Last weekend I rented a cargo van and drove to Malden with my friend Mary to pick up the last of my things from Matt’s storage unit: A big cherry-wood desk and matching chair, given to me by my mother when I lived in New York. It’s been exactly one year since Matt and I split. The symmetry of this date was both pleasant and painful. The multi-story storage center was empty when we arrived, halls of concrete and bright orange doors fanning out in front of us, like we had wandered into a Stanley Kubrick movie. When I opened the unit, a small one in the back, I saw my desk and chair alongside a number of items I once knew so well (his Army backpack, our bike rack) and a few things I did not (a Christmas wreath, a bag of women’s sweaters). Mary and I lugged my desk out, down the hall, and into the van. I locked the unit and we drove home.
The next day I woke up with a cold. A bad cold. A sore throat, body aching, tissue grabbing cold. And all I wanted, as is true whenever I have a cold, was soup.
I made a tomato soup—(this soup)—one creamy and thick with sourdough bread and bright with cumin and cilantro. It’s from Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s JERUSALEM, which, as you know, is a book I love. Jessica made this same soup for my 30th birthday party a few months ago—a lovely, raucous night filled with great friends and goofy photos. I loved that evening, for both the fun of the moment itself and what it represented as a start to a new year. Because last year? It was a hard year. A good year, but a challenging year. A lot of things changed. I learned what it means to be proud of myself. I learned what it means to let go.
I shared this soup on Monday night with someone new, a someone that wants to share soup with me on a Monday night even if I’m sick and he may or may not believe soup actually qualifies as a meal. It’s early, so that’s all I’ll say about that. I know as well as anyone that life can change in an instant, can turn course on a dime.
But on Tuesday, I put the key to Matt’s storage locker in an envelope, which I then sealed, addressed, and stamped. I carried the envelope tucked in my purse for a day before I remembered to drop it into the mailbox outside my apartment building on my way to work.
Wednesday, January 16, 2013
There was Christmas. I roasted lamb. My brother and I grilled oysters. My mother and I made toast out of brioche baked by my talented colleague, Andrew. We may or may not have had a family dance party. Then there was New Years. Jess and I made potato gnocchi with tomato sauce. We made salad with fresh ricotta. We played Cards Against Humanity and laughed a lot. There have been breakfasts in bakeries. Early morning walks. Late mornings writing in bed. I spent a weekend in Vermont, where I went downhill skiing for the first time in eight years. I grew up ski racing, but I hadn’t touched a pair of skis since before the accident and resulting knee surgery. My knee has felt stable and strong for a while now, but I’d been holding on to my fear. I was afraid that I’d forgotten how to move. Afraid that I’d get hurt. It came right back, though, that muscle memory of boot in ski, of ski on snow. And as I stood on that mountain this past Saturday, an abnormally warm Saturday for January, the sky a brilliant blue above the lingering haze of fog, it felt good to let the last vestiges of my injury go.
Thursday, December 27, 2012
On December evenings when I was a girl, my father and I would drive around town looking for the best (read: most garish) Christmas decorations. The more light, the more color, the more porches and lawns laden with statues and scenes and rotating Santa dolls the better. I grew up in suburbia, so these holiday tours involved a minivan on inky black roads, long stretches between fields and farms and gated neighborhoods. I remember the smell of those evenings. Of winter. Of cold—that deep dark blue scent that mixes so well with car exhaust and pine.
Technically, I’m Jewish. My father grew up in an actively Jewish household. But my Protestant mother converted to get married and brought with her a slew of Christmas traditions from her Danish past. The holiday was a hot button issue in our house. We celebrated when I was very small. But then when I began attending Hebrew school, we stopped. No more tree. No more Santa. Instead we went skiing in Maine. I missed it. My father knew.
We called our favorite house on this Christmas light tour the “Blue House”—because, well, it was blue. Not the house itself, which was the usual New England-style cloudy white. But the lights draped upon it were all blue. Neon blue. They covered the house—the roof, the windows, the door, and even the yard, coating every inch of every tree, snaking lines of light out into the sky like a spider web. I could stare at those lights for hours. We had entered magical world where gravity didn’t exist.
I wanted to do the same to our house. My father said no.
I hadn’t thought about the Blue House for a while. But then on a Saturday evening a couple weeks ago, I climbed onto a trolley parked at the Somerville City Hall. I was there with a friend and—bundled in down and wool, breathing misty clouds against the frosted windows—we were there for a Christmas light tour of our own.
The Illuminations Tour is a yearly tradition, a one-night-only option, a guided trolley ride among some of the more enthusiastically decorated homes in town. Our trolley was filled with tipsy hipsters. By the time the tour began it had been dark for hours, but was actually only 9:15. Laughter fairly exploded from the rows behind us. My friend and I weren’t tipsy, but we were verging on hipster, both sporting thick-rimmed glasses and skinny jeans. We had brought a bar of chocolate—dark chocolate with sea salt—and shared it square by square as the trolley rumbled up and down the streets, past the porches overflowing with glowing blow up dolls: the nutcrackers, the snowmen, the ghoulish-looking Santa Clauses. Plaster reindeers hung from roofs, ablaze with glitter and neon.
When the tour ended, the trolley dropped us back off where we began. We clomped back out onto the ice-studded streets. We stopped to drink some hot cider, standing in the corner of a bar filled with people wearing red and green and the occasional Santa hat. We decided to again seek out the street that had some of the best-lit houses from the tour. This time, on foot. We could take pictures.
It was close to 11pm by the time we arrived and only one house was still lit. All the others were dark. The street was empty and quiet. We walked side by side down the center of the road, each footstep an echo. The air had grown cold, and, jamming a wool hat over my hair, I breathed in that familiar scent of winter.
When we reached that final house, we paused in front. It was a fantastic house, plastered with colored lights and redolent in blowup dolls. A particularly friendly-looking plastic snowman was fastened to the roof; he smiled down on the street.
Then I heard a door slam. A click. A switch. And suddenly the lights shut off. All of them. We stood in the middle of that now inky black road and watched as the snowman began to deflate. He lost his air rapidly—surprisingly so. We watched as he began to bow, leaning slowly over himself. He made an elegant fall to the ground.
I woke up the next morning and decided to bake cookies.
Whole Wheat Chocolate Chip Cookies
Adapted from Kim Boyce’s Good to the Grain and about a gazillion blogs
These cookies have been written about all over the place. But, dudes, they’re great. The whole-wheat flour doesn’t make them heavy (or healthy, I promise), but instead lends a nutty, earthy flavor that complements the richness of the butter and bittersweet chocolate. This dough can go straight from the bowl to the oven, but I know folks who recommend chilling the dough first, sometimes already portioned out on the baking sheet and then wrapped in plastic. (This chilly pause will make your cookies a bit more plump and, depending on how long you leave them in the fridge, a bit more flavorful). My friend Jess tops them with some sea salt flakes. I made this batch plain.
3 cups whole wheat flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, chilled and cut into ½-inch cubes
1 cup dark brown sugar, lightly packed
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate chips (or bar chocolate, roughly chopped)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (with racks positioned in the upper and lower thirds of the oven). Butter two baking sheets (or line them with parchment).
Whisk together the dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt) in a medium sized bowl and set aside.
Put the butter and sugars in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. On low speed, mix for about 2 minutes, until just blended. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Beat in the vanilla.
Add the flour mixture and mix on low speed until just incorporated. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the chocolate and blend until evenly combined. (If there are still pockets of flour, use your fingers to massage the dough a bit. You don’t want to do any overbeating.)
Make mounds of dough about 3 tablespoons in size. Place them onto baking sheets, about three inches apart, or about 8 cookies per sheet (they will spread as they bake). Bake for 15 – 20 minutes, making sure to rotate the sheets halfway through. Transfer the cookies to a rack to cool. Repeat until all the dough is used.
Sunday, November 18, 2012
Hi, friends. I have a couple things I'd like to share.
First: I know that this may be a shocker, but I do occasionally write about topics that aren’t cooking- or sense-of-smell-related. And I’m happy to report that I have just such an essay up on Cognoscenti, the new opinion page of WBUR (Boston’s NPR affiliate), as well as up on the Huffington Post. The essay is about my (relatively short, so far) experience with online dating. It’s about the stories we tell ourselves, and the stories we tell others, and how these stories align. Online dating, to me, is a collision of stories, and I find it fascinating. It’s certainly teaching me a lot about myself.
In fact, I’ll be on WBUR’s Radio Boston to talk about the essay and my online dating experience tomorrow - Monday (11/19), sometime between 3 and 4pm (!!). Tune in!
Second: Cook's Illustrated's THE SCIENCE OF GOOD COOKING, the book that I spent about 18 months editing, is tearing it up. There have been all sorts of interviews conducted with my boss, Chris Kimball, as well as Jack Bishop, who was the driving force behind this scientific tome. Jack also gave a fantastic lecture at Harvard this past week.
And on Tuesday (11/20), I am going to be giving a talk with fellow Cook's Illustrated editor Dan Souza, who was in charge of the test kitchen experiments published in the book (and who also writes a delightful column on chips for Serious Eats), at the Middlesex Lounge in Cambridge at 7pm. The event is part of the NOVA Science Cafe series, and will most definitely be a good time. We will talk about the making of THE SCIENCE OF GOOD COOKING, as well as what it's like to be an editor at Cook's Illustrated magazine (where I have been working full time since I finished editing the book). There may even be some Thanksgiving cookery tips involved. I'd love to see you there.
Sunday, November 11, 2012
I could write about a lot of things.
Some things are right in front of me: a mug of hot coffee, a warm scone, the wilting basil plant I’m desperately trying to keep alive. My table is piled with read and half-read books by friends and colleagues and mentors and writers whose minds I’d like to inhabit for just a second, surrounding me like a fort. My brain is filled with ideas, bursting with them, for articles, for books, for projects—and yet I always want more. The heater clanks. The windows rattle against the early-morning wind. My hair smells like lavender.
Other things to write about already took place: namely, weddings. I went to three weddings in October. One in Beverly, MA, one in Lancaster, PA, one in San Francisco, CA. Megan married Jeff. Emily married Ryan. Becca married Justin. I drove to two of these weddings. Flew to one. I was greeted by old friends, new friends, complete strangers; the Amish countryside, the perfect produce of a West Coast farmer’s market, way too much wine.
Megan, a colleague at America’s Test Kitchen, is passionate and detail oriented, especially when it comes to food, and her wedding was a parade of perfectly-placed details, luscious bites and a carefully-curated collection of desserts. Emily, one of my oldest friends, looked radiant as she walked down the aisle—part woman and part child, the clash no doubt a result of my own inability to completely separate our individual presents from our collective past. I gave a reading at the ceremony of my college roommate, Becca—part of the introduction to Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a choice that seemed strange at first, until I realized that it was the perfect way to talk about not only food but all that it stands for (family, community, adventure, love).
I could also write about how when November finally rolled around I was… tired.
But as I write it’s Sunday morning—a beautiful morning just begging for me to go out for a jog—and I don’t feel like using words to occupy either the sensory present or its weightier partner, the past. So I'm going to tell you about these sweet potatoes instead.
I’ve written about my love of Ottolenghi’s cookbooks before. The newest one, Jerusalem, just came out and of course I bought it right up. This is the first recipe in the book. Just one glance and I knew. Roasted sweet potato wedges—served with fried slivers of red chiles and green onions, drizzled with a balsamic glaze, nestled with fresh figs and (if you want) chunks of goat cheese. It’s salty and sweet, cooked and raw, spicy and tangy and warm. This is the kind of cooking I like best: simple yet unexpected, casual but interesting, home cooking with a bit of an edge.
Roasted Sweet Potatoes & Fresh Figs
From JERUSALEM, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi
4 sweet potatoes
5 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 ½ tablespoons superfine sugar (though I used regular sugar)
12 green onions, halved and cut into 1 ½ inch segments
1 red chile, thinly sliced
6 figs, ripe ones, quartered
5 ounces goat cheese (optional)
salt and pepper
Preheat your oven to 475 degrees Fahrenheit.
Wash and then cut your sweet potatoes into wedges – (cut the potato in half, and then each half into three wedges). Toss with 3 tablespoons oil, salt and pepper to your liking. Place on a baking sheet, skin side down, and roast for about 25 – 35 minutes, until, as Ottolenghi says, they are “soft but not mushy.” Let cool.
Make a balsamic reduction: Combine vinegar and sugar in a small pan. Simmer for about 4 minutes, give or take, or until it thickens. (Ottolenghi says: “Be sure to remove the pan from the heat when the vinegar is still runnier than honey; it will continue to thicken as it cools.”)
Heat up the rest of the oil in a saucepan and quick-fry the chile and green onion slices (for about 4 – 5 minutes over medium heat, stirring often to avoid burning).
Arrange the sweet potato wedges on a big serving platter. Spoon the oil/chile/onion mixture over top. Nestle the fig quarters among the potatoes. Drizzle with the balsamic reduction. Season with salt and pepper to taste. This is great at room temperature, with the goat cheese (if you want it) crumbled over top just before serving.
Thursday, October 18, 2012
I’ve written a little about my job here on this blog. A bit here. A bit there. But not too much. I’ve never really given you the details. And this month, the details came together into something big, something concrete, something about which I’m quite proud.
I began working at America’s Test Kitchen a few months before my own book came out. I was hired to edit a cookbook. An exciting cookbook. One that was published on October 1: Cook’s Illustrated’s The Science of Good Cooking.
If I learned anything in the last couple years it’s that there really isn’t any thrill quite like the thrill of holding a book that you toiled over—wordsmithed over, wrote and edited and rewrote and reedited for so many, many months—in your hands. You may not see my name on the cover of this particular book, as is the Cook's Illustrated way, but I’m in there. I was in charge of every word on every page of this scientific tome. And, damn, I’m proud. The thrill of holding this book was a different kind of thrill than the one I had holding my own book for that first time, breathing in its new-ink aroma, feeling the concrete reality of its spine. But a thrill nonetheless.
The Science of Good Cooking is organized into 50 basic concepts of food science—simple concepts, ones that every cook should know. Gentle Heat Retains Moisture. High Heat Develops Flavor. Salty Marinades Work Best. Sugar Changes Sweetness and Texture. There are recipes, 400 of them, all culled from the last 20 years of Cook’s Illustrated magazine. There are scientific experiments to bring these concepts to light, performed by a talented test cook in the kitchen that sprawls across the first floor of our office building. (I've been writing a bit about them a bit, here.)
The best part about editing this book? It taught me to cook with more confidence. Many years of my life were spent tied to recipes, tied to instructions, unsure of how dishes would change if I were to cook by instinct rather than rule. But learning about the hows and whys, the way food actually work on a molecular level has drastically changed the way I cook, the way I think about cooking, the way I move at the stove. Check it out.