Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Thursday, September 23, 2010

State of the Book

I am sitting at my desk right now, a thick stack of paper on my lap. I'm rereading my book, beginning to end. Again. Page by page, chapter by chapter, I've read this book more than a dozen times. A million times, it seems. I can practically recite the entire thing. The words have become so familiar I can hardly see them; the sentences contemplated so often that their meaning fades in a moment, vaporous and fast. (I don't even want to know how my poor editor feels...)

But now the book has been written and edited and rewritten and copy edited and put into its first round of galleys. Not yet bound. But close. It's exciting and totally strange to see the typeface, the copyright, the dedication already inset. I saw the cover for the first time last week. It's a painting done by a talented artist. I can really only stare at it in disbelief.

The best part, though, is its new title: Season To Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way. Also, underneath it on the jacket cover: my name. My name on a book. A real live book. Who woulda thought?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Flatbread, Za'atar

On Saturday night, Matt and I threw a dinner party. All of our guests were graduate students. Some were there to break the Yom Kippur fast. Others, simply to celebrate an early autumn night away from school. At one point I realized that I was the only person in the room without an incomplete problem set looming over my head. (And I will admit: this I enjoyed.)

I cooked a lot for this party, beginning early that day. There was an heirloom tomato tart with caramelized onions, olives, and capers on puff pastry with edges a crisp golden brown. Short ribs braised in red wine, served over polenta creamy with butter and cheese. An intensely chocolate tart. Whipped cream.

That morning I relished the quiet hours bent over the stove with a wooden spoon, chopping onions on the counter, melting chocolate in a deep glass bowl in order to make a glaze. It was a beautiful day, and the kitchen was full of light. I concentrated on the colors and the textures of my ingredients. The clanking sound of fork and knife, the sizzle of meat in the pan. The slow, low scent of butter, sugar, and chocolate as the tart baked in the oven. There were moments, here and there, when I was sure nothing had been so vivid as the orange of that grated carrot, the smoky smell of that rib as it seared. The thought came often and unbidden: I love to cook.

As people filtered into our apartment, which glowed in the dusky light of gloaming around 7 p.m., we began by drinking red wine and sampling homemade hummus, scooped onto strips of the flatbread covered in za’atar that I had baked that afternoon, filling the kitchen with the scent of the Mediterranean, of the Middle East.

The chatter, the laughter, the taste of cumin and chickpeas lingering on the tongue—that’s when I remembered that even more than cooking, even more than the solitude of the senses at the stove, what I really love isn’t to cook: it’s to feed. I love when friends and strangers come together around a table laden with food. There’s nothing better over which to bond. There’s nothing more like home.

Flatbread with Za’atar
Adapted from Spice, a lovely cookbook by Ana Sortun

1 package (¼ ounce) active dry yeast
¾ cup warm water (between 110 and 120 degrees Fahrenheit)
¼ cup olive oil
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 tablespoons za’atar*

In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine and whisk the yeast and warm water. Let stand for around 10 minutes, until it begins a gentle bloom of foam.

Whisk in the ¼ cup olive oil and then the flour with ½ teaspoon of the salt.

Using the mixer’s paddle, stir on low speed until the flour is combined and a dough forms. Switch to the dough hook, and mix on medium speed for 7 – 8 minutes, until the dough is still sticky to the touch but stays on the dough hook in one piece.

Lightly oil a large bowl (glass or stainless steel) and put the dough within. Cover with plastic. Chill in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours, or overnight. The dough should double in volume.

Two hours before baking, place the dough and 2 tablespoons of the extra virgin olive oil onto a baking sheet and cover again with plastic. Let it rest and rise for 1 ½ hours at room temperature.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

Press the dough onto the baking sheet, using your hands to stretch and pull. It should make a flat 10x12-inch rectangle. Make dimples in the dough with your fingertips and brush it all with the remaining olive oil. Sprinkle the za’atar evenly over the entire sheet of dough. And then with ½ teaspoon salt.

Let the dough rest for 20 – 30 minutes more, uncovered.

Bake for 15 minutes, until golden on the edges and cooked through in the center. Serve warm. Preferably with hummus.

*I bought a container of za’atar—a Middle Eastern spice blend that includes the dried herb of the same name, which is a very green type of thyme, as well as sumac, sesame seeds and salt—at one of Ana Sortun’s restaurants, Sofra. Sofra, unlike Sortun’s first restaurant, Oleana, which is fancier dinner spot that I’ve also been to and love, is a causal bakery on the Watertown/Cambridge line. She serves breakfast and lunch foods, some of the best baked goods I’ve ever had. The last time I was there I couldn’t resist buying some of her spices – za’atar as well as a small container of Aleppo chilies. I have put them to good use.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


Matt began graduate school the first week of September, just when I began to work on a big new project of my own. The long, slow days of summer came suddenly to a halt.

No more lazy weeks hiking in Maine or long bike rides near Plymouth. I’m still writing a lot, still cooking a lot, but everything is now scheduled into bite-sized bits; sudden movement and looming deadlines abound. It’s exciting. But a little sad, too.

On Thursday I scurried around Boston doing errands after a morning of work. Little errands. Doctor’s offices, hair salons and the Apple store—menial, mind-numbing things that I’ve been avoiding for more than a year, ever since I began writing my book. I found myself in Coolidge Corner, Brookline, around 5 p.m. in order to turn my eyeglasses into the shop for new lenses and a tune-up. While they worked I had an hour to kill. I spent it in the nearby bookshop, standing in an aisle with my bag on the ground, reading cookbooks: my favorite activity.

Mollie Katzen wrote the Moosewood Cookbook, that famous vegetarian tome published in 1977. Yesterday, I picked up one of her more recent books, The Vegetable Dishes I Can’t Live Without, which is sweet in its handwritten font and line-drawn illustrations. Flipping through, I stopped at the section for brussel sprouts, a vegetable that I love dearly, especially when roasted crisp with just a bit of olive oil, salt, and pepper. Unfortunately, with this sentiment not everyone agrees. I’ve succeeded in converting my mother and her boyfriend, Charley, to the cult of sprout. I’m still working on Matt. Once I had a partial win with him, that time that I braised the brussel sprouts with bacon and balsamic vinegar. Bacon, after all, makes everything taste good. But I’ve been in the market for something a bit healthier.

Katzen, I read, sautés sweet onions and then adds the sprouts to a pot on the stove. She steams them until fork tender and then, just before serving, adds a maple and mustard sauce. Sweet and spicy. Easy and cheap. Quick, especially. Interesting, I thought.

Later that night, I began cooking at 8. It was raining, dark and heavy outside. Matt and I were starving and exhausted. Not even a glass of wine as I prepped dinner seemed to help.

I trimmed and halved the bag of brussel sprouts that I had picked up on my way home, put them straight into a pan hot with olive oil, and cooked them for a few minutes with salt and pepper until just beginning to brown. I added a splash of water and covered the pot. Ten minutes later, when they were tender and bright green, I added Katzen’s magic sauce: ¼ cup Dijon mustard, 2 tablespoons maple syrup. I let it cook for a few moments more, infusing the dish with its flavor.

We ate them alongside grilled chicken sausages with basil pesto, sauerkraut, and some fingerling potatoes, which I had roasted with olive oil, salt, pepper, and rosemary. Matt took seconds. We both felt a lot better.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Monday, September 13, 2010

Bread Pudding

On Thursday night last week, Matt and I attended a gathering to honor the sudden autumn weather and the start to the football season—specifically, the New Orleans Saints. It was a quick party, a flash-like dinner before heading to the bar to watch the game. Most attendees were New Orleans natives, transplants to Boston like Matt. They sure do love their city, their football team, their home turf. Who Dat.

Our host made po’boys, the classic New Orleans submarine sandwich often filled with meat or seafood, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise. That night, plump little shrimp were fried in a batter of cornmeal and spices and stuffed into crusty French bread. We ate them with ketchup, and a cold beer. Then: dessert.

Rewind a few hours. Earlier that afternoon, when I was at home stalling over blank Word Documents and attempts to schedule reporting interviews on the phone, I decided to bake. Because, hey, why not. “Procrasticooking,” as someone told me on Twitter. I’m an expert.

I took a cookbook down from the shelf—The New Orleans Cookbook, by Rima and Richard Collin, which Matt’s mother had given me for Christmas the year before. I had never cooked from it before, I’m now embarrassed to admit. It’s not that I don’t love the food in New Orleans. I do. I’ve traveled to that dynamic, Caribbean-style city a handful of times since I met Matt. And since my first visit, I’ve been entranced. It’s a place filled with energy and flavor; its copious sensual pleasures come with the same fierceness as its pains. There was my first jambalaya, gumbo, crawfish étouffée; billowy mouthfuls of beignets and greasy bites of muffalettas stuffed with salami and olive paste; countless cherry-flavored sno-balls from a stand on the side of the road. I often think about the fried frog’s legs that Matt and I ate down south in Creole county, and my first bananas foster, which was flambéed tableside by a well-coifed waiter before being scooped it into our individual plates.

But my food experiences in New Orleans have been so memorable in part because they have had such strong ties to moments, to feelings, to place. I figured that it was pointless to cook anything from that city while living here in the North East – it just wouldn’t be the same.

But in honor of the evening’s event, I opened the cookbook and flipped to page 215. There, I read the recipe for something very simple, something I don’t normally eat, let alone make. It’s not indelibly New Orleans, or even Louisiana. But it’s classic, it’s easy, and it turned out pretty damn good: Bread pudding, New Orleans style.

The ingredients were quick to mix, bright colors against my deep blue pot. The pudding slid into the oven, cooked for an hour, and then emerged all bronzed and crusty. The recipe included canned fruit, which seemed strange to me at first glance, but, as the authors write, “that’s the local touch—it is sweeter than fresh and its syrup becomes part of the pudding.”

I made a sauce out of milk and eggs, butter and vanilla, cloves and sugar and brandy. Heating on the stove, it filled the apartment with a happy scent—like the autumn crackle in the air, like Christmas, a tipsy party prop.

Later that night we poured the sauce—a rich, pale gray—around thick hunks of pudding, warm in a bowl. Lined up in a row, they looked like a strange archipelago of islands, each with its own miniature castle, surrounded by a cloudy moat.

Bread Pudding
Adapted from The New Orleans Cookbook
(for eight or more)

3 cups milk
1 twenty-four inch loaf of day-old French bread, cut into 1 ½ - 2 inch cubes (about 12 cups)
1 can fancy fruit cocktail, cherries removed, drained
1 can peach halves, drained, cut into large chunks
2/3 cup raisins
¼ cup (half a stick) of salted butter, melted
4 large eggs
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¾ teaspoon grated nutmeg
¼ teaspoon allspice
¼ teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Scald the milk in a heavy quart saucepan. Remove from heat and allow to cool for a few minutes. Then add the bread, fruit cocktail, canned peaches, raisins and melted butter. Mix. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs and add the sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and salt. Mix thoroughly, and then add to the bread mixture and blend well.

Butter a 3 – 4 quart casserole dish (or baking dish, 3 – 4 inches deep). Pour the mixture within, distributing ingredients evenly. Bake uncovered for an hour and ten minutes, or until a knife inserted into the center comes out cleanly, and the top begins to brown and develop a rough crust. Allow to cool to room temperature. Serve with brandy sauce.

Brandy Sauce
(makes about one cup)

3 large eggs
¼ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ cup (half a stick) salted butter, melted
¼ cup brandy
1/8 teaspoon cloves
½ cup milk

In heavy saucepan, beat the eggs thoroughly. Add the sugar, vanilla, and melted butter and heat slowly, stirring constantly, until the mixture begins to thicken. (I wasn’t sure how long to stir here, but ended up doing it for about ten minutes, until the sauce was pretty thick, like heavy cream). Remove the pan from heat and add the brandy, cloves, and milk, stirring constantly. Pour into a blender and blend at high speed for 1 – 1 ½ minutes, until the sauce has an even thicker, creamier texture. Serve over bread pudding.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

On Running

I signed up for a half marathon. It’s in October, right when the autumn leaves will be at their peak color. When I hit the “pay now” button on the race’s website and officially committed myself with a token forty of my hard-earned dollars back in June, I had never run more than six miles at a time. But I was on deadline for my book and feeling somewhat desperate. Pushing myself physically seemed like a great idea. After all, I was already used to that constant thrum of anxiety in the base of my throat. Training for the race, I thought, would take my mind off of work and give me a goal beyond word counts.

I’ve been a casual runner for a long time. I love to be outside, to feel the sun on my shoulders, to let mind grow more and more blank with each beat of shoe against pavement. Even being hit by a car while I was jogging in 2005 right here in Boston, that infamous accident that caused me to lose my sense of smell, didn’t stop me. In fact, in many ways, it allowed me feel more powerful with each run. But crossing the ten-mile mark? Until this summer, it never seemed possible.

Haruki Murakami, one of my favorite novelists, wrote What I Talk about When I Talk About Running in 2008. I bought it when I was in New York last year, and devoured it in a day. He writes about his relationship with running—which, as a marathon runner and triathelete, is intense—and how it relates to his own writing.

“I’m the kind of person who likes to be by himself,” he writes. “To put a finer point on it, I’m the type of person who doesn’t find it painful to be alone. I find spending an hour or two every day running alone, not speaking to anyone, as well as four or five hours alone at my desk, to be neither difficult nor boring.”

Me too.

I picked up Murakami’s book for a second time this week. I have been ramping up the distance on my runs, pushing myself to go just a bit farther each week. Sometimes it’s painful, but for the most part, I’m learning to let go. It’s the expectation of discomfort, I’ve found, that keeps me back. The book resonated with me even more in my second read. Murakami, after all, lived in Cambridge and writes of his runs on the same path as mine: along the Charles River.

Murakami is often asked what he thinks about when he runs. “On cold days I guess I think about how cold it is,” he writes. “And about the heat on hot days. When I’m sad I think a little about sadness. When I’m happy I think a little about happiness. As I mentioned before, random memories come to me too. And occasionally, hardly ever, really, I get an idea to use in a novel. But really as I run, I don’t think much of anything worth mentioning. I just run. I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void.”

Me too.

Two weeks ago I ran fourteen miles in one go. It took more than two hours. Granted, I stopped halfway through for ten minutes in order to eat a banana and stretch my legs. But I did it. And along the way, I acquired quite a void.

I’m not entirely sure why I’m writing about running here, now. It has nothing to do with food or with smell, except for the fact that after I run I’m very hungry, and I’ve come to love the bursts of briny river scent that come at certain points in my running route. But I’ve been thinking a lot about writing of late – how to go about it, how to complete long projects, how to keep going after one book ends and another is just hanging a bit out of reach. I’ve been comparing it a lot to my runs. Murakami does too.

“Most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running every day,” he writes. “These are practical, physical lessons. How much can I push myself? How much rest is appropriate – and how much is too much? How far can I take something and still keep it decent and consistent? When does it become narrow-minded and inflexible? How much should I be aware of the world outside, and how much should I focus on my inner world? To what extent should I be confident in my abilities, and when should I start doubting myself? I know that if I hadn’t become a long-distance runner when I became a novelist, my work would have been vastly different. How different? Hard to say. But something would have definitely been different.”

But in the end, whatever running means, however it relates—or doesn’t—to writing, fiction or non, I have learned one thing: there is nothing better than a cold, cold beer and a plate of homemade enchiladas on the day that you first run fourteen miles. Chocolate ice cream is best served for dessert.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Friday, September 03, 2010

Chicken Braised with Honey, Figs and Vinegar

On Monday night we celebrated the five-year anniversary of my car accident. A bunch of people came over—some I knew, others I did not. My mother, her boyfriend, Charley, and their poodle, Lily, arrived early to help me set up. I cooked a lot, mainly in the morning, before the sticky sheet of heat that has been hovering above Boston this last week began to descend into my kitchen. When we all sat down that night around the big table by the window, the one that overlooks brick buildings and silhouetted steeples glowing in the dusk, we cheered to the small things, to the lucky things, the ones that put us all there, then. There was red wine and white wine, a potato and zucchini torte, an arugula salad and a lot of fine cheese. My favorite dish was the centerpiece: chicken braised with figs, honey and vinegar. I used a recipe from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook, which I took out from the library the week before. The meat was tender and the figs a perfect grainy sweet. The vinegar added just a bit of a bite to the sauce, which was sopped up with hunks of bread fresh from a bakery down the street. We finished with thick slices of plum cake, slathered in whipped cream.

Chicken Braised with Honey, Figs and Vinegar
Adapted from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook

4 chicken legs (thigh plus drumstick)
2 – 3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium-sized onion, peeled, trimmed, and cut into 8 wedges
½ cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons dry white vermouth
about ½ cup chicken stock
1 bay leaf
1 sprig of fresh thyme
a few black peppercorns, barely crushed
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 tablespoon honey
8 – 10 (or more) fresh figs, cut in half

Rinse and then dry the chicken legs. Trim the excess fat. Season with salt and refrigerate, covered, until ready for use (recommended: 12 – 24 hours in advance).

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat oil in a heavy oven proof skilled, preferably large enough that all of the chicken can be held in one single layer. Over medium heat (the oil should sizzle, not pop explosively), brown the chicken, skin side down, until golden brown and crispy, about 10 minutes. Turn the legs over, and cook slightly, about 4 minutes, until just slightly colored. Pour off the fat.

If your skillet is not oven proof, transfer chicken to braising dish, skin side up. Arrange onion wedges in the spaces between the legs. Add the wine, vermouth and enough stock to come to a ½ inch in the dish. Bring to a simmer on the stove. Add the bay leaf, thyme and cracked black pepper.

Place in the oven, uncovered, and cook until meat is tender but not falling off the bone. About 40 minutes. The chicken skin will be bronzed and crisp. The liquid will have reduced by half. Remove from the oven.

Here, the cookbook recommends tilting the pan so that the fat gathers and then spooning off as much as possible. I was confused as to whether or not the chicken should remain in the pot for this, so I decided to remove the legs to a clean plate. I spooned the fat off the sauce as it cooled, and then brought it back to a boil over medium heat, swirling as it reduced to a more syrupy consistency.

Mix the vinegar and honey, and warm slightly. (I did this in the microwave.) Add the figs to the sauce on the stove, and then the vinegar and honey mixture, stirring. Nestle the chicken back into the pan, careful not to squish the figs, and simmer until the sauce is glossy, only a minute or two. The taste should be rich and vibrantly sweet and sour. Add more salt, honey or vinegar to taste.

Serve each chicken leg with two wedges of onion and 4 or 5 fig halves, with a few spoonfuls of sauce.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010