butter first. Simple as that.

Chocolate “chip” oatmeal cookies

I say “chip” because I have yet another secret: I don’t use chips. I chop the chocolate. Total pain in the ass? Yes. Completely worth the effort for the improved texture and teeny tiny shards of chocolate that work themselves throughout the dough? Absolutely. To me. You may, and likely will, decide otherwise.

3/4 cup butter

1/2 cup each granulate sugar and brown sugar

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1 cup rolled oats (for the batch above I used up some quick-cooking oats we had in the cupboard because none of us like those for breakfast; they worked fine but I prefer the regular ones, even in my cookies)

1 – 1 1/2 cups chopped dark chocolate

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Melt the butter and stir in the two sugars so they dissolve. Let this sit until it’s warm or room temperature but definitely not hot. Since I don’t have a microwave I melt the butter on the stove, then transfer it to a large mixing bowl, which helps move the cooling down along.

Stir in the egg and the vanilla.

In another bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, salt, and nutmeg. Then mix this flour mixture into the butter sugar mixture. This really is how you should do it. Seriously. The thing is, you may decide you don’t want to dirty and extra bowl. Full confession: I never mix my dry ingredients first for cookies. I add the small amount stuff (in this case the baking soda, salt, and nutmeg) to the wet ingredients and stir them in, then add the flour. No one has ever complained about the results. Ever.

Stir in the oats and the chocolate.

Scoop in 1-tablespoon balls onto a baking sheet about an inch or so apart and bake 10-12 minutes. Let sit a minute and then transfer to a cooling rack. You’ll get almost exactly 2 dozen cookies this way. Maybe a few extra.

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Chicken enchiladas

My son helped me make these. They were, in fact, his idea. When asked if there was anything that sounded really good for dinner, he said “chicken enchiladas,” which was a new one because he usually wants, or rather begs for, chicken tacos. He also specified that he would like to help make the enchiladas, which was also odd because he usually asks, or rather insists, that those chicken tacos come from El Metate. It wasn’t completely out of character, though, because he’s been really into helping in the kitchen recently. He’s also been really into telling me that I am the best mom in the whole world. It is very sweet and charming, but it does loose some of its impact after the 20th iteration in a single morning. It becomes even less meaningful when I hear him repeating, chant-like, the phrase “Mama is the best mama in the whole world” to himself as he gets ready for school. It’s an odd mantra. It seems more like he is trying to make it so than proclaiming a deep truth.

It’s also a phrase that I have a bit of baggage around. You see when I was maybe 11 or almost 11 I saved up my allowance, walked up to the drugstore, and picked out a beautiful cut glass “crystal” votive with a blue candle in it for my mom for mothers day. I then wrapped it carefully, tied a ribbon around it, and made a card. My memory gets fuzzy here, but I’m pretty sure I drew a big rainbow on the card with out-sized bubble-like flowers growing on a green hill.

On that Sunday morning I asked my brother – two years younger – what he had gotten mom for mothers day. Nothing. He had forgotten. So he went downstairs, found a rough piece of scrap lumber, used enamel paint leftover from the model car my dad and I decorated for Indian Princesses, and painted “Your the best mommy” (sic) on the wood. This he presented, still wet, to my mom.

She fell for it. She also fell all over him thanking him for it. She then displayed that aesthetic monstrosity in their house for the next 20 years. A redwood and royal blue thorn in my side. The votive and candle which were so clearly the superior gift in every way to my 11-year-old eyes were ignored to my 11-year-old perceptions in favor of the crappy, stupid gift from her favorite child.

Of course, my 40-year-old self completely understands that perhaps the affectionate utterances and declarations of love for my mom were fewer and further between from her rambunctious, Star Wars-obsessed son than they were from her older daughter. I’m also pretty sure my memory of my gift being totally ignored isn’t accurate at all. Yet the very phrase “you’re the best mommy” rings, at a certain level, hollow to me. Perhaps it’s because as much as my son may think that – and that is great and fabulous in every way – I, the adult, know that it just really isn’t even remotely true. Don’t get me wrong, I have my parental strengths and high points. I bring a lot to this party. But I’m not the best. Not even close. The best is more patient and less distracted, at the very least. As a parent I know my own failings all too well. I need to believe that there are better – not just different but straight-up better – versions out there. Of course, I’m not telling him that. He’ll figure it out soon enough and in all likelihood spend the rest of my life reminding me of that very fact. For now I try to push that redwood slab out of my mind along with all my maternal weak spots, and feel the unconditional adoration that a 7 year-old can have for their mother. It is fleeting and I’m going to want to remember its sweetness.

So as he fawns all over me, we rolled up these enchiladas: The filling was plain cooked and shredded chicken meat. You could bake some breasts or pull meat off a rotisserie chicken from the store. I poached a whole chicken, pulled the meat off, and then used the carcass to make a pot of stock, but I’m funny like that. So fill some corn tortillas (we used these “Mi Abuelita” ones they sell around these parts that have some wheat gluten in them and thus are soft and don’t break when you roll them; pure corn tortillas need to be soften with a dip in sauce or hot oil before you fill and roll them) with chicken, roll them up and put them in a lightly oiled baking pan. Pour red enchilada sauce on them (many many jarred versions are delightful but you can make your own with this recipe if you were so inclined), cover the pan with foil and bake in a hot oven (somewhere in the 375°F range) until toasty hot all the way through. Serve with crumbled cotija cheese, sliced red onion or green onion, and chopped cilantro on top. You could go old-school and cover the sauced enchiladas with a freight load of Monterey jack cheese and bake them uncovered until the cheese melted and bubbled and those would also be very delicious. That version, however, isn’t so much in sync with my current interest in maintaining some semblance of what was once a girlish figure. And honestly, this less-cheesed version was, though I say it myself, delicious in a different and perhaps even better way. I’m not saying they’re the best enchiladas in the whole world, but I sure like them a lot.

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Simply sardines

Once upon a time, when he was a young boy, my dad did not want to eat his dinner. He didn’t like it. It was a casserole. His mother found this quite vexing, so the story goes, since, according to her estimation, he liked everything that was in the casserole. She went so far as to name everything – ingredient by ingredient – that had gone into the dish to prove to him that he did, in fact, like the casserole. He maintained that no, he did not. She asked him what he would prefer to eat. He said hot dogs. Legend has it that she then fed him hot dogs at every meal for a week.

We had a busy weekend around here. It started with Thursday and Friday off of school (Lunar New Year and a furlough day because the school district doesn’t actually have any money to pay the bill for one thing that they seem to still pay: teachers’ salaries, but please, let’s not get me started on Prop 13 or we’ll be here forever) without corresponding days off of work for me and my dashing husband, which is always a somewhat fraught situation. Then on to a Lunar New Year’s banquet organized by fabulous Cousin Katie and her friend, and then a truly lovely dinner party the next night, all against a backdrop of weather a description of which would torture those suffering from early-onset cabin fever due to all the winter storms this year (okay, I’ll say this much – I was trotting around town in a sundress, a sundress, people!  It’s February for goodness sake!).

All that is to say that Sunday night popped up out of nowhere and despite the fact that I hadn’t cooked for days I still wasn’t all that anxious to get back at the stove. I was even less interested in going to the store or drawing up a list for someone else to go to the store. To the cupboard I turned and the cupboard revealed unto me:

Sardine olive caper pasta

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. While that happens mince a few cloves of garlic and/or shallots, a chile if you have it (use some red pepper flakes if you don’t), a handful or two of olives (pit them first if need be), a spoonful or two of capers, and – these are nice to add if you have them and I always do because it’s so nice to add them to things when you have them – a few pickled green peppercorns. Put the pasta to boil and cook until tender to the bite with that bit of give in the middle – just a little more than you want at the end. Pull out a cup or so of the pasta water before you drain the pasta. Put the pot back on the stove and add a bunch of olive oil and all that stuff you chopped up. Stir until everything is sizzling and yummy smelling. Add about 1/2 cup white wine and cook until about half the wine is evaporated. Add a can or two of sardines (tuna works too), stir to break them up and add the pasta and reserved pasta water. Stir to combine everything and cook, stirring now and again, until the pasta is perfectly done. You can chop up some parsley and add that if you have it and you’re so inclined. If you have a bit of last-chance arugula sitting in the fridge that is going to be tossed the next day if you don’t use it now, pile some on top of each serving of pasta along with the freshly ground black pepper.

My dashing husband proclaimed it the “best pasta of 2010-2011.” I inhaled a bowlful and went back for more. My son sat and poked at his.

“But you like sardines,” said my dashing husband.

No response, just more poking at the pasta.

“And you like olives.”

Silence.

“And we all know how much you like pasta.”

Silence.

“So you must like this!”

Our son turned to me and asked: “Mama, can I just get an apple?”

I sometimes worry that I’ll become too much like my grandmother. My voice isn’t unlike hers and once in awhile I come out with a doozy of a “really!” that even I recognize sounds just like her. I loved her very much and she was an amazing woman. Inspirational in many, many ways. But she was hard on her sons and daughters-in-law and could be dismissive and cold (not to her eldest grandchild, but I saw her be that way to others – including other grandkids – plenty of times). As with so many people, her hard shell was a protective one, and she was a gooey mess on the inside full of endless love for and pride in all of us, but she never came to terms with some of life’s blows and it wore on her. I learned a lot of things from her. I learned to speak my mind. I learned to play a mean game of Scrabble. I learned you belong anywhere you decide you belong. I learned a delicious meal is worth seeking out and worth sharing with others. I also learned that no matter how hard you try, no matter how perfect the logic and well laid-out your argument, you simply cannot talk someone into liking food they don’t like.

It was comforting to learn that maybe I wasn’t turning into my grandmother; perhaps I’d just married her instead.

Last night our making-dinner snack was a bowl of plain olives and sardines straight from the can. We all happily ate our fair share.

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