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Tuesday Blues Strawberry Crumble

13 Apr

On the trip up to Wine Country we took for Moh’s birthday last weekend, he spotted a girl selling big boxes of bright strawberries on the side of a winding, sun-dappled road. Naturally, we whipped that rented Jeep Wrangler right over so he could yell out the side, “Are those organic??” Being Sonoma County, they were, and we were merrily back on track to Benziger Family Winery with a case of perfectly ripe fruit in plastic-topped tow.

Wine Country: open road and organics galore.

Of course by the time my Tuesday night return to reality hit (the weekend was so idyllic it took an extra day, making the sugar crash that much harder), the half of the strawberries we hadn’t devoured were beginning to look like I felt. Tired. Like they’d seen better days. But, with my new CSA-inspired waste not, want not ethos I just couldn’t bear to let them go.

Strawbs, before the fall.

Let me backtrack a bit. Though I’ve loved food since I was a wee(er) lass – seriously, ask my dad about fighting his four-year-old over the last of the pesto – my first post-college apartment boasted a charming kitchen that was essentially half of my poor roommate’s bedroom. Clearly, my first foray into “adulthood” was not so conducive to culinary exploration. As I moved on up in the world (dubious) and settled into my new apartment, which was conveniently outfitted with walls and doors and located two blustery blocks from Trader Joe’s, I came across a Mark Bittman nugget of a post: “Worry Less, Cook More.” And I embraced it.

More than a year and hundreds of dinners later, I find a nerdy joy in coming home after work to cobble together a simple meal for whomever’s around from whatever’s in the fridge. But I’ve never quite gotten there with baking. Cooking seems more forgiving, more free-form, while baking has always seemed to me like some kind of sugar-coated chemistry painstakingly performed in an apron instead of a lab coat. Tastier results, same intimidating procedure. Nevertheless, I decided to squash my domestic fears of scientific shortcomings alongside a Meyer lemon to make something with those strawberries, damnit,  using what I had on hand.

The results? Not the prettiest creation in the history of baking, and it did lack some of the depth and backbone that a mixed-berry melding would provide, but my Strawberry Crumble was sweet and comforting and I did it all by self. No recipes, no nagging fear of culinary perfection, it was a healthy dose of perspective, encouragement and sugar all in one. I suppose that’s just the way the crumble crumbles.

Who you callin' shortcake?

TUESDAY BLUES STRAWBERRY CRUMBLE

For filling:

  • Strawberries past their prime (I had three little green plastic cartons left)
  • A shot of whiskey (you could have one too, though I showed remarkable weeknight restraint)
  • Juice from a fresh lemon
  • Just a spoonful of sugar
  • Your favorite warm seasonings – I went with pumpkin pie spice and a cinnamon stick
  • A sprinkling of fresh ground pepper

For topping:

The real beauty of the crumble is that you can really use anything – cookies you have, nuts, oats, whatever. Here’s what I grabbed:

  • A stick of butter (cause why not)
  • A handful or two of rolled oats
  • A handful of cashews, or whatever nut you have, pulsed in a food processor or smashed by hand (if you’re more angry than melancholy)
  • A handful or two of flour
  • A handful of brown sugar
  1. Preheat oven to 350.
  2. Slice 2/3 of the strawberries in half, removing any questionable bits, and line the bottom of a smallish baking dish with them. Toss with half the lemon juice.
  3. Puree the remaining strawberries in a blender.

    Strawbs with their heads cut off.

  4. Pour them into a small saucepan with the whiskey, the remaining lemon juice, sugar, seasonings/pepper. Heat on low while you whip up the topping, stirring once in a while so it doesn’t stick, until the boozy smell has evaporated. Keep it classy.
  5. Cut the butter into small squares. Mix your topping ingredients in a large bowl with your hands. It’s fun and then you have an excuse to eat it off your fingers when you’re done. Note: Mine was a little too wet to crisp properly, which I suspected would happen because it started wet – but I kind of like the doughy cookiness of it. I’d use probably more oats and flour to the other ingredients next time around. Go nuts.
  6. Take the filling puree off the heat and mix up with the strawberries. Spread topping mix as evenly as you can over the top.
  7. Bake until juicy edges are bubbling up deliciously and the topping is goldeny goodness, at least 30 minutes, probably more.
  8. Serve with Häagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream. Or ya know, another kind, if you’re into settling 🙂
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Wake up, Wake up, Wake up! Breakfast of Jordanian Champions

3 Apr

Breakfast has always been my toughest meal. Cereal is king for the classic American kid, but all that carb and no protein always left me  cranky and slightly woozy by 10 a.m. Granted, this was before I discovered the eighth wonder of the world (coffee, as anyone who has ever come into contact with me before noon can attest), but even still the sugar-laden on-the-go pastries that fill the adult void left by Cap’n Crunch have never done it for me. That leaves basically one option: eggs and taters. While anyone who knows me is also aware that if asked to choose between picking up my next paycheck and plowing into a pile of potatoes I would genuinely struggle before reaching for the salt, variety is the spice of life.

Fresh tomato, cucumber and jalapeño salad and Greek yogurt.

So, when my wonderful boyfriend delivered a traditional Jordanian breakfast that turned out to be the answer to a lifetime of pre-noon struggles to my doorstep one morning, I knew I was hooked. (On the breakfast. The boy I’d long since fallen for.)

Come on and don't CHOP ME UP. That WAS a Justin Timberlake reference, I'm so glad you asked.

Fatteh is a blend of homemade hummus and Greek yogurt served over chunks of soft bread topped with jalapeño, garlic, sauteed almond slivers or pinenuts, olive oil, lemon juice, fresh parsley and chickpeas. It is also quite possibly the ninth wonder of the world. Spicy, fresh, and full of distinct flavors that bring out one another’s piquancy, it’s filling enough to stick with you for hours but never weighs you down. It’s one of the most decadent meals I’ve ever had that’s simple and healthy enough to make regularly at home, and it’s completely vegetarian.

Moh never cooks from a recipe, but I’ve watched him make it twice now and interrupted him several times this afternoon for reminders. Just for you, friends, I’m proud to divulge his divine breakfast secret. (Or as he’ll tell you, his mom’s divine breakfast secret.)

Hummus

First, start with fresh hummus. This you can do days ahead, but wait to add the lemon until you’re ready to serve.

  • Dried chickpeas (1 big bag)
  • Tahini (he uses about a third of a jar to make one batch)
  • Cumin
  • Fresh lemon juice
  1. Soak chickpeas in water overnight.
  2. Boil chickpeas in water with a couple spoonfuls of cumin and a little salt.
  3. Drain and puree chickpeas in batches in a food processer or blender.
  4. Mix with tahini.
  5. Season with more salt and cumin to taste. If you’re serving that day, add lemon juice. If not, wait and add when you do.

If, like Moh, you have far more patience and finesse than I do, make it look lovely and top with olive oil and fresh parsley.

Fatteh

  • The hummus you just made
  • Greek yogurt
  • A few soft sandwich rolls or buns, like potato bread
  • 1/2 can chickpeas (or you can use a scoop from the dried bag you used for hummus; just separate some after you’ve soaked them overnight).
  • More olive oil than seems possibly reasonable, but is
  • Juice from a few fresh lemons
  • 2 or 3 jalapeños
  • A clove of garlic
  • Pine nuts and/or slivered almonds
  • Optional: tomatoes, only if they’re really good – could be baby or big ones
  1. Bring chickpeas to a boil in water with some cumin and salt. When they’re soft, drain and reserve the cooking water.
  2. Meanwhile, make a spicy olive oil dressing. Dice jalapeños, garlic, and parsley into very small pieces and toss with olive oil, lemon juice and crushed red pepper.
  3. Heat some olive oil in a small pan and when it’s hot, fry the pine nuts and/or almonds, shaking often so they don’t burn. Remove from heat when they smell delicious and just before they’re perfectly toastily browned because they’ll keep cooking in the oil for a few minutes on their own.
  4. Tear the bread (or slice, I suppose, but ripping things is a good job when you’re a mostly helpless sous chef whose primary role is to harass the chef by obsessively snapping camera-phone shots of his every movement – is anything more annoying than a food blogger?) into bite-sized chunks and spread along the bottom of a big dish, like a glass baking dish. Pour a bit of the chickpea cooking water with cumin over the top and mix it up – not enough to be soupy, just slightly spongy.
  5. Mix the hummus with yogurt, about 7 parts hummus to 4 parts yogurt. Pour 2/3 of it over the bread, add the spicy olive oil dressing, and mix quickly and well.
  6. Pour the remaining hummus/yogurt blend over the top. Finish with more olive oil, the fried nuts, the whole chickpeas, fresh parsley, chunks of tomato if you have good ones, and salt, cumin and lemon juice to taste.

The spoils. That's the fatteh at the front.

Moh serves with toasted pita to scoop it up (if you want to go truly traditional, no forks allowed) and his favorite tea – Lipton’s steeped with heaps of sugar and fresh mint – in glasses. Sweet and delicious.

I’ve been planning to write this up for months but kept putting it off because I wanted to do it justice. An article in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine (“Does the Mediterranean Diet Even Exist?“), which I found an entitled, pot-boiling (har, har) brush-off of every culture (including ours) it examines through a superficial lens disguised as culinary, gave me the push I needed. So, Style Section, thank you for the excuse to answer your question – it sure does exist, and I’m just sorry (though not surprised) you never bothered to make any “local” friends who doubtless would have invited you into their homes to taste it. A “Mediterranean diet” is alive and well in the kitchens of those who prepare the food they’ve grown up eating with patience, love and, yes, an entire bottle of olive oil.

The Perfect Salad for Pizza in the Surprise Spring Sun

25 Jan

When you’re lucky enough to live in San Francisco, you’re surrounded by so many incredibly beautiful things and impossibly ridiculous characters, such rich history about which to daydream and mouthwatering  cuisine in which to indulge, that it’s easy to forget you can drive across that most iconic of bridges and end up in an entirely different magical world.

Califooooornia, CalifOOOOOORnia, here we COOOOOOOO-oooome...

Instead of towering Pacific Heights castles sweeping their money-scented shadows across the apartments forming their block-by-block stepping stones below, the well-to-do in this world keep small houses with big windows tucked into winding paths best reachable by bike-laden Subaru.

The further north you drive up the sun-dappled, zig-zag turns comprising this stretch of the 1, the further behind you leave the commuters packed like puzzle pieces onto Muni, the cars insistently blazing their impatient paths across traffic. Eventually, only the cows fanned out lazily across roadside pastures slowly chomp their big cheeks by way of greeting even such obvious foreigners on their muddy soil.

Identifying wild mustard: a skill you don't learn in the suburbs.

Moh and I set out on the well-worn path north one glorious recent Monday off (is it awkward to thank MLKJ?). While driving, I taught Moh two things: first and most importantly, “Hey Cow,” in which each competing passenger rolls down his window and shouts exactly that to collect a point for each lackadaisical bovine who looks at him. Yes, I’m a lucky lady – my boyfriend is quite the player. Secondly, I recounted my favorite California legend – that the brilliant yellow mustard snaking its way up the hillsides this time of year was scattered as seeds by the Spanish Missionaries who made their way up the coast hundreds of years ago. They would know their path back the next spring, from Sonoma to south of San Diego, by the “ribbon of gold” they’d left, now blooming, as a trail.

About an hour out of the city, conveniently rounding on late lunch time, we came to Point Reyes, or “King’s Point.” So, it seemed only appropriate that we eat like rural royalty. Dana had recommended Cafe Reyes for pizza and oysters. It was perfect in every way, from the wobbly plastic table  we sat at out back to the complimentary caramel and chocolate doily-shaped cookies we took too many of on our way out. We shared:

A dozen local oysters on the half shell. No cocktail sauce or horseradish to mask their salty sea bite, they were decadently briny and served with only the perfect champagne mignonette and juicy lemon wedges…

…a wood-fired pizza topped with a bright tomato sauce, thick slabs of golden mozzarella, a handful of silky mushrooms, clusters of chicken sausage laced with fennel and red pepper and a sprig of fresh rosemary…

… and a salad built to showcase the famous Point Reyes Farmstead Blue Cheese. Because blue cheese has such a distinct, sharp flavor, I was shocked to find how well it enhanced, without overpowering, the flavors of everything else we ate.

I would love to be able to recreate each and every incredible dish we ate, basking in the surprise January peek of springtime sun and a stolen Monday tucked surreally away from everything but each other.  But, I’m afraid all I can manage is a recreation of this salad, which goes perfectly with pizza.

Get everything as fresh as you can, and share it with someone who loves blue cheese almost as much as you love them.

the homespun edition

CAFE REYES BLUE CHEESE SALAD IN THE SUN

  • Romaine lettuce
  • Spring lettuces
  • The best blue cheese you can find, crumbled into little pieces
  • Slices of big juicy tomatoes
  • Little cherry tomatoes sliced in half
  • Ribbons of red onion
  • Dressing (I think it was ranch; TJ’s only had Caesar so my re-creation lacked a little kick. I’m sure making your own would do you well, but I don’t yet have the dressing touch)
  • Fresh parm to shave over the top
  1. Toss your salad.
  2. That’s all 🙂

13 Coconut Fajitas, 25 piña coladas, 1 million pots of coffee

16 Jan

I could live a long and happy life eating nothing but rice, beans and plantains (mo’ mofongo, please!). Throw in fresh seafood and coconuts and I’m doggy-paddling along the lukewarm ocean coast of my personal food heaven.

All hands on deck: The motley-est of crews

While it could have been a bummer that the six days my college friends and I spent in San Juan, Puerto Rico, were invariably cloudy, the afternoon thunderstorms were secretly the best thing that ever happened to New Year’s Day 2011. We’ve always had an endless ability to entertain one another (why else would we have devoted our better years to Tufts theater?) and a proclivity for doing so whether or not we we’re in public, where we tend to isolate in the same manner while spending more money. So, we joked that the penthouse apartment we rented for the week (yup, two bedrooms, 13 people, that’s math even I can do – ahhhh, to be broke) became our ship.

The mess hall (photo snatched from Molly O's FB ~ Muchas gracias, chica!)

Securely boarded against the rocky seas of light rain and heavy hangover, we sent particularly cabin-feverish or past-due for chore crewmembers out to procure only the most essential of booty – coffee, cigarettes, and queso. Back at the homefront, we had the perfect excuse to do nothing but read (The Alchemist – thanks, love!), cook and lazily maintain a light buzz.

Kitchen crew on a voyage to dry land. Not on New Year's Day, I'm cheating.

My first mates Molly and Erica and I took command of the galley (yes I did google the pirate term for kitchen, thank you) bright and early (i.e., 3:30 p.m.) this New Year’s morn, kicking off 2011 with a breakfast of Bacon Cheddar Pancakes bathed in maple syrup. Hint: Thanks to Armando’s genius, Molly caramelized the bacon in brown sugar first. Hoh. My. God.

Not the prettiest of pancakes, what they lacked in finesse they sure made up for. In sugar.

Fresh off this resounding success (slash surely still sugar-high), we again took the reigns for dinner.

I adore how elegantly fajitas feed a group, easily accommodating vegetarians/meat lovers and spice freaks/those who can’t handle the heartburn alike. I don’t think the thrill of “build-your-own” anything ever really wears off, either. Humans are simple creatures. I mean really, Coldstone Creamery is not a success because of the lame singing.

Plus, fajitas are cheap and delicious. Of course I adhere to a strict policy of abstinence when it comes to math on weekends, but there’s no way this works out to more than $3 a person.

COCONUT FAJITAS TO FEED THE WHOLE CREW

***Except LA CHUUUPACAAAABRA!! He is both real and not welcome.***

For the chicken:

  • 1 can coconut milk
  • 4 lbs chicken breast (we had leftovers, which naturally went in the January 2 breakfast scramble)
  • a couple jalapeño peppers
  • a couple cloves of garlic
  • fresh lime
  • S/P
  • Brian T. Smith to brilliantly oversee chicken marinating

For the fixings (use your imagination, but these were ours:)

  • 2 or 3 big onions
  • 6 bell peppers (green were cheapest, so we used 3 of these + 1 each red, yellow and orange because I like pretty things)
  • the ubiquitous Goya arroz amarillo (or any kind of rice, but when in Rome, and Rome is Puerto Rico, use this)
  • salsa (buy or make – we would have made made but tomatoes were all imported desde Los Estados Unidos, entonces muy caro)
  • beans (we had frijoles negros and refried)
  • avocado or guacamole (see step 1 of earlier post of Mint.com fame – hells yeah!)
  • cheeses (we had queso and cheddar)
  • sour cream
  • tortillas, enough for everyone to have 2
  • hot sauces
  1. Put the Lime in the Coconut. First, make your marinade. Dump your can of coconut milk into a big bowl. Cut up the jalapeños – since they’re just going in the marinade, no need to de-vein or de-seed them, but for the love of all that’s holy wash your hands well after touching. There are far too many related horror stories inappropriate for the level of family-friendliness this blog attempts to maintain, so fill in your own blanks but please, please scrub those digits. Mince garlic. Add both to the milk, squeeze fresh lime over everything, salt and pepper as you like. Leave the chicken breasts whole but remove any nasties and plunk them right in.  Let marinate for at least a half hour.
  2. How many pecks of red bell peppers did all your preppers pick? Cut peppers and onions in half width-wise and slice into into thin strips. Add as they’re ready to a giant saucepan or stockpot (likely the singular such instrument you have in your shabby rental kitchen, doubling as pancake griddle and short order egg station) over low heat. Let them caramelize, stirring when someone wants to do something, until the boys are back from their booze run. Don’t worry, this will somehow take hours, but the longer the better for these babies – you want at least 60 minutes. If you like, and you don’t have any strict vegetarians, splash some of the extra marinade over the peppers and onions – just make sure you cook it down for a good long time.
  3. Make ghetto tin foil baking trays or I suppose real ones if you’re fancy and bake the chicken at 375 until it’s done (these took at least 45 minutes), basting every so often. The coconut milk will infuse it with flavor and moisture, and you want these to be pretty well done so they shred easily. When they’re done, let them cool enough to touch, then get right in there and rip it up with the hands you cleaned so well, right??
  4. Fix yer fixins. Meanwhile, slice the avocado (drizzle with fresh lime juice for flavor and so they don’t brown), put beans in a dish, shred cheeses, etc. See Erica Finkel with queries, she is a condiment/fixings genius.
  5. Warm the tortillas. Wrap the whole stack in tin foil and pop in the oven for a few minutes.
  6. Go assembly line style and let every damn sailor build their dinner to their little hearts’ desires. Also, make them pour you a big old glass of wine, or if you’re lucky, Baba-Yan’s signature champagne punch. You deserve it.

This girl is coco-nuts!



On Flowers and Food Processors: A Fall in Review

13 Jan

Considering I am The Ultimate Justifier (seriously, throw me your conscience’s roadblocks, I’ll blast them apart with my shaky moral chainsaw faster than you can yell VICE!), the truly bizarre San Francisco winter/summer parallel would be enough for me to jump right back in like no time had passed whatsoever since my last post. But, skipping over the many months of milestones that have kept me busy since – or at least the meals I made during – would belie the bite-sized lessons I’ve learned over their course. So, since you didn’t ask, some highlights:

1. Don’t be a tool. Or, don’t worry so much about yours.

The setting: A Friday afternoon that finds me deliciously not at the office, but rather in the midst of a Los Angeles Indian Summer. Relishing the idea of playing housewife to my beloved Telanor Kousman, out slaving away on his glamorous Hollywood set, I want to find a dish that’s not only appropriate for the heat, but that will showcase a true labor of love in the rare daylight I’ve stolen. Spying the base of a food processor under his butcher’s block, I decide to cobble together my take on Jamaican Jerk Chicken – more or less this New York Times recipe but with four hours of marinating instead of 12. Apparently, house-wifery requires advance planning.

So, I drag my sweating, sundressed-self to the supermarket to gather my fresh fixings (three different kinds of hot peppers, green onions, shallots, ginger, garlic and thyme), clean and prep them, de-shoe so as to be appropriately barefoot, and set them all triumphantly in front of the food processor, ready to grind them into the “course paste” the paper demands.

Only… where’s the damn blade? I look for an hour. Sticky and defeated, I’m about to give up and trek to Joans on Third for some absurdly fancy and correspondingly priced charcuterie (which let’s be real, I did anyway), when it dawns on me – did the Maroons dragged to Jamaica as slaves who created this dish  have food processors???

No. No, they did not.

So, two hours (/two conference calls) later, knife skills vastly improved, I had my precious paste. Did it look perfect? No. Did it taste incredible? Yes. Did I find the missing blade while cleaning up after dinner hours later? Of course.

Since I don’t have a photo of that particular creation (my Blackberry was angry enough at having to pretend to function while smothered in honey and hot pepper juices – this was my passive-agressive way of punishing it at this point in our relationship), here’s another following the same principle. Martha Stewart’s Winter Fruit Crisp, valiantly executed with not a cheese cloth or electric mixer in sight.

(what’s left of) Madge’s Winter Fruit Crisp

As you can see, it was enjoyed – with nary a comment on clumpy topping. Granted, I made it for my boyfriend, who is arguably obligated to tell me it’s delicious if he wants the real sugar… but he did have three servings, take the rest home and ask me to help him translate the recipe into Arabic for his sister, so I guess we’ll take his word for it.

2. Recycling: Not just for your Diet Coke can; Or, the Evolution of a Saturday Dinner.

Turns out, recycling is also ideal for the paella made for two that you both somehow thought would be a fitting amount:

Miss Aarti, or now truly “Spicy in the City” in her awesome new Marina digs, is one of my absolute favorite cooking buddies, but we do seem to share a rather unfortunate quantity-gauging problem…

In our defense, I’m not sure which 4 – 6 people Mark Bittman, whom I love, intended to serve this yellow rice abundance. Perhaps they are professional class salsa dancers? (I’d say sumo wrestlers, but Marky just seems more refined.)

In any case, I was able to add the ridiculous amount of leftovers (less the tomatoes which became a bit soggy) to a bit of sauteed garlic and tomato paste in my Dutch Oven, split a few cherry tomatoes over the top, and rebake for an even more flavorful, crispier go the following night.

In its second life, the rice served as the perfect base to soak up the juices from Martha’s Clam Pan Roast with Sausage & Fennel, which I made as a Sunday evening dinner for my seafood-loving boyfriend (should there be any other kind?). Seriously though, click through to Madge’s little photo. Great little serving for two, right? Ha. I was eating that rice and sausage (Moh took care of all the clams that actually opened like they were supposed to, briny little bastards) for lunch and dinner for the next two days.

And the potatoes? They were soaked in a slick, delicious broth too good to waste but hadn’t quite cooked through, so I saved them in their own Tupperware. Two nights later, the lovely Carrie came up the street and we halved them again and “olive oiled” them (it’s like pan-frying, but makes me feel better about my life – try it sometime) for a good long time. We ate those damn tasty taters alongside my favorite buttermilk chicken, with a cornbread-ing this time around, and a salad. Which I then had for lunch the next day, with the rest of the potatoes, sauteed spinach and poached eggs doing just fine for a quick, cheap dinner that night.

Moral of the long-winded story? What started as one meal rolled along into feeding me and several other people for the better part of the week. Your food might really hit its stride the second time around.

3. Stop talking, Katie.

Seriously. I had some more lessons planned but even I’m sick of me. And since I’m actually sick, I’m justyifing retiring with my Vitamin-C system shock smoothie (thanks Moh! He threw peeled fresh oranges, lemons and honey into my blender and I feel ten times better already) and last night’s Top Chef (although I swear if Jamie doesn’t FINALLY pack her knives and go, I will).

But I’ll be back, well before the SF fog at long last rolls out for the refreshing spring we all know will come soon enough. Promise.

You're right, EShea, this is pretty much my jam these days. Sometimes a picture is worth more than the 1000+ words that came before it 🙂

Summer Tour, Part III: Bologna, by way Caroliina.

18 Aug

What could be more a more retro-fab American way to make Monday night dinner than by playing sous-chef (or “pinche,” as my Oklahoman grandfather would call it, partially in mocking deference to his partially-Chilean wife) for your Irish/Hungarian mom while she makes her family’s favorite Italian recipe? Nothing I can think of, except maybe doing it barefoot in a bathing suit while sipping a Red Hook nestle-chilled in a personalized wedding beer koozie. In the South. Also, just owning and using several beer koozies.

Recognize that koozie, Lynne? Tim + Vanessa 2009. That one's for you!

Although my personal kitchen hero Marcella Hazan would no doubt turn up her discerning nose at the thought of serving her famed five-hour Bolognese to a soundtrack of pre-season football (sorry, ‘Cell, but the fam loves the G-Men and I had given Mark Sanchez my heart even before my roomie and I managed to use his unparalleled visage to stop a lady-cop from impounding her car), I think she’d have to approve of the spirit behind the afternoon of prep for the feast.

There is no better vacation to me than the one my family takes every year to Oak Island, North Carolina, precisely because there’s literally nothing to do but nothing. With no museums to feel guilty about not visiting because you’re secretly uninterested in “learning about local culture,” nor any social scene to feel the need to put on heels for, these precious days on the bath-water warm Atlantic are reserved for sunning, swimming and reading crappy Jane Green novels. Evenings, meanwhile, follow one mandate alone, and needless to say it’s one of my favorites: eat, drink and be merry. So, after a morning of soaking up plenty of sunburn and several men’s magazines pilfered from the office (PR: it’s good for subscriptions), Mom and I retired to the rental house kitchen together to kick off the meal that will always make me think of the seemingly effortless love and care she devotes to feeding her family.

One of my earliest, and most visceral, food memories is the familiar grumble of thrilled hunger I’d feel when I’d come into our kitchen on Wedgewood Road and peer over the red and black granite countertop of the island to find on the stovetop a pot of stewing tomato sauce. Not plain red but flecked with the tiniest curls of almost grey-bluish beef simmering amidst barely detectable slivers of onion, carrot and celery. Fascinated, I would stand on tiptoes to reach for the wooden spoon resting next to the burner to skim the layer of thick orange fat layer that gathered sedentarily between the slow, frothing bubbles.

Marcella describes it better than I can, as just reading one of her recipes paints a picture of the domineering, bourbon-swilling dame responsible for teaching American there’s more to red sauce than Ragu brand long before Mario Batali did: “the sauce cooks at the laziest of simmers, with just an intermittent bubble breaking through the surface.” Hers was the first (new) cookbook my mom ever gave me for Christmas, and I vividly remember sitting in the backyard of my apartment in San Francisco in a stolen patch of January sunlight tuning out Jean-Claude, our French super who wears a beret and drives his three ancient whippet dogs everywhere in a van adorned on each side (roof included) with a perfectly replicated Pink Floyd album cover, while I pored over each of her directions. I could hear each one as sternly resolute as if they came straight from the mouth of the Italian grandmother I’ve never had. It’s pronouncements like these I love – Marcella, on Pasta:

“There is not the slightest justification for preferring homemade pasta to factory-made. Those who do deprive themselves of some of the most flavorful dishes in the Italian reperatory… They are seldom interchangeable, but in terms of absolute quality, they are fully equal.”

One more favorite before I tell you how to make the damn dinner. On tomatoes:

“The flavor of fresh tomatoes is livelier, less cloying than that of the canned, but fully ripened fresh tomatoes for cooking are still not a common feature of North American markets, except for the six or eight weeks during the summer when they are brought in from nearby farms. When you are unable to get good fresh tomatoes, rather than cook with watery, tasteless ones, it’s best to turn to the dependable canned variety.”

I’ll spare you her thoughts on the acceptable canned varieties. Obviously, they’re Italian.

No doubt she’ll recount the entire recipe for the Bolognese I’ve been eating my entire life far better than I can, so I’ll direct you to it: Marcella Hazan’s Bolognese Sauce, from The Essentials of Italian Cooking. But, to paraphrase, you first make a soffrito (dice about a handful of onions, celery and carrots, and heat, in that order, in oil and butter until soft).

The best way to get your veggies? Bathed in oil AND butter, clearly.

Sounds simple, right? It is. Although, not so much with Marcella over your shoulder:

“An imperfectly executed soffrito will impair the flavor of a dish no matter how carefully all of the succeeding steps are carried out. If the onion is merely stewed or incompletely sauteed, the taste of the sauce, or the risotto, or the vegetable never takes off and will remain feeble.”

So don’t eff it up.

Add ground beef and cook “until it loses its raw, red color,” S&P it, then add the two secret ingredients – milk (for which Mom took a measuring cup to the neighbors to fill because we only had skim – Americana at its best, my friends) and nutmeg (adding “warm” seasonings like allspice and cinnamon to sauces is a favorite tasty trick I got from Mom which I now suspect she plucked from Marcella herself). When the milk has evaporated, you add the same amount of white wine you added milk until that has evaporated too.

Here, Marcella left me to panic, because by this time in the recipe you have a yellow mass of liquid and it’s almost impossible to tell when exactly that magic moment is. I realized, though, that besides using the residue on the side of the pot to judge when the chalky white line has diminished to more or less where it was was before you added the wine, you can actually smell the sharpness of the alcohol until it has burned away. After that, you add the canned tomatoes, and then you wait. For hours. And hours. And more hours.

In the meantime, go finish off that sunburn. Return to the house to stir the pot every so often – like when the tingling on that awkward spot on your arm you didn’t reach makes you realize you need more SPF 30, when you feel the need to compulsively check your Blackberry despite the fact they’re certainly not paying you to do so, or if you have to use the bathroom in a manner not appropriate for the ocean. (Not that girls poo. Everybody knows we don’t. Ew.)

When it becomes four o’clock somewhere, a perfectly appropriate location being your own mind, I suggest you fix yourself a While You Wait Whiskey, my debut cocktail creation, inspired by a delicious visit to the Whiskey Kitchen in Nashville, Tennessee (thanks for gradumacating, brosef!).

Look, fruits too!! This day has ALL the food groups.

Cut up two or three strawberries into small pieces. Do what mixologists call “muddling” – mash them up how you see fit. I used the detachment from an electric mixer. Cut a lemon in half and squeeze its juice into the mix. Put ice in a glass, pour a shot of bourbon over it (if I had my way I’d of course use Bulleit), add the muddled mix, top with club soda, and stir it all up. Adjust all ingredients to taste. Garnish with a sprig of basil, if you’ve got it, and you’re fancy.

The fam unanimously approved ( After “Stawberries? And whiskey? Katie, you’re so crazy, San Francisco blah blah blah.” Sip. “Oh… that works!” Another sip). Point one, pretension.

Even Brosef, the taste purist (complicating the childhood of yours truly the budding foodie by refusing to go to any restaurants where he'd be forced to eat "fancy pizza"), went for sip 2. Admittedly, the basil was a bit much for him.

Put a large pot of salted water on to boil. When it has, add spaghetti.

Note: I actually think that even if it weren’t a sensible choice by virtue of its being healthier, the nutty taste and grainier texture of whole wheat spaghetti actually makes a nicer compliment to the sauce than traditional white pasta. Sorry, ‘Cell. I will, however, concede the milk battle. Whole – which is four percent fat – just works better than two percent here. It’s vacation.

Sit while the storm clouds you desperately miss on the East Coast roll in.

Meanwhile, open a bottle of wine. It should be full enough to stand up to the meat, but light enough not to overpower the delicate nature of the sauce. We had a Benziger Signaterra “Three Blocks” Red (2006), a Sonoma Cab Sauv (68%)/Merlot blend that is structured but very smooth, with more cocoa than fruit notes. (The bottle was sent to my Mom as part of the wine membership I got her for Christmas, and on a side note for all you wine country visitors, Benziger, a family-owned and run biodynamic winery is one of the best places to to go. I’ll expound later I’m sure.)

This is a completely extraneous shot I'm including only so I can look at it whistfully whilst stranded once again in cubeland braindead zone tomorrow. Sometimes I don't think the gold diggers have it so wrong.

When the pasta is done al dente, strain, “correct the salt” in the sauce, and serve all mixed up topped with parm cheese. After you’ve worked this hard, keep it classy. Make it fresh grated. Do it for Marcella.

Sit down to enjoy it with your adorable family.

But seriously, could they BE any cuter?

And now suspended 10,000 miles in the bumpy air above the Rockies, remembering the vivid sights, smells and tastes that bring me home no matter how far away that may be, I feel incredibly lucky.  Even if it’s precisely the frustratingly fleeting nature of these moments that make them so powerful.

welcome to the good life. catch ya on the flip side.

Summer Tour, Part II: The Capitol Charade

3 Aug

So, friends: we’ve arrived. We’re officially past the honeymoon (or in twenty-something commitment-phobe terms, with which I’m HOBviously more comfortable, the everything-you-do-is-cute-i-just-want-to-text-you-all-the-time phase) and into that supremely awkward discovery-of-things-we’d-rather-not-know stage. When getting to know me, this typically involves a very genuine, but I’m sure no less frustrating, disappearing act.

So, my apologies. July took me on a whirlwind tour – and I promise, delicious recipes inspired by these journeys from coast to coast will soon follow – but for now, I leave you with some ruminations on a stop I keep coming back to.

WASHINGTON, D.C. Our nation’s capital. I’d always expected this to be a very dry, white-washed place – and no doubts pockets of it are, and will become again. I think what struck me most about it was this two-sided shock of arrogance : first, that I could believe a place so truly rich in history could actually somehow be devoid of an energy sparked by those driven to live there; and second, by the arrogance of a place that draws such fascinating people from all backgrounds, yet still takes its own identity from a symbol it’s literally impossible to capture in a manner more complex than this:

Really, America? Really.

Seriously, though. I tried as we walked the miles up the mall. I tried from a distance and I tried close up. But you just can’t avoid this:

no but REALLY.

Truly, though, besides the allusions I have a tough time…um… swallowing… I once heard DC was a place that had a million different underground scenes, and I think what’s so different about it than other places I’ve been is that they’re not really underground – here, expressing what you find important is expected. Staying with the person I am lucky enough to count a friend whom I admire most in the world, GlyderGrl (uh oh, sorry friend, but I just found your classy-ass professional profile), I was introduced to a world full of bougie pleasures, free from much of the guilt I typically associate with indulging these – because these people are actually involved with something they care about. I’ll repeat in case many of you didn’t understand, actually involved with something they care about, namely through the Congressional Hunter Center (though I gotta be honest, it’s no “Center for Justice,” Kate’s previous place of employ – perhaps my favorite organizational title ever).

Our generational struggle for a way to pay to rent that doesn’t suck our collective soul in the process is something that seeps guiltily out in various ways. One of the silliest?

The prime hipster food obsession dujour: the food cart. After all, what better way to escape the mundanity of your daily cubeland braindead zone than by hopping on the “social network” we all know is most useless to chart out the location of overpriced, mediocre lunch food sloughed from a moving target?

And sorry San Francisco, though you may take your greatest pride in what you percieve to be your undisputed hipster foodie superiority, you’ve been SERVED.

Curry Up, the Indian burrito truck Aarti and I took 45 minutes out of one typically annoyingly busy day to find and wait in an impossibly creeping line for in our own Financial District, served up chalky cheese that left me feeling full of unpleasant sensations I don’t feel the need to detail for my closest friends and farthest internet acquaintances. Ultimately, all they’ve got going for them is one pun. Please.

DC’s Fojol Bros of Merlindia, on the other hand, manages to dish all the ridiculous ish you should if you’re making your daily living desperately trying to legally park a food truck in the barren concrete wasteland of an American center of global commerce.

The lack of soundtrack is really making these baggy officeworkers look sad.

Ridiculous conceit? Check. Blaring disco music and flashing mirrors? Yuh huh. Organic-sustainable-better-than-you folosophy? Obviously. And last and in this case, probably least, yummy food for a price that won’t give you indigestion? Even that.

this picture even LOOKS humid. 100 degree july, how i secretly miss you.

So maybe that’s it. Washington, D.C., seems to do things with a conviction that make the rest of us, busy pretending to have things like “pride” and “cynicism,” look like the sheepish commitment-phobes we are.

To be honest, I’m not sure I’ll ever believe any principle enough to stand behind it as much as those who populate this city clearly do whatever theirs may be; but in the meantime, I can certainly try to hold myself and my surroundings to a standard of which they’re deserving.

Like maybe writing in this godforsaken blog once every week. 😉

Summer Tour, Part I: These are my confessions

13 Jul

Ahh, Los Angeles. City of angels, bleached Santa Monica blondes, David Hockney blues, perpetual freeway*, deceptively endearing man-boys in Dodgers caps (yes, it’s a weakness), and of course, the biz.

Lucky for those of us who shun the limiting, reductive and superficial stereotype of the toned, tan fit and ready for which this great state is famed (OF COURSE on purpose due to highly evolved moral ground and DEFINITELY NOT as a byproduct of our natural Irish coloring and propensity for carbohydrates),  there are purportedly more entertainers living here than in any other city at any time in history. This not only means lovely eyecandy is scattered about readily availalable for all to enjoy, but more importantly that the eyecandy need dayjobs. I think the abundance of LA restaurants comes from supply of waitstaff, not demand for feeding. 

Because the eyecandy are also patrons, menus at hotspots like Hugo’s are filled with fare more dressed to leave less impress on the figures of the diet-concious than to satisfy the appetitites of us happily impervious visitors. Well, when in Rome, I always figure.  In this case, Rome involves a penchant for kombucha (maybe for the secrently high alcohol levels that recently led Whole Foods to snatch the elixir from its stores – gawd, thanks for nothing, LoHo) and veganism that probably has more to do with the human than the animal body. So, on my most recent surprise visit to shenanigan the Telanor Kousman, as engineered by his equally handsome and accomodating brother Petros K, I “indulged” myself with this gem:

“GO GREEN FRITTATA: This wonderful breakfast full of protein, minerals, and iron will keep you going and going. Made with egg whites, chard, beet greens, kale, spinach puree, broccolini, zucchini, asparagus, quinoa, garlic, extra virgin olive oil. Topped with alfalfa sprouts and an apple-mango-mint sauce.”

It looks a lot more interesting than it tasted, which was a lot like it sounds – righteously bland. Oh well. At least it was a caloric wash. Plus, I saw the adorable Ben from Big Love (Douglas Smith). I mean, what’s a trip to LA without a spotting of a psuedo-celebrity whose real name you definitely didn’t know before you were then obviously forced to stalk them?

OK, so here’s my real confession. I come to love LA a little bit more everytime I visit. There is a freedom in the understanding that what’s on the surface is a shared cultural value. Elsewhere image is a dirty little secret – here it’s accepted currency.

Of course the real reason it grows on me is I love seeing my friends growing in fabulous ways, like Telanor and Petros settling in their gorgeous vintage apartment, complete with verandas and a black and white checkered kitchen floor. Or near-future breakout sensation Joel Perez, California-bronzed and beaming, about to leave on tour with the smash In the Heights and meeting up with his new castmates for an impromptu Musical Monday bar performance.

The Kousman in his kitchen, my favorite of his many natural environments.

Before hitting the 5 back to the Bay, the Unsinkable M, Joel and I join the Kousaki for a lovely dinner at the authoritative heavy woood table in their very adult dining room. Whole wheat pasta tossed with a light white white and garlic sauce, goat cheese, a florally juicy fresh-squeezed SoCal lemon far sweeter than sour, greens and a few shreds of basil, sea salt and cracked pepper.

Light, easy, delicious. Much like, maybe against my better judgement, I’m quickly coming to regard  this sparkling, sprawling complexity of a city.

*A city of contradictions, Los Angeles had the largest public transit in the country before GM bought it, poured kerosene on the street cars and burned them so that Henry Ford could “solve the city problem [the problem being THE entire POINT OF THE CITY, you a-hole] by leaving the city”. Although if you’re still reading this blog at all you’re aware I’m an unabashed proponent of rambling tangents and tenous connections, even I decided this bit of knowledge must be shared but relegated to a footnote. Also, footnotes feel fancy.