Thursday, March 31, 2011

Tomato Soup

I read Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose for the first time a little more than five years ago. I picked it up a few months after the car accident that caused me to lose my sense of smell—those slow, lonely months when I was recovering at my mother’s house in Brookline, Massachusetts.

This book, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1972, is in part the story of a wheelchair-bound historian named Lyman Ward. As the novel begins, Lyman—who already had one leg amputated and is suffering from a crippling bone disease—has moved into the home once owned by his grandparents. Divorced and with a distant son, Lyman moved there in order to begin dictating into a tape recorder the story of his grandmother, a promising artist and writer who followed her husband to the American West a century before. This novel is also hers. Angle of Repose is vivid and tragic, both intimate and impenetrable, one spanning culture and generation. Needless to say: I loved it.

I picked up my old copy of the book, its pages crinkly and yellow with time, again this week.

As a preface, I am a re-reader. If there is a book that I love, I will read it multiple times—enough times that sentences echo through my head, the plot seared into my brain. I re-read for some of the same reasons I write: in order to slow down, to make sense of it all. I’ve read some of my favorite books more than a dozen times and I’m actually surprised that I haven’t read this particular Stegner novel more than once. After all, I loved it. I thought about it for years after I put it down. I even went through a short phase in which I gave a new copy of the book to anyone who had a birthday, both family members and friends. But I never again cracked its spine myself.

Re-reading the novel this week, though, I remembered why. Lyman Ward’s bodily decay keeps him a slave to a wheelchair, helpless without human aid. He cannot move by himself, bathe by himself, do anything, really, that requires the use of healthy limbssomething many of us (myself included) often take for granted. Stegner inhabits Lyman’s body and mind in this book. And within it, like Lyman, we readers all yearn for the past.
When I first read this novel I was recovering from the injuries of my car accident—a broken pelvis, fractured skull, the tendons severed in my left knee. And as a result, I could relate to Lyman on a level I had never before known. My injuries were nothing as severe as his, of course. And I certainly wasn’t suffering them all alone. But for the first time in my life, I understood what it felt like to be trapped in a body, to be physically incapable of taking care of myself, to fear the future and long for the past. Re-reading now, I remember how this impressed me, moved me, and totally freaked me out.

This is all to say that this morning I went on an errand in downtown Boston, one that required a fifteen-minute walk down cobblestone streets. The heels of my boots clicked on the ground, and because it was early and there was hardly anyone else around, the sound echoed on the buildings towering up on either side of the road. It was a hollow sound, an unfamiliar sound. And it reminded me of the way sentences from books like Stegner’s ricochet through my head. For example, one I had just read while on the subway: “She went into the main parlor, got herself a glass of punch, and stood by the west window watching the sun embed itself in long flat clouds.”

There isn’t anything too mind-blowing in that sentence. But as the sharp sounds of my boots echoed on the buildings, the words “west window watching” beat a rhythm in my head. I thought about the sun embedding itself in the clouds, like a journalist in Libya or Iraq, or undercover cops in inner city drug rings, and that struck me as both strange and bold.

And then, later, when I came home and first cooked and then ate some tomato soup for lunch, I read a bit about Wallace Stegner on the Internet. One of the first quotes that came up as attributed to him made me smile. "We write to make sense of it all." Isn’t that true.

Creamless Tomato Soup

This is a thick and creamy (yet creamless!) tomato soup. Made with canned tomatoes and the clever twist of white bread for heft, it’s an easy, bright, and flavorful dish. I like to eat it for lunch, while reading a book.

¼ cup olive oil
1 onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
a pinch of hot red pepper flakes
1 bay leaf
2 28-oz cans whole tomatoes
1 tablespoon honey
3 slices white bread (or vaguely multi-grain, as I used), crusts removed, torn into pieces
2 cups chicken broth

In a Dutch oven or thick-bottomed pot, heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat on the stove. Add the onion, garlic, red pepper flakes, and bay leaf. Stir frequently, cooking until the onion is translucent, about five minutes. Add the tomatoes and their juice. Stir together, and then mash with a potato masher (or the back of your wooden spoon) until the tomatoes are broken up, leaving no pieces larger than 2 inches. Add the honey and bread. Bring the soup to a boil and then reduce the heat to medium. Stirring occasionally, cook until the bread begins to break down, about five minutes more. Remove the bay leaf.

Take the soup off the heat. Using an immersion blender (or, transferring the soup in batches to a blender), process until the soup is smooth and creamy, which will take a few minutes. When finished, add the chicken broth. Return the soup to a boil and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with a drizzle of olive oil or, as Cook’s Illustrated recommends, some chopped chives, too.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Pork & Lemon Polpettine

The last two weeks have been a blur. A hazy, churning blur. What day is it? Which way is up? Why do none of my socks match? I don’t even know.

First, Matt was on spring break from graduate school. I wish I had had the foresight to budget/plan for an official vacation myself. But last time I checked, self-employed freelancers weren’t swarming the beaches of Cancun in mid-March. Not that Matt wanted to go to Cancun. Not that we're even really beach people. But still.

Anyway. So instead of being on vacation, I spent a week trying to pretend I was on vacation—staying up late, spending money, yes please I’ll have another glass of wine—even while working like crazy. Let me tell you, this doesn’t lead to the most relaxing (or healthy) of times. I spent the next week trying to catch up.

As you know, Matt’s sister got married in New Orleans. Then we spent a few days in upstate New York with friends. On top of that, I got some article assignments and had a few job interviews. There’s that impending book release date, and all sorts of other stuff to wade through before June.* My friend had a baby and my mother, a birthday. There was a black-tie West Point celebration thrown in there, too. Phew.

And so when I think about what I’ve been eating in the last week or so… hmmm. What have I been eating? I had good intentions, certainly. A whole lotta plans. But right now all I really remember is the late-night Indian takeout that we got as a last resort. Last resort Indian food is always a gamble. But put some spicy chana masala and creamy chicken madras in front of two starving people who already know they’ll be up late scrambling to finish homework and meet deadlines, it’ll be devoured in minutes. Coupled with a rerun of The Office and a cold Harpoon IPA? Heaven.

But! But. I remember now. On Friday night we paused to celebrate my mother’s birthday at her home in Brookline. It was just four of us: Matt and me, my mom and her boyfriend, Charley. We drank some nice wine. Ate some melty cheese. I cooked.

I decided to make Nigel Slater’s Pork and Lemon Polpettine from one of my all time favorite cookbooks, The Kitchen Diaries. (You’ve probably guessed my love for this cookbook already as I do quote it a lot...) (Here’s another good one: “Almost anything is edible with a dab of French mustard on it.” I live by that.)

Don’t let the name “polpettine” intimidate you. It sounds fancy, but these are nothing but meatballs at heart. Small, juicy, pork meatballs. Slater calls them “delectably moreish little balls.” Exactly.

To make them, you mix together the ground meat with breadcrumbs, herbs, a bit of Parmesan and a lot of lemon juice and zest. There are some anchovies thrown in there as well. If you’re afraid of anchovies, don’t worry. My mom is terrified of anchovies (Hi, Mom!) but she had no complaints. In reality, they add a subtle but rich and salty depth that I love. These polpettine cook quickly with a bit of olive oil and butter in a sauté pan on the stove. I served them and their simmered stock juices over pasta: linguini with a simple sauce of melted butter, grated Parmesan and Gruyere, salt and lots of fresh ground pepper. Roasted Brussels Sprouts on the side. (Good with a dab of French mustard, FYI). 

The meal was quick and humble, but good enough to clear the blur of these last two weeks, to make us stop, laugh, and wipe our plates clean.

Pork & Lemon Polpettine
Adapted (barely) from Nigel Slater’s The Kitchen Diaries

1 ¼ cup white breadcrumbs
1 pound ground pork
1 lemon, zested and juiced
1 large handful of parsley, chopped
6 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves stripped from stems
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan
10 anchovy fillets, chopped
¼ cup flour
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons butter
¾ cup chicken stock

Combine the breadcrumbs, pork, lemon juice and zest, parsley, thyme, Parmesan, and anchovy in a big bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Mix thoroughly. (I used my hands.)

Roll 18 or so balls of the pork mixture. (About a heaping tablespoon-full each). Place them on a baking sheet that you’ve dusted with flour. Roll the meatballs in the flour just before cooking to coat.

Heat the olive oil and butter in a heavy sauté pan over medium-high heat. Fry the polpettine in batches, careful not to overcrowd the pan. Cook for five or six minutes, turning for even browning. (I rolled them only twice during this time, to create a good crust on each side and make sure they don’t fall apart.) The meatballs should be crisp and golden. When they’re bronzed, put them all back in the pan, reduce the heat a bit, and sauté until they’re cooked through, an additional seven or eight minutes.

Now, remove the meatballs and pour out most of the fat. Add the chicken stock. Let it simmer down for a few minutes, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Serve the meatballs, and their sauce, over pasta.

*If you’d like to be kept up to date on all the news and events related to my book, Season to Taste, please check out my Facebook page, and click “Like”!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Monday, March 21, 2011

Spinach and Cheese Strata

This weekend Matt and I took a whirlwind trip to upstate New York. The excuse: to celebrate the birthday of a dear friend. We met Katia (and her boyfriend, Kenan) as graduate students back in New York City. They are still there, which is one of many reasons that the city seems altogether too far from Boston, even if it’s really only a few hours away.

This weekend a whole bunch of us crowded into a rental house perched off a country road in Woodstock, the same little town where I spent a month writing in the autumn of 2009. Back then, I wrote: “It’s so quiet at night I can hear the crickets. I can hear water trickling from down the road. It gets so dark that the moon illuminates the trees, shimmering through the leaves like diamonds, and it’s not hard to imagine all sorts of ghosts waiting just behind the creek.” Not much has changed.

On this weekend, we hiked up a(n icy) mountain, exploring the graying shell of what once was a hotel and climbing a fire tower that made me feel a bit dizzy when I looked down. We played football (poorly) on the front lawn of our house and communed with the glowing (Super)moon while drinking beer on the porch, inhaling the scent of charcoal from the grill. We ate a lot of good food, including an excellent carrot and feta salad, and a lemon cake so finely wrought it could have come from a professional kitchen. We drank (quite) a bit. It was fun.

Six couples stayed in the house, and each one was responsible for one meal over the two-day stay. Matt and I were assigned breakfast on Saturday. I decided to make a spinach and cheese strata, mainly because I could prepare the entire thing Friday before we even got in the car and the next morning all I would have to do is roll out of bed and stick it in the oven. Matt offered moral support.

This strata has been written about elsewhere. I’ve made it a number of times now, though, and I just love it. Well, I love most things that involve any combination of French bread, eggs, spinach, Gruyere, and Parmesan cheese. But there is something about the texture of this strata that I find addictive. The bread soaks up the custard, creating an almost pudding-like interior, with a crunchy, crusty top. It’s a perfect make-ahead dish for a crowd, especially a crowd of city-folk waking up to a cold country breeze and the happy sounds of birds chirping in the woods.

Spinach and Cheese Strata
Adapted from Gourmet

1 (10-oz) package of frozen spinach, thawed
1 large onion, finely chopped
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
8 cups French bread (about 1/2 pound), cut into 1-inch cubes
2 cups coarsely grated Gruyère (about 6 oz)
1 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (about 2 oz)
2 3/4 cups milk (I used whole)
9 eggs
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

Squeeze the water out of the spinach, and then chop fine.

In a large skilled, cook the onion in the butter over medium heat until soft, 4 – 5 minutes. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, and the nutmeg. Cook another minute, stirring. Add the spinach. Take off from the heat.

In a well-buttered baking dish (a 3-quart gratin dish, or some other shallow, preferably ceramic baking dish) spread a third of the bread cubes. Then add a third of the spinach mixture, spreading evenly. Then: one third of each cheese. Repeat twice with these layers. End with cheese.

In a large bowl, whisk together the milk, eggs, and Dijon. Add the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Pour this evenly over the strata in the baking dish. Cover with plastic wrap and chill the whole thing for at least 8 hours, but up to one day.

To bake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Let the strata stand at room temperature for about a half hour. Bake, uncovered on a center rack until cooked through—about 45 – 55 minutes. It will be puffy and golden brown.

Friday, March 18, 2011

In the Moment

Matt and I spent the weekend in New Orleans, that colorful city where he was born.

Before we began dating one another, almost four years ago now, I had never been to Louisiana. I didn’t know the difference between Cajun and Creole, between a muffuletta and a po’boy. I had never heard the phrase “Pass a good time.”

But we’ve been down to visit his family a healthy handful of times now. I’ve eaten beignets in the French Quarter, listened to music in the Marigny, and wandered among the beautiful houses in the Garden District. We’ve gone running along the levee, which snakes beside the mighty Mississippi, and watched the process of rebuilding in the lower Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina. We’ve been there for Mardi Gras and for Jazz fest. There have been pots of gumbo, bowls of jambalaya and etouffee, and crawfish eaten by hand.  And each time I visit, I’m struck by the mood of the city and the attitude of those who live there. It’s different than where I’m from, that’s for sure.

In Nine Lives, a wonderful book about New Orleans that spans the 40 years from Hurricane Betsy to Katrina, Dan Baum writes:

While the rest of Americans famously dream and scheme and chase the horizon, New Orleanians are masters at the lost art of living in the moment. If we’re doing okay this minute, goes the logic—enjoying one another’s company, keeping cool, and maybe having something good to eat—of what earthly importance is tomorrow or next week? Given the fragility of life, why even count on getting there? New Orleanians are notoriously late showing up, if they show up at all, because by and large they don’t keep calendars. Calendars are tools for managing the future, and in New Orleans the future doesn’t exist.

Of course I don’t know New Orleans—not like a native or anyone who has lived there full time—but there’s something about the city, something that pulls me in, that begs me to peel back its layers of culture and celebration as well as its destruction and pain. It’s a hard city and a fabulous one. I love it there.

We took the trip this past weekend for a happy event: Matt’s sister, Cara, was married. The wedding was a beautiful ceremony in the cavernous, echoing church in the French Quarter followed by a hopping reception in City Park, complete with sparkling umbrellas and a second line around the dance floor. Matt can certainly cut a rug.

But this weekend was not all about parties and fun. The entire time we were in New Orleans I was glued to the news of Japan. The earthquake and tsunami, the resulting destruction, loss of life, and threat of nuclear disaster. It was a strange juxtaposition of celebration and terror, one that I’m still not sure how to process. My heart goes out to those suffering in Japan—not to mention those in Egypt, in Libya, in Bahrain, in every country where social upheaval, poverty, and natural disaster are taking their toll on the every day. Here are some places where we can help.

And all the while, I’ve been thinking about something that Ruth Reichl wrote on her blog last week:

There is no time, ever, in which a terrible disaster is not taking place somewhere on the planet.  And thanks to modern technology, we know all about it almost immediately. As I see it, we have a moral responsibility to respond to those disasters in the best ways that we can. Write letters, send money, do whatever possible to alleviate pain, end suffering and make the world a more just place.

But in the face of ongoing disaster, it is also our moral responsibility to appreciate what we have.  That is why cooking good food for the people that I love is so important to me; in a world filled with no, it is a big yes.

So eat a good breakfast. Be grateful for what you’ve got. Enjoy the sunshine while you've got it.  Then go out and save the world.

She wrote these words on Friday in response to online criticism received over a tweet she wrote during the tsunami —“Basking in sunshine. Gently fried eggs, soft golden yolks. Bright salsa: chiles, onions, tomatoes. Black beans. Warm tortillas. So fine.”

There have been mixed reactions to her tweet, and to her response. I reflected on her words as I watched the events unfolding in Japan while celebrating Cara’s wedding. They resonated with me strongly there in New Orleans, a city that has been destroyed several times by its own disasters and continues to recover, a place that truly understands the fragility of life and the beauty of the moment. In New Orleans, as Dan Baum said, the future doesn’t exist. Sitting there in that church, dancing there with Matt, remembering how lucky I am, I took some comfort in that notion. There wasn’t much else I could do.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Thursday, March 10, 2011

And We're Off...

… to New Orleans! 

We're heading down early tomorrow morning in order to celebrate Matt’s sister’s wedding. (Beignets will be involved.) See you next week!

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Chunky Lola Cookies

My mother teaches a class in her home every Friday afternoon. For the past few weeks, she’s hired me to bake something for her students. I know, I know: my mother hires me to bake! Nepotism, indeed. But there’s no denying it: I can make a mean cookie. And this one, right here? It’s especially good.

Chunky Lola Cookies

These kitchen-sink cookies - crunchy with walnuts and melty with chunks of dark chocolate - come from Joanne Chang’s recent cookbook, Flour, which I've written about before. Here, I swapped her suggested pecans for walnuts, which I toasted lightly in the oven before chopping and adding to the dough. I also swapped sweetened coconut flakes for unsweetened. This was in part due to the fact that I only had unsweetened coconut in my pantry, but also because I like my cookies to be sweet but not too sweet, and cutting the added sugar in the flakes of coconut is a good way to tone that down a bit. Finally, instead of measuring out a ¼ cup ball of dough to make a big, beefy cookie, I used a heaping tablespoon full to create a more manageable disk. I reduced the cooking time as a result. 

½ cup plus 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
cup granulated sugar
⅔ cup light brown sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ¼ cup flour
⅔ cup old fashioned rolled oats
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon kosher salt
9 ounces dark chocolate, chopped
1 ¼ cup walnut halves, lightly toasted and chopped
1 cup unsweetened shredded coconut

In a standing mixer (or by hand, with a wooden spoon) cream the butter and sugars. In the mixer, this takes about five minutes at medium speed. By hand, with some added vim and vigor, this takes about ten. Add the eggs and vanilla and mix until fully incorporated.

In a separate bowl, mix together the flour, oats, baking soda, and salt. Toss in the chocolate, nuts, and coconut and stir to combine. Then, add the dry goods to the butter and egg mixture slowly, mixing or stirring until all of the odds and ends are fully incorporated into the dough. Wrap the cookie dough snug in plastic and place in the fridge for 3 – 4 hours, or overnight. 

When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Use a tablespoon to create balls of dough (a heaping tablespoon full) and place them an inch or two apart on a baking sheet. Squish each ball down with the palm of your hand to create a flat disk. Bake for around 10 - 13 minutes. The edges will be bronzed and the center still a bit soft. Let cool on the baking sheet for a few minutes, and then transfer the cookies a wire rack. Enjoy!

Monday, March 07, 2011

Roasted Brussels Sprouts

We’ve been busy around here. Last week was especially intense. This is nothing to complain about, of course. The nasty winter weather decided to loosen its vice-like grip and, suddenly, my calendar filled up with panels, lectures, happy hours, and dinners with friends. It was a somewhat exhausting week, but also totally great. I mean, what isn’t great when the morning light is already streaming through the windows when I wake up, and it’s again possible to run outside? Goodbye, winter. Hello, spring.

Here are a few bits and pieces of my week spent barely at home: I spoke on a panel about science writing at Brown and listened to a lecture on education, the military, and what it means to serve. I ate gummy bears at an Oscars viewing party and drank vodka and soda at a noisy, dark little bar. There was a dinner of burrata and wild boar ragu at a table filled with new friends, and a meal of butternut squash soup and salad shared with a woman I’ve known for 26 years. Last night we met my mother and her boyfriend at The Beehive, a funky restaurant in the South End, for flatbread with brie, salmon with kale, a pretty awesome lemon cheesecake and, of course, a bit too much wine.

And now, on this gloomy Monday morning, I’m sitting at my computer in the kitchen with a mug of coffee and a ripe Bartlett pear. I’m looking forward to a day of writing. I’m looking forward to tonight when I will cook. Because it’s been a while since I spent some time at the stove. And I miss it.

Now, I love to eat at restaurants. I love good service and interesting wine. There’s little better than a well-wrought plate of food, exciting with new flavors and textures, a meal that I would never have at home. But I like eating out to be special. I don’t ever want it to get old. 

I read a few lines in Nigel Slater’s The Kitchen Diaries last night before bed. In his March 12th entry, Slater writes about a week in which he ate out more often than not and barely had time to cook:

“Eating out remains an absolute treat for me; especially so this year, when for one reason or another I have spent so much time at home. Even if I could eat out every night, I wouldn’t. Although I will admit to occasionally getting a bit ‘cooked out’, I cannot pretend I don’t enjoy putting something I have made for someone on the table. To this day, it still sends tingles down my spine.”

Me too.

Tonight I’m going to cook a very simple meal. It will just be Matt and me at the table. We’ll probably talk about boring, everyday things—his schoolwork, our taxes, and renewing the lease on my car. I’ll cook a pan of meatballs, ones made with ground beef, bread crumbs, parmesan, and basil. I’ll probably serve them over a thick puddle of polenta. I’ll make a big bowl of Brussels sprouts, roasted with olive oil, salt, and pepper. I'm not sure that my spine will actually tingle. But it will be close.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts

This isn’t really a recipe. It’s a super simple technique for a dish that I’ve made hundreds of times in the past. I know that there are a lot of Brussels sprout haters out there. But if done well, they can be soft yet crunchy, salty and sweet, as addictive as candy. And if you only knew the number of times members of my family—including my little brother, who rarely cooks—have texted me to ask for this recipe, you would have to believe that these little green orbs can be turned into something quite special.

Brussels Sprouts
Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper

Preheat the oven to 425. Trim the bottom end of each sprout, and then cut them in half. Place the sprouts in a thick roasting pan, making sure to include the extra leaves, which will grow dark and crispy in the oven. Drizzle with olive oil to coat. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. (I like mine to be very salty, like French Fries.) Roast for 20 – 30 minutes, until the sprouts are cooked through with patches of deep golden bronze. Enjoy!

Friday, March 04, 2011

This morning...

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Roast Chicken Breasts with Garbanzo Beans, Tomatoes, and Paprika

Yesterday I read an obituary in The Economist. It was one for Santi Santamaría, a Catalan chef who fought for a traditional view of food and cooking. He died in February at age 53.

The obituary talks about how Santamaría cooked pure, unadulterated food at his restaurant, Can Fabes—food that “looked like what it was.” This was different from another famous Catalan chef, Ferran Adrià, whose restaurant, El Bulli, is located just an hour’s drive north. The obituary outlines just what Santamaría thought of the “tinkerings” of molecular gastronomists like Adrià, chefs who serve “mosaics of sea anemones and parmesan-infused air” and desserts like “‘Autumn,’ where sweet and spicy powders make up a forest floor that is strewn with chocolate leaves.” Santamaría was not a fan. The Economist writes:

“Autumn” at Mr Santamaría’s establishment meant the earth-smell of mushrooms fresh-picked in the woods, damp-feathered game pulled from the huntsman’s pouch, and lentil stew so rich, so redolent of the season, that as the lid of the tureen was lifted Mr Santamaría’s hands would start to rotate sedately, wafting the aroma upwards, and his eyes to close with sheer rapture.

I love this obituary.

I love it because I'm in love with the idea of a man who believed in pure, unadulterated food, whose life was “loudly dedicated to taste, real taste, lingering pleasure for all the senses,” one who spent his life cooking this kind of food with passion.

And I love this obituary because I love obituaries. I love all obituaries—the art of writing about a life in conclusion, the art of celebrating the dead. And this one was especially well done. 

I used to write obituaries for a newspaper in California. That paper, a small weekly, prided itself on publishing long, narrative pieces and I was lucky to be given space to write—to really write—about those who had passed away. There were farmers and fishermen, artists and Vietnam veterans, fathers and daughters and wives. There was Bea Blum, a dance teacher extraordinaire, and Eleanor Hamilton, the elderly sex columnist who championed the cause of love even late in life.

Sometimes I found it difficult to write these articles. After all, they all involved spending time with people who were in mourning, those who had barely gotten their minds around the fact that a loved one had died. But the majority of the subjects that I wrote about had lived long, interesting lives. I loved the idea of sending them off with a public recognition, an ink-on-paper celebration.

I’ll never forget that horrible week, however, when a nine-year-old girl drowned in a stream while having a picnic with her family and my editor asked me to write her obituary. I had never read, let alone written, an obituary for one so young. How do you celebrate the end of a life that was barely lived? But I contacted her relatives and spoke with her teacher and her priest. I went to her funeral and, later, spent time with her mother, who showed me her daughter’s bright pink dresses, her latest High School Musical soundtrack, and stacks and stacks of her favorite books. “A voracious reader,” I wrote, this little girl “could finish a book in a day; a paper clip marked her place on page 143 of The Hidden Staircase, a Nancy Drew volume she had borrowed from the library and not yet finished.”

As it turned out, I wrote this obituary in the same week that my own grandfather passed away, and I soon flew across the country for his funeral in New York. I wrote about that a bit here. That was a rough week—a rough couple of weeks—ones that kept me bouncing between ideas of youth and old age. I spent a lot of time in the kitchen that month, baking bread and braising pans of meat. It gave me the space to think.

In fact, I spent a lot of time in the kitchen when I worked for in California. With days spent memorializing death, I found it important to concentrate on the small sensory pleasures of my living life. That tiny town in Northern California was the perfect place to do so; it was filled with farmer’s markets and fresh oysters to shuck, crashing waves and whales and the ocean air that smelled of salt. It was there that I first made this dish, a simple but comforting meal of roasted chicken breasts with garbanzo beans and tomatoes, served with a spicy yet cool sauce of yogurt, paprika, and red pepper flakes. I cooked it frequently then. The flavors reminded me of home.

I began thinking of all of this yesterday as I read Santi Santamaría’s obituary. In the article, a young Santamaría is described as devouring cookbooks and learning to cook cuisines of all kinds. But in his life he returned again and again to the flavors of Catalonia, where he was from. The Economist writes: “It was fitting that the last meal he made, before he died of a heart attack at his new restaurant in distant Singapore, was a pa amb tomàquet, fresh tomato pulp and olive oil pressed onto bread, the purest taste of home.”

Roast Chicken Breasts with Garbanzo Beans, Tomatoes, and Paprika
Adapted, barely, from Bon Appetit

¼ cup olive oil
4 garlic cloves, pressed
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes (I use a very generous ½ teaspoon here)
½ cup plain or Greek yogurt (I recommend full fat!)
4 chicken breast halves with bones
1 15-oz can garbanzo beans, drained
1 container cherry tomatoes
1 cup fresh cilantro, chopped

Preheat oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Mix the first five ingredients together in a bowl. Pour 1 teaspoon of this mixture into another small bowl, and then whisk in the yogurt and set aside.

Place the chicken on a large rimmed baking sheet and rub 2 tablespoons of the spiced oil over the chicken. Add the beans, tomatoes, and ½ cup cilantro to the rest of the spice mixture and toss to coat. Pour this around the chicken. Season everything generously with salt and pepper.

Roast until the chicken is cooked through, about 20 minutes. Sprinkle with the rest of the cilantro. Serve the chicken on a plate with the bean mixture spooned over, and then with a dollop of yogurt sauce on top.