Sunday, June 29, 2008

Market dinner.

Last night's eggs-in-a-nest was so good I find myself making it again tonight. I could eat this at least a couple of times a week, if not every day. I grab three eggs (thinking ahead for lunch tomorrow), one brown egg with a deep orange yolk, and two pale cream eggs with lighter yellow yolks. Again zucchini, onion, carrots, each finely diced into neat (well, maybe not particularly neat) cubes and triangles. Hmm. Maybe it could use more vegetables, if I am planning to stretch this dish to two meals. Rummaging around in the produce drawer I find the bundle of rainbow chard. I have other plans for the leaves, but I twist the stems off. Chopped fine they are like rainbow confetti, fuschia and gold and pale green, adding a burst of color to an already colorfully laden cutting board, deep jade (zucchini) and bright orange (carrots).

I need something else, though. Another vegetable. Sugar snap peas, perhaps. I snap the ends off while watching tv; the brown rice has already begun steaming - it was the first thing I did when I walked in the door, backpack still slung over my shoulders, shoes still on my feet - and I can smell the slightly nutty warmth in the air. If I cook the peas first, I won't need to wash the pan for the eggs (yes, I really am that lazy), so I do that, heating oil, tossing the sugar snap peas, adding a little water so they can steam under the glass cover. Soon they are done, as is the rice, which signals its readiness by giving a little beep. Time for the eggs.

The onions go in first, then the carrots, then the chard. Only when the onions are translucent is it time for the zucchini to go in, everything tossed together and seasoned with salt and a few grinds of pepper. I break the eggs into a bowl and pour them carefully over the vegetables. There is a sizzle, and then a slightly slumping noise as the eggs settle in around the vegetables. I scrape the vegetables into the middle of the pan, pulling them over the cooking eggs so it all forms a more or less single, multicolored mass. I have deviated from both of the original recipes that inspired this - Colwin's eggs are more poached than fried, and Kingsolver's recipe calls for chard and dried tomatoes, which I don't like - and it is less eggs-in-a-nest and more a lazy-cook's-frittata.

Arranged over brown rice, with a heaping pile of sugar snap peas - lately my favorite sides to every meal, it seems - it is the most beautiful frittata I have ever seen, pink and green and yellow and orange, held together by the lacy white and deep gold of the fried eggs. And there are leftovers for the next day's lunch. What could be more perfect?

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The egg and I.

Yesterday I went to the farmer's market again after work, collecting zucchini and more sugar snap peas and bundles of tiny carrots with their feathery tops and baby beets with their tousled greens, rainbow chard with their brightly colored stalks, some beef short ribs, more marrow bones, two pounds of golden Rainier cherries (which go into the bottom of the bag so I don't eat them all before I get home), and a dozen eggs. Plus a pair of earrings. I did resist the handwoven market baskets, but maybe next time. Then I went home, put everything away, and went out to a friend's house for dinner. The market bounty would have to wait.

All day at work I thought about what I would cook for dinner. It had to be something simple, and fast; I was going out later. I have been making frittatas for a long time, but both Laurie Colwin and Barbara Kingsolver mentioned eggs fried over chopped vegetables as a simple meal, and I had always wanted to try it. Originally I was just going to do zucchini and onion, but at the last minute I grab a few baby carrots from the bundle at the bottom of my fridge. I slice them in half, and then crosswise into tiny little half-moons, and do the same to the zucchini (only the zucchini is a lot bigger than the carrots, so I quarter it). Last comes the onion, which I chop into a tiny dice.

The onions go into the pan first, my smallest frying pan slicked with a little olive oil. As the onion softens and turns translucent, I add the carrots, and finally the zucchini. The vegetables begin to brown around the edges; I season them with salt and pepper and make a little nest in the bed of vegetables, slip in the egg, which settles into the heat with a soft little sigh. The egg had a pale green shell and a bright yellow-orange yolk. There were all different colors, brown and pale cream and pale pink and blue-green, a rainbow in a cardboard box, so different from the cold white eggs that come from the supermarket. With a leftover biscuit - I had meant to eat it for lunch but somehow forgot - warmed up and on the side, it was a perfect meal.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Bits and pieces.

I know many stories have begun this way, but it started with an invitation given on impulse. K. would be going out of town soon; when she returned, it would be time for her to move back to her remodeled house. I regretted that I had not invited her to dinner more often when she was in her temporary digs nearby, and asked her to dinner tonight. I had in mind a simple pasta, with chard and bacon and the shredded grana padano that has been lurking in my fridge for a couple of weeks. But it wasn't sure how it would work out, so I turned to J. for help. J. is my Pilates teacher, but she is also one of the foodiest foodies I know. She is not a snob, but knows how to cook, I mean, really knows how to cook, and more importantly, how to eat.

J. tends to begin recipes with "chop a shallot and toss it in the pan," forgetting that ordinary folk like myself seldom happen to have shallots lying around the kitchen. She suggests adding dried currants to the chard for sweetness; I have none, but raisins will do, and I always have raisins on hand. Then this reminds me of the Harvest Vine, where I often order spinach cooked with golden raisins and a fillip of sherry, topped with pine nuts. I have sherry (bought for a recipe and rarely used, which always tends to happen) and pine nuts (from Costco, a whole bag of them) and some sort of dried fruit somewhere in the pantry. J. mentions prosciutto, for contrast, but I only have bacon, which is fine by me. A shaped pasta will work better than a long pasta, she tells me. There must be some fusilli somewhere, I think. Dinner begins to take shape in my mind, just the pasta with chard, bacon, raisins, and pine nuts, and fresh sliced watermelon for dessert.

I get home twenty minutes before my guest is due to arrive. Plenty of time. The first thing: Put a pot of water on to boil, for the pasta. (Again, thinking of Edouard de Pomiane). Then: Toast the pine nuts gently, this time on medium heat, so they will slowly brown instead of suddenly burn. This allows me to turn my back to the stove, so I can wash the bright green chard - now ever so slightly wilted from several days in the refrigerator - and chop it into manageable pieces. I turn back to the pine nuts, but they are only just getting warm. I find some raisins, but no golden ones. Dark ones will have to do. Then, rummaging around in the dark cupboard for pasta, I unearth a forgotten bag of cranberries, just what I need.

I find some orrecchiette, enough for the two of us. The pine nuts are just golden brown. In goes the bacon, which I stir occasionally, until most of the fat has rendered out and the bits are crisp-chewy. They go into a bowl as I turn my attention to the chard. I turn it over and over in the hot pan until it begins to wilt, then add the cranberries and sherry. The pasta goes into the boiling water; I call K. and find she has already left, so I run and leave my front door ajar so I am not interrupted at a crucial point. She comes in just as I am testing the pasta for doneness; not quite ready. I hear her prowling around the living room, pulling up the blinds to look at the view. Then dinner is ready, and I toss everything together, adding a handful of grated cheese at the last minute, sprinkling our bowls of pasta with pine nuts just before we sit down.

It is, if I may say so, an unqualified success. I make a note to tell J. how well it went over when I see her next week. K. reminds me that when you know how to cook, you can throw anything together and it will just work. I am not there yet. It only works about half the time. Maybe three-quarters. But that is good enough for me.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

More experiments in market cooking.

So the boneless spare ribs didn't work out, dry and stringy and with all the allure of shredded old tires. Ok. Mistakes happen. Time to move on. I had a fridge full of other things to try, beginning with a small block of tri-tip steak. It would do for a meal or two, stir-fried with onions and served over leftover rice, with last night's sugar snap peas on the side. One of those fifteen-minute meals that are the single diner's mainstays.

First things first: slice the onions crosswise into neat half-moons. Then the steak, against the grain, falling in neat squares. A drizzle of oil went in the pan, and first I browned the steak, then removed it from the hot pan, added a little more olive oil, slid the onions in. When they began to caramelize, I poured the steak (and its juices) back in, seasoned it with black pepper and sea salt and a few drizzles of Worcestershire sauce (which I thought might be more interesting than my usual soy sauce), tossed it all together.

Before I knew it, everything was ready. I arranged everything on a bed of brown rice, the savory hot beef and onions, the bright green sugar snap peas. If there were other people at dinner, I would make another dish or two, some other vegetables, or tofu, or a piece of fish, simply steamed or broiled. There might be soup to finish off the meal, clear and soothing. But there is just me, and the neatly filled plate on the coffee table in front of me (when I am alone, I eat sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the tv in the living room).

A very good dinner it is, too, the Worcestershire mingling with the beef juices to create a bit of a sauce, intensifying the taste of the beef, the sweetness of the caramelized onions. The peas are still crisp-tender, the rice is still nutty and chewy and adding its own complexity to the flavors in every bite. There will be more meals like this, I think.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Experiments gone awry. dinner for two.

I came home yesterday, as described in the previous post, with various cuts of meat and bags of produce, out of which I will have to somehow conjure up at least a couple of meals. Beginning with the pork spareribs and the sugar snap peas, tonight's dinner. The day had begun with taking my car to get fixed (damn nail puncturing my front tire) and a mocha mint Frappacino from Starbucks. (And a pesto pasta salad with chicken. This was breakfast). It had continued with a marathon shopping expedition through downtown Seattle, a late lunch (turkey-and-cranberry sandwich, quite good, with a refreshing iced lemonade - shopping makes me thirsty), ending back at my place as we dumped our bags by the door and collapsed on the sofa. But then I had to cook.

What the hell do you do with boneless pork spareribs, and what on earth possessed me to buy them? I would have to wing it. The internet was no help; it offered up sauces made with ingredients that I don't have on hand, like tomato paste or hoisin sauce or barbecue sauce. I would have to improvise. Ketchup was whisked together with some brown sugar and a few good sloshes of Worcestershire sauce; the ribs would be browned briefly on the stove, slathered with the sauce, and left to bake in a covered pan. I washed some brown rice, set it to cook, wondered how the "brown rice" setting on the rice cooker differed from the regular setting, and took the bag of sugar snap peas into the living room so I could snap the ends off the peas while watching a movie.

We watched the antics of three estranged brothers unfold across a sun-hazed landscape as the smell of caramelizing tomato sauce and roasting pork filled the air; occasionally I would check on it, flip the ribs, baste it with more sauce, wonder when it would all be done. The rice cooker beeped; it was time to cook the peas, and then we could eat. The sugar snap peas were quickly stir-fried, and dinner was ready. But something had gone awry. The pork was overdone. It was tough and chewy. It was like eating shreds of rope. Fortunately, the sauce is good enough to eat even if it were slathered on actual pieces of rope, tangy and sweet, the caramelized sugar balanced by the dark edge of Worcestershire sauce. C. is unfazed; she has eaten my culinary disasters before, nearly as many disasters as successes. And the rice is perfect, fluffy but still almost al dente, as are the peas, the fat pods tender and sugar-sweet.

I will have to figure out how to cook pork spareribs some other time. Meanwhile for dessert there is one remaining triple chocolate Dove bar for C. (I thought there were two, but apparently my mother ate the other one) and Thin Mint Girl Scout cookies for me. Meanwhile there are more paper packages of meat in my fridge for further experimentation, hopefully more successful than tonight's.

Friday, June 20, 2008

This little piggy went to market. Madison/Madrona Farmer's Market.

Several weeks ago G. (who makes me look like a complete amateur in the kitchen, even if she is not immune to the occasional takeout Chinese or pizza) told me about a small farmer's market reasonably close to my neighborhood (and even closer to hers). She had roasted a chicken from a farm that produces all natural range meats and poultry (as well as eggs) and said that it was one of the best chickens she had ever tasted. As roast chicken is one of my favorite dishes, just the thought of it made me drool, and I couldn't wait to head over and check it out. Things like work and family and out-of-town guests and a conference in Houston intervened, and it wasn't until today that I managed to get out there. In the meantime I had read Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and had resolved to shop more at local farmer's markets, even if I had to drive to get there. (It is a little over a mile away; I suppose I could ride my bike but that would make me a danger to myself).

Today (as Google tells us) is the first day of summer, and until now it has been cold and gray in Seattle. But the afternoon was warm and bright when I left work and headed home to grab a) cash and b) shopping bags in which to carry my loot. The market was set up in the parking lot of the Grocery Outlet at the edge of Seattle's Central District. Keep going up the hill and you are in Madrona (home of Coupage, Crémant, and Cupcake Royale); turn left and head straight and you will be in Madison Park, where I head for crêpes at the Essential Baking Company or tapas at the Harvest Vine. I found parking just across the street from the bustling market, a good omen (I hate parallel parking). A woman on the corner is selling woven market baskets, and I am tempted to stop and buy one, but I have to conserve my cash.

There are stalls with crates of fruits and vegetables, glass-domed stands of desserts, baskets of bread, coolers of poultry, beef, fish, trays of herbs and tomato plants, black-velvet-lined cases of jewelry. There is a makeshift pen with a few baby goats trotting around at one end, an ice-cream cart, and a sizzling grill on which a guy is making tacos and quesadillas for hungry shoppers. I walk back and forth for a few minutes, comparing prices and selections before swooping in for a bag of sugar snap peas and a couple of handfuls of pickling cucumbers. I am devastated to find no chickens. Eggs are sold out. Instead I buy some steak and pork spareribs and marrow bones. I pre-order a chicken from another farm - it will be ready next month - and buy some bacon, consider some ground meat for hamburger. But that can wait until next time. Most other shoppers seem to be regulars, chatting with the different farmers as they shop, exchanging greetings and promises that they will see each other again the following week.

Most of the vegetable stalls have bundles of chard and fat-bulbed green onions; I buy some of each at the stall that also sells bright bunches of flowers, and some garlic, the second-to-last bundle of parsley. I don't know what I'm going to do with it, but I'm sure something will come to mind. Cherries are expensive, as are strawberries; this time around, I pass, and then later, regret it. I wonder whether I should buy strawberries for $4 a pint at the farmer's market that came from a local farm or $3 a pound in the supermarket (or $6.99 for a huge carton at Costco) for those that are trucked up from California. I will keep turning that question around and around in my mind until next week, when I come back to the Friday market again.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Home cooking. (not mine).

A. invited us to dinner last night. It was the shining spot at the end of a long week, a bright point that I fixed my gaze on through two airplane flights and four nights in a (very nice) hotel and too many half-hearted restaurant/catered meals and three days of lectures and workshops and a few very sad airport/airline meals and at least two very bad bagels. I have never walked through the front door of my apartment with such a spring in my step, knowing that in a few hours we would be sitting down to a dinner made by one of the best cooks I know. I gave my suitcase a little twirl as I rolled it into my room; I managed to stop myself from having a little snack. It is something familiar, the short drive downtown, the frantic search for parking, getting keyed into a small elevator that takes you nine stories up and into the airy space that is A.'s living/dining/kitchen area. There is a lovely cake under a glass dome, a tray of salmon collars next to the stove; a few cold salads are laid out on the buffet table. But two of the guests are late, and I curl up with a few issues of Bon Appetit before dinner begins. At last, a knock at the door, a flurry of greetings in the hall, and it is time to eat.

We start with a salad of roasted marinated peppers and zucchini twined with curls of arugula, soft and sweet and bitter all at once. There is an orzo salad tossed with fresh basil and dried cranberries and bits of goat cheese, flavors and textures contrasting with one another. I take a piece of bread, set it aside. The hot dishes are coming out from the kitchen now. There is pappardelle - A. frequently serves pappardelle with whatever ingredients seem good to her that day - tossed with lumps of King crab, sweet and tender. Salmon collars are simply seasoned with salt and pepper, seared on the stove, and then broiled in the oven. The flesh is so fatty and rich that it melts as you eat it, and I keep going back for more. I wipe my plate with pieces of bread, mopping up the juices from the salad of bell peppers and zucchini, the bits of crab meat that fell off the pappardelle. (Uncouth of me, I suppose, but it is so good I don't want to waste a bit, although I am chastised by my mother for not picking the salmon collars clean enough).

Finally, there are T-bone steaks, so luscious that even though they are past medium and very nearly well-done, the meat is still rich and flavorful, and like the salmon simply seasoned with salt and pepper. I am full, but there is still dessert, after the table has been cleared and the leftovers divided amongst us guests. (I pack a box of orzo salad, topped with some of the peppers; it will make a fine lunch tomorrow). A. has made a lovely cake, (from Giada, whose recipes she likes), with pine nuts and almonds and dried apricots, which sink to the bottom and form a chewy crust, the rumpled golden top dusted with powdered sugar. I quarter a handful of strawberries, one of my occasional tasks whenever I come to dinner, and toss them with blueberries and raspberries and a slosh of Amaretto; each slice of cake is served with a heap of the berries. As always everything was perfect, produced with seemingly no effort at all. The kitchen is shining and nearly spotless; unlike me, A. leaves no trace behind as she cooks. (There is still time for me to learn).

Sunday, June 15, 2008


I had just about come to the conclusion that I was pretty happy with the person I have become, when I read Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which brought home to me just how far I have yet to go. The essays contained in High Tide in Tuscon and Small Wonder came much later, when I was in my early twenties, and it gave me a new awareness of the fragility of our planet, that we had a moral obligation to take care of it, because it was going to disappear. I was not going to give up my car, grow my own vegetables in my garden, raise chickens for eggs and meat in my backyard. I don't have a backyard, let alone a hundred acres of Appalachian farmland. After twenty-five years of living in houses (twenty of those years in one house) I now live in a condominium ideally located within walking distance of both my job and downtown Seattle. (I would try to grow beans and tomatoes behind my building, but I don't think the other residents would let me, although there is a tiny herb garden in the courtyard).

I would not go as far as to say that Animal, Vegetable, Miracle instilled a sense of guilt in me; it is not so much guilt as a heightened sense of awareness. Already I mostly eat asparagus in the spring and strawberries in the summer, pass by the icy pink halved watermelons wrapped in plastic on beds of ice in the dead of winter. It is as much a matter of taste as it is of morality, I think; things taste better in season, and you should enjoy them when they are available, so that you might look forward to them again when they are not. It goes back to my feelings about exotic fruits, how much I enjoy them when I am in their native climate and how strange it seems to eat their pale shadows on my home ground. Free-range (organic or not) chickens taste better than those that are not. Wild salmon tastes better than farmed. I have not voluntarily eaten (and certainly not cooked) non-free-range chicken or farmed salmon in at least a decade, or more, which means for me both become a treasured event, particularly the latter, as our wild salmon (indeed, most wild fish) supply dwindles and therefore becomes rarer and more expensive. Now I think of wild King salmon as an extravagance, a luxury, and when it appears before me I fall upon it like a starving beast.

Sometimes the produce I buy is organic; sometimes it is not, but my milk and most other dairy products nearly always are. I often think of the writer Laurie Colwin, who wrote about shopping organic in the early 90's, about buying food from the greenmarket or the butcher or the fishmonger. Part of her desire to shop in that way was rooted in her desire to show her daughter how to love food, how to be adventurous at the table and in the kitchen, as much as it was about supporting those independent producers of food. But she was a realist. Tell a mother that she should provide her child with organic food, she said, and you will understand what despair is...There is often not enough time and not enough money. The landscape has changed a lot since she wrote those words (which have haunted me for the better part of a decade), but it is still a reality, of time and money at odds with the desire to do right by our planet, by our farmers who are struggling to keep going. We have to do the best we can. I think you have to decide the amount of change you can live with, what you can accept about yourself. I will continue to eat meat, but not as much of it, and wild fish, when I can. When I want a cheeseburger I try to go to my neighborhood pub (a gastropub, they call themselves), where the beef is from a local farm, humanely raised (I think), or I make my own. I am not ready to eliminate all fast foods, junk foods, processed foods; I am not ready to eat only things produced within a ten-mile radius of my home, or even a hundred miles.

I think of Kingsolver as my conscience, and Colwin as something of a patron saint. The latter was not immune to imported cheeses and tomato paste that came in a tube and she didn't mind if you used broth from a can (preferably low-salt) and she even thought instant mashed potatoes was perfectly fine on top of a shepherd's pie that would serve twenty people (or maybe it was forty). She made her own bread and didn't own a tv and pretty much all the food that her child ate did not come from a package, and she believed that it was not difficult to cook from scratch, as long as you had an arsenal of easy things at your disposal (and these recipes can be found in Home Cooking and More Home Cooking, two of the best collections of food essays I have ever read). Most of the time I can live like this, or at least I try to. Then again, I am young and single and have what by most standards is a fairly decent amount of disposable income at my disposal. It is not difficult to make the choices that I do. I don't have three children and a husband and spend my days running from school to soccer practice to piano lessons and somehow have to keep a household running and come home to six loads of laundry and five mouths to feed. I can eat cereal for dinner if I want to, and sometimes I do. Ultimately you have to weigh these things in the balance, time and money and desire and what you are willing to do for yourself, for your family, for the planet.

(This post, mostly written en route from Houston to Seattle, was fueled by a plastic-wrapped microwaved cheeseburger which most likely came from feedlot beef but was reasonably edible all the same, certainly tastier than the so-called pizza I ate four days ago. This *snack* was accompanied by a very sad little salad, this time without carrots, and a fun-sized Hershey's bar, all washed down with ginger ale, my drink of choice on airplanes).

Saturday, June 14, 2008

I Want Candy. (For J.)

I was raised in a mostly candy-free environment, which is not to say that I grew up without junk food. There were usually potato chips in the pantry (always Tim's Cascade; in later years Kettle Chips in various flavors) along with an assortment of cookies (from Pepperidge Farm or LU) which frequently appeared in my lunchbox. Certainly by now I have drunk enough chocolate milk made with Nestlé Quik to, as they say, float a battleship. But candy was another story. When I say candy, I mean candy, not fancy chocolate truffles that cost as much as their fungal namesakes, packaged in beautiful boxes that might as well hold jewels, or costly leather wallets and fancifully enameled keychains. I mean candy such as what is artfully arranged in cardboard boxes by the cash register, drawing the eye and the wallet as (or perhaps more) effectively than the boldly headlined tabloids that scream at you as you wrestle the contents of your basket (and perhaps a child or three) onto the conveyor belt.

I suppose my childhood was not as candy-free as I like to tell people. There were Tic-tacs in the pantry, boxes and boxes of them, cool mint or sweet orange, or rolls of Mentos with their hard candy shell and chewy interior, which I nearly always carried in my backpack at school. When I eat them now the years fall away and I am back in my childhood again, as I do whenever I come across Andes chocolate mints. Sometimes there would be a tub (from Costco) of those in the basement pantry, and I would sneak downstairs and abstract a few at a time, eating them secretly in bed. Or I would place one on my pillow, pretending that I was in a fancy hotel, the kind that puts little candies on the pillow when they turn down your bed for the night.

Candy was Halloween, when the costume came off and the pillowcase bag or plastic pumpkin was emptied onto the living room floor, my dog circling around suspiciously as I sorted through the evening's haul. I would (at least this is how I remember it, and it's certainly how I intend to deal with any children I might have in the future) be allowed to keep certain favorites, and the rest was given away (along with any other leftover candy we had given to trick-or-treaters) to my father's lab. Candy was Milky Way bars, all caramel and nougat (and which I preferred to Snickers), or Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. I loved Nestlé Crunch bars, the crispy rice and sweet milk chocolate, and Hershey's bars, plain or with almonds. I didn't like Starbursts, or the hard candies, or Skittles, but I love the tart Sweetarts, which I ate one by one, from their cellophane tubes.

I loved M&M's, plain and peanut, and nearly died of happiness when last Christmas came around and brought mint-chocolate ones. Christmas also brought Ferrero-Rocher chocolates, all hazelnut and chocolate around a fragile cookie shell, with more chocolate and a whole hazelnut inside. I would eat the chocolate-hazelnut shell first, cracking it carefully with my teeth and stripping it away, much as I would eat the almond-chocolate shell off my Almond Roca (another holiday sweet) before crunching on the toffee inside. I loved toffee, especially chocolate covered toffee, like the contraband Skor bars I sometimes bought on unsupervised trips to the grocery store, along with bags of Werther's originals in their gold wrappers. I would eat them in class, slowly, letting the caramel sweetness melt away on my tongue.

When I was young and we were on holiday trips involving layovers en route to our destination, I looked forward to triangular bars of Toblerone, the big ones that were almost as long as my forearm (or so it seemed). I would save them for the flight, or as a midnight snack when I woke up in a jetlagged fog, starving and thirsty, groping my way in the dark and fumbling quietly with the foil wrapper, pouring myself a glass of mineral water to drink with my dark chocolate sprinkled with bits of crunchy nougat. Even now I can never bring myself to buy Toblerone bars anywhere except for before an international flight. They just don't taste the same.

Another thing that just doesn't taste the same is chocolate-covered macadamia nuts, which only appeared at holidays or when someone had just returned from Hawaii, bearing a flat box filled with chocolate-covered macadamia nuts rustling in their dark brown paper cups. I had to walk up a long flight of concrete steps on my way home from school, and one day my mom greeted me at the top, bearing two chocolate-covered macadamia nuts (still in their paper cups) which she had saved, just for me (the rest had gone to far more deserving co-workers). They have never tasted as good to me since, and they never will.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Viva la Tex-Mex.

We had been kicking ourselves (actually, A. was kicking me, as she is not old enough to rent a car) for not renting a car for our trip to Houston. Which was really not worth it in my mind, as we have been in seminars and workshops and lectures for most of the time, save for one afternoon spent at the Houston Space Center and a few trips to the Galleria Mall after dinner (a sweater and dress I had seen in Barneys that just would not go on sale, for 75% off? WHY YES PLEASE). On the other hand, it limits our dining options to the hotel restaurant (not worth thinking about) or the Galleria across the street (ditto). Until we noticed that the hotel has a shuttle available for restaurants within a one-mile radius. Again, this limits us somewhat, as our hotel is in a more expensive area of the city, and most of the restaurants in the neighborhood are chains, or more expensive than we would like, or expensive chain restaurants, none of which I would go to even in Seattle. (Although ur first night we wound up at the Cheesecake Factory. The last time I ate at a Cheesecake Factory, I was in college).

Somehow we wind up at Escalante, which appears to be part of a chain of local Tex-Mex restaurants, quite upscale but not hugely expensive. Tired of the omnipresent air-conditioning - this entire trip I have been wearing just as many clothes as I have been wearing back home, except when actually walking around outside - we choose an outdoor table. It is warm, but not unpleasantly so, as there is a breeze and the sun is going down. We order drinks (after the past few days, I think a mojito is in order) and our dinner and settle in with a pile of tortilla chips (lighter and crisper than anything found in a plastic bag in the supermarket) and salsa. I never eat chips and salsa, in fact, I never eat Mexican food (or Tex-Mex) unless it is someone else's choice. (Which is why I always have trouble deciding what to order).

On the way back from the bathroom I notice a server making guacamole tableside, mashing avocados plucked from a pile on her trolley. I rush back to our table and order the guacamole for ourselves. Unfortunately, we've left it a bit late, and the guacamole server has only just finished mashing fresh (she splits two avocados in half and scoops them into the serving bowl) avocados with "everything," onions and cilantro and tomatoes, when our main courses arrive. We dig in, and it is all extremely good, from the fresh tortillas wrapped around grilled steak and ground beef (I have ordered some combination of enchilada - the ground beef - and soft taco - the grilled steak) and the made-in-front-of-us guacamole. The table behind us is asking their server about the tomatoes, but I figure any restaurant that uses fresh tomatoes in just about everything would be very careful about, you know, not giving their customers salmonella.

We eat nearly the entire bowl of guacamole (plus two baskets of chips) and are too full to even contemplate dessert. We don't even miss it.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

How to eat in flight. (after Eco).

(most of the below was written on Continental flight 366 from Seattle to Houston, Wednesday, June 11th).

Air travel, as I wrote last fall, has become a series of nuisances, beginning with the exorbitant ticket prices, the decanting of shampoos and cleansers and creams into little bottles and pots that slip out of your hand as you try to open them in the shower, the long lines to check in, and the even longer lines at security, with the new indignity of having to take off your shoes. And you haven't even gotten on the plane yet. Once on the plane, there is the struggle with a stubborn suitcase that refuses to fit into the overhead compartment until turned sideways (and I give a mental thanks to my Pilates instructor for all the upper-body torture she puts me through) and the narrow seat that, if you are short, just about lets you extend your legs until your knees are jammed against the seat in front of you. (Think of the unfortunate tall people, who find their knees jammed under their chins). Then comes meal time.

If you were able to sprint through check-in and security at a reasonable speed (allowing for a few minutes to put away your laptop computer and retie your shoelaces, putting your jacket back on and your ticket in a safe pocket), then you have time for a bite to eat. A bounty of choices awaits you, from something called Dish D'Lish (a local catering company), to the usual fast-food burgers, a chowder stall, a pizza place, a pub, and some place serving Southwestern cuisine. I want a smoked-salmon-cream-cheese bagel, but instead find myself settling for a sad, prepackaged sandwich of limp turkey, wan lettuce, soggy bread, and bland cheese, all tasting sadly of the plastic in which it was wrapped. I take a drink of cranberry juice, until I notice, with horror, the words "Juice Drink" and "27% fruit juice" on the label. I console myself with a mint chocolate chip shake from Starbucks, the only sort of thing I ever order there. It will have to do, until we arrive in Houston in time for a late dinner.

Things get worse once we are in the air, much worse. I think, as I always do while eating in flight, of Umberto Eco, who lamented petit pois flying through the air, friable rolls that mysteriously disappeared and then reappeared as a powdery mess on the backside of your trousers. Food in flight should be compact, he said, such as a simple breaded veal cutlet. (I do not recommend eating veal on an airplane. Even in first-class it is tough and indigestible, awash in some sauce that tastes less like veal and more like instant gravy). I do not think that the plastic-wrapped microwaved pizza that we were served is quite what Professor Eco had in mind. I have, on short flights, eaten respectable ham-and-cheese sandwich pockets that were hot and reasonably tasty. But this was not pizza. This was a thick, round, spongy piece of bread dough haphazardly smeared with a little tomato sauce and sprinkled with what might have been cheese but really tasted more like plastic.

I always tell myself that I will follow Amanda Hesser's example, that I will go buy some good bread, some prosciutto, perhaps a little cheese, some cookies and pretty chocolates, and pack my own lunch for the plane. But there is never any time, and I always wind up with a sad little sandwich on ground and a sadder bit of microwaved something-or-other in the air. The tiny fun-size Twix that accompanies our "snack" is only a small consolation.

I suppose it is all part of the experience of traveling, meant to make us treasure our life on the ground that much more. And so it does.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Dinner for one. 611.

Gradually - so gradually I am not sure how it happened - my schedule has changed, so I get up at what still seems to be the ungodly hour of 6:30 and get to work about 7:00, which means I am usually off work by 3 or 4 in the afternoon. This leaves me with a few hours after work to hang out in coffee shops, a few hours in which to write before I go home to dinner. (I like this better than the old days, when I would do all my writing after dinner, while sitting on the floor watching tv). Now I find it hard to write at home, with its distractions of television and other Things To Explore on the internet and snacks and books that need to be put away. (Most of my writing is now done on a new laptop, on which I have not transferred my browser bookmarks, leading to fewer distractions). Sometimes I stop in Caffé Vita, which is directly on the way home from work, but more often I head to Bauhaus, which is rather more out of the way.

Bauhaus is at the edge of Capitol Hill, before you slide down Pine Street into Downtown Seattle. One giant wall is lined with shelves and shelves of old books, which I never see anyone reading. A long counter runs along the windows on one side, and a handful of tables are filled with hipsters catching up with friends. Upstairs in the mezzanine filled with more tables, usually of students working on projects or writing away on their laptops. More tables and chairs run along the building out on the sidewalk, filled with more young hipsters (most of them smoking away furiously) who seem to know everyone who walks past. I order some mint tea (usually I have a soda) and tuck myself away in a corner to write for a few hours.

Three hours and 2,000 words later I realize that it is 7 o'clock. The bright sky is deceptive; summer is almost here. Time for dinner. I could walk home and reheat some leftovers, or I could reward myself for my hard work and walk up the street to 611 Supreme for a dinner of crêpes. It's been a long week. Crêpes it is. The restaurant is mostly empty, although there seems to be quite a lot of people in the bar. 611 is divided into two rooms, the bar, with couches and low tables on one side and the high-stooled bar on the other, and the restaurant, with small tables partitioned off from the kitchen by carved wooden screens. It is a simple place, with exposed brick walls and wooden tables painted with insects. A chalkboard displays the special of the day - braised pork belly - and the menu lists a handful of plats and savory crêpes stuffed with all sorts of good things - vegetables and cheeses and ham or smoked salmon, various combinations calculated to tempt the palate.

I think about the ham and cheese crêpe, or the one filled with spinach and tomatoes and onions, but then I decide on the mushroom crêpe. It comes filled with sautéed mushrooms, portabellos, I think, with a creamy sauce, sprinkled with finely chopped parsley. It is savory and earthy and tastes so good I want another one, but I want dessert more. Usually I only come here for dessert, and order the richer sweet crêpes filled with chocolate mousse or Nutella and ice cream and topped with créme chantilly, but tonight they seem too heavy after my creamy mushroom crêpe. Besides, I have always wanted to try the one they call l'Orange. This crêpe has an orange-butter filling, fragrant with zest, scattered with chocolate shavings, topped with a blob of whipped cream and fresh orange slices on the side. It is light and not too sweet, but just sweet enough, just enough to round out my dinner and make me feel complete.

It is growing dark now, as I walk home. I am full and happy and wrapped in a fog of cigarette smoke - they used to allow smoking at Bauhaus, and even though you can't smoke there anymore the walls still seem to smell of it - and in all it has been a good day.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Home cooking. (mine).

In a rash moment the other day I offered a home-cooked meal to our guests, weary as they were of restaurant meals after two weeks on the road. Unfortunately, my mother then asks her friend J. if she would also cook for us, and arranges for that dinner the night before mine. This leaves me at an incredible disadvantage, as J. is one of the best cooks I know. I spend three days lying awake at night, trying to come up with a menu in my head as I fall asleep. Then, shocked at the state of my room, my mother tells me that she will do the cooking and I will spend the afternoon cleaning up my apartment. Which leaves me with only two courses to prepare, instead of an entire meal.

I come home to all sorts of goings-on in my kitchen, colanders full of vegetables, pots of broth on the stove, and slices of white daikon radish that will become translucent as they cook. I have three hours to make my home presentable, to vacuum crumbs from the living room carpet and put books back on shelves, to set the dining table that never gets used when I am on my own. I lay out white plates and chopsticks and soup spoons and drinking glasses, set out small bowls for rice and larger bowls for soup, those beautiful blue-and-white Tord Boontje ones that have patterns of flowers and trees and woodland creatures on them, one of the first things I bought for my new home, nearly two years ago. I drain frozen corn and lay marinated black cod steaks on a roasting tray. And then the doorbell rings.

We start with cheese and crackers and oven-roasted grapes, some kind of creamy Brie that goes well with the poppyseed crackers, the tart-sweet wrinkly grapes, still warm from the oven. (The grapes are a new thing that another friend of my mom invented, and which she has adapted for her own. This is how new dishes come into a repertoire, tasted at the homes of friends or in restaurants, and reinterpreted or adapted for our own tastes). We move on to soft taro in a light sauce of green onions; they had been steamed and peeled, and then cooked with the scallions until the flavors melded together, a little sweet, a little salty. Then it is my turn to start cooking my two courses, corn stir-fried with toasted pine nuts and broiled miso cod, two of my favorite dishes.

I leave the pine nuts to toast on the stove and start warming up the daikon radish, and my inopportune multi-tasking does not work - the pine nuts burn as soon as I take my eyes off them - so I pour them out and start over. This time I pay attention, pouring them into a dish when they have browned (not a moment too soon), and then stir-fry the corn until just cooked, adding the toasted pine nuts, seasoning it all with just enough salt to bring out the sweetness of the corn, the nuttiness of the pine nuts. Only then do I turn to the reheated daikon radishes; I toss them with a little shredded braised beef before serving. The oven is finally hot enough for me to slide in the black cod, letting it broil until browned in spots and bubbly. The cod has been marinated with miso and rice wine and sugar, which caramelizes under the broiler, bringing out the naturally sweet richness of the fish.

At the end, my mom stir-frys the choppped bok choy with shreds of fried tofu, soft and a little chewy. There is a light soup, made with pork broth and tiny florets of cauliflower and some egg beaten with a little water and cornstarch, which billows into frothy drops, and it signifies the end of the meal. For dessert there is more fruit and chocolate-espresso brownies and the cheese we had earlier, and my mother introduces Mrs. Q to the joys of triple-chocolate Dove bars (which I only have on hand when my mom is in town) while I eat all the blueberries and clean up the kitchen.

Nothing like a home-cooked meal, after all.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Home cooking. (not mine).

The other day I offered to cook dinner for our guests, which was received with great enthusiasm by two travelers weary of restaurant cooking and Western cuisine. After a few weeks in a foreign country (with another week or two still to come) they were ready for some home cooking, and I was rather looking forward to it myself, until my mother came up with the bright idea to ask her friend, J., to cook for us as well. J. is one of the best cooks I know, and she chose Tuesday for her dinner, which, of course, left the next evening for me. I let out a wail of protest - it was unfair to leave me at such a disadvantage - but I was excited, too. I am always excited when I know that we are having dinner with J., even though this time my mother had requested that there not be any red-braised pork belly on the menu. (Tragedy!). Also, she waited until we were on the the road to tell me that two more guests would be there, when it was too late for me to change into a nicer pair of trousers and comb my hair. But never mind.

J. and L. live in a quiet townhouse complex, shaded by trees. There are rock-lined pools and tidy walking paths, and it is mostly inhabited (I think) by older couples. Theirs is a top-floor unit, with an open, high-ceilinged living area, filled with orchids and books and art. Everything is neatly laid out in the kitchen, platters set out in readiness, covered pots on the stove, garnishes arranged on cutting boards and in little bowls. Our fellow guests slowly arrive - traffic is a snarl tonight - and we sit with drinks (tea) and little nibbles (dried cranberries and nuts) and chat. Presently, there are clinking sounds to be heard from the kitchen, and we are called to the table, on which four plates of cold appetizers await us.

There are peppers, red and green and yellow, cooked with a little soy sauce and sugar until they begin to caramelize (and now I will not be able to make a similar dish tomorrow), slim haricots vert, a sort of soft tofu salad, and bean sprouts, the ends carefully trimmed by L, leaving only the translucent white stalks. We pass the dishes from one end of the table to the other, making happy noises with our second and third helpings, and then the hot dishes begin to arrive. A warm salad of duck stir-fried with slivers of orange zest (a witty take on duck à l'orange) is served in fresh endive leaves, like little boats. There are tofu noodles tangled with vegetables - some Chinese greens chopped fine - and a sort of hemispherical loaf of ground pork mixed with pickled radishes (I think they are pickled radishes), steamed and served in its own juices, which I slice (as instructed by my hostess) at the table and pass around. There is rice, not plain white, but white and brown mixed with all kinds of grains, just a little, so you don't fill up on it. There is more to come.

Sautéed halibut is tossed with leeks and little bits of tomatoes and black olives, for color, laid out on a rectangular platter decorated with little bunches of baby bok choy, and set at a rakish angle across the middle of the table. (Everything must be presented just so). Last is a mound of steamed tofu, surrounded by lumps of fresh crab meat, in a light, brothy sauce. It is airy and soft, almost like a mousse, but a savory one. Most of the dishes tonight are new, save for the cold starters and the orange-peel duck. As always, this is a refined form of home cooking, taking into consideration contrasts of texture, of flavors, of hot and cold and sweet and savory. Only this time there is an added lightness to it, in deference to health-conscious guests who eat little or no meat or who are tired of Western food.

For dessert there is lightly sweet soup of red beans, thick with grains and different kinds of black rice. There are heaps of fresh cherries and huge blueberries, tiny round balls of mochi, pink and yellow and dusty green and white. My mother has brought pineapple cakes, with a crumbly, strangely cheesy crust surrounding a sweetly fragrant filling. We sit there talking until I am ready to lay my head on the table and fall asleep, and it is nearly midnight before we get home. And tomorrow it is my night to cook.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Dinner with a view. Salty's.

A. invites us (actually she has invited Dr. Q and his wife, and we are just along for the ride) to Salty's for dinner, one of several Seattle restaurants-with-a-view she likes for entertaining out-of-town guests. They serve expensive seafood in a casual-chic setting, with a stunning view of the Seattle skyline across Elliott Bay in one direction and of the islands that dot Puget Sound in the other. The menu is more or less interchangeable with any of the other restaurants-with-a-view that are scattered around Seattle like drive-through espresso huts (though not quite as ubiquitous as Starbucks), only here we are on Alki looking across towards the Seattle waterfront, instead of on the Seattle waterfront looking across towards Alki. I am sure I have seen the rustic white dinnerware, the spiraling iron bread baskets, the wrought-metal appetizer holder somewhere else.

There is the usual fried seafood appetizer trio, with calamari and coconut shrimp and something else I can't identify, steamed clams in a buttery, garlicky wine sauce, oysters on the half shell served with lemon and cocktail sauce on a bed of ice. They are all quite tasty, and all entirely indistinguishable from appetizers I have eaten at many other restaurants-with-a-view. The seafood chowder is thick and creamy, but it is like every other seafood chowder I have ever had. My salmon is nicely grilled, still translucent pink-orange in the middle, the beurre blanc somewhat obscured by a (in my mind) wholly unnecessary sort of salsa made with tomatoes and the piquant tartness of capers that arrives on top of the fish. I am reminded again why I rarely order salmon in restaurants, because I can broil herb-dusted salmon steaks at home with as good - or better - results. I ignore the fried shreds of onion heaped on the side of the plate (or perhaps they are leeks) and concentrate instead on the mashed potatoes, which are more smashed than mashed, with bits of skin and plenty of lumps and are extremely good.

Actually, the entire meal is extremely good, if not particularly interesting or exciting. The best part is dessert, and I steal a bite of A.'s airy white chocolate mousse cake, with layers of white cake floating between layers of mousse. My mother and I share something called a Hazelnut-Milk Chocolate Fantasy, which turns out to be a Napoleon-like creation, with a base of crunchy Rice Krispies supporting layers of chocolate ganache, Nutella, and chocolate cream. It is exactly like eating a very large Ferrero Rocher chocolate, which makes me very happy, because I love Ferrero Rocher chocolate. When I was growing up I only ever got those at Christmas time, and I would strip the chocolate-hazelnut shell off with my teeth before eating the crisp cookie center with a chocolate filling enclosing one single, whole, hazelnut.

Later we go for a drive along Alki Beach, looking across the water at the city lights spread before us. On the beach groups of people are gathered around fire pits, the flames leaping high in the falling darkness. Across from the beachfront are the older houses, split-level ranches and quaint little bungalows, squeezed in cheek-by-jowl with slightly shabby apartment buildings and new, gleaming condominiums that tower over them all. I can see people moving around their living rooms and kitchens, illuminated by their giant flat-screen tvs and the occasional lamp, watching movies or cooking up a late night snack. The city seems very far away, as far away as the childhood when we used to, as my mother said, come over and drive up to what Google Maps tells me must have been Schmitz Park. I don't remember any of this, and it occurs to me that childhood is made up of stories people tell you about things you did that you don't remember because you were too young to remember them when they happened. But this night I will remember, those silent tableaux of people seen through uncurtained windows, the roaring fires on the beach, the winding road ahead, leading us towards the lights of the city across the water, and home.