Wednesday, December 29, 2010

This is just to say.
(for T.)
(with apologies to William Carlos Williams).
(Last week T. gifted me with a tall jar of homemade pickles, and I can't stop eating them).

this is just to say
i have eaten all the pickles
that filled a tall mason jar
that i had thought to save
for picnics at the beach
or on the living room floor
in a soft egg salad
or adorning a charcuterie platter
but i could not resist them
straight from the jar
they were so cold and crisp
and briny
and delicious.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Wild Beast. Lark.

Some five or six years ago Lark started hosting what they called the "Whole Beast" dinner, a feast involving an endless series of dishes utilizing every part of an animal - pigs, lambs, and a goat or two - and I do mean every part of the animal. I went to my first one in the spring of 2008 (there were pigs' ears on the menu, and perfect lamb crépinettes). Last year, the dinner shifted its focus (and time - it happened in November) away from the usual pig/lamb/goat menagerie and turned to wild game, perfect for fall.

Last night I caught up with my friends - we met at my first Whole Beast dinner, and it's now become a tradition for us to sit together - at the door and we settled in at the same table as last year. We opened our bottles of wine - a Rioja and a Cabernet Sauvignon, both from 1998 - and nibbled away at a dish of almonds and olives. The menu looked thrilling, fourteen dishes broken up into four waves, plus a sorbet (more like a slushy) intermezzo and two desserts. We wondered aloud about the duck testicles and if the emu could be considered a large animal and tried the pheasant rilletes - they were fantastic - and checked out the costumes (all the servers and several other guests were in full Halloween getup).

Here are some dishes that stood out: Frogs legs, garlicky-sweet, the aforementioned rillettes, and the duck testicles, which were tiny chunks of deep-fried meat, with a texture somewhat like that of sweetbreads. There was a tiny cup of pheasant consommé with agnolotti, foie gras, and truffle (possibly my favorite dish of the night), and brown beans with thick chunks of wild boar bacon laced with the sweetness of leeks and maple syrup (which recall the Quebecois fèves au lard). I love the "little stewed birds" (quail) that are wrapped in bacon and scented with anise, and the skewered Bison hearts in some spicy sauce.

We drink our slushies - spiked with herbs and liqueurs it tastes curiously like Campari - and await the last wave, the wildest tasting of them all, with a saddle of Scottish blue hare that emphatically reminds you with every bite that you are eating wild game. Best of all are emu meatballs, with the croxetti pasta I love so much and the gentle perfume of matsutake mushrooms. We have been eating and talking for three hours. It feels good to catch up with my friends, which is hard to do at parties where there are too many people to say hello to, or farmer's markets where you are in a hurry to finish the week's shopping.

Dessert is a soft quince spice cake, which I like a lot, and a tiny cup of cocoa sorbet with white chocolate granite, which I love tremendously. I am unbearably full, a little drunk, and I can hardly wait until the next dinner. They are bringing back the Whole Beast dinner in the Spring. I'll be there.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

School lunch.

I have been reading and re-reading this post in reference to the current battle over school budget cuts in Great Britain and alternately weeping from rage and heartbreak.

I grew up in the south end of Seattle. We lived on a nice street, the highest in the neighborhood, with sweeping views of Lake Washington and the mountains beyond. But the local elementary school and high school were down in the valley below, in one of the city's poorer neighborhoods. I had tested into what was then called the Horizon program, which meant that our math and writing skills were one grade ahead of the average. Four grades - 1st through 4th - shared a vast space which contained three open classrooms, one central common area, and a small lab; we were in a newer wing of the building, separated from the rest of the school. Our paths rarely crossed those of other students, save for one day when an older boy tried to beat me up on my way home from school. I escaped with a scraped knee and was never allowed to walk home alone again.

It was an interesting time, the mid-to-late-80's. M. told me the other night that she had been bussed into our school district because of the Horizon program but also because of "forced integration." That part I don't remember. What I remember is that we spoke in hushed tones on the playground about the supposed drug house down the street and joked that classmates who wore red were "Bloods" and those who wore blue were "Crips" (rival gangs). I don't know if there were any actual gang wars going on but I remember used needles and condoms ("Eeeewwww!!" we said) on the playground and a drive-by shooting late one summer, before school started. Then I left for the manicured grounds of the city's most expensive private school, in fifth grade, and never looked back.

But this is all irrelevant, or perhaps it isn't. We were talking about school lunch. Our elementary school served breakfast and lunch, every day. I usually ate breakfast at home - whole wheat toast, English muffins, oatmeal, cold cereal, congee, or fruit and yogurt - but I also dimly remember school cafeteria pancakes, or perhaps it was French toast, with sausage, maybe some fruit, maybe orange juice in a plastic foil-sealed cup, like the ones they give you on airplanes. It was cheap, like the lunches, which I also occasionally ate (flabby pizzas, corn dogs, Salisbury steak), washed down with plain or chocolate milk (a rare treat). I think it cost a dollar. And for many kids, it was free or otherwise discounted. I wasn't really conscious of it at the time; I led a happy, sheltered, middle-class life that I later came to understand was incredibly privileged. I remember being shocked that some kids ate their lunches as if it were the best thing they'd ever tasted. I think about it now, and it breaks my heart.

I think that people - like Jamie Oliver, and others, like a friend, following his example - who are trying to change the way children eat are doing an amazing, incredible thing. In one sense, the system (as it stood 20 years ago) was doing one good thing: it made sure that children got fed, twice a day. In another sense, it wasn't: the food was crap, except for those for whom it was the best thing they had. It is part of a larger problem - where does the responsibility lie? On the school system which can't afford it, or on the parents who can't afford it? The more I think about it - and I say this as someone who is single and childless and doesn't see that changing anytime soon - the more it makes my heart ache. I don't have any understanding of what it must be like to have to send my child to school hungry. I hope I never do.

Twenty years have passed since I last ate in that elementary school cafeteria. I still remember the flimsy partitioned foil trays and the plastic sporks, the crates of half-pint milk cartons. We have to do better.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

the art of dining alone. Lark.

I haven't been to Lark in a while. I used to come here once a month, almost religiously. I'd go straight from work in fleece sweats or from home having changed into something slightly more respectable. My life is different now, made up of different circles of friends that nudge together in some places and overlap in others. There are cookbook clubs and Saturday brunches and jaunts up to Vancouver or over to Vashon or strawberry-picking in the Skagit Valley. When we go out to dinner I often find myself in West Seattle or Ballard or Queen Anne, and it feels good to explore different corners of my own city, to find my way in an unfamiliar place. But I miss my neighborhood, and I miss going to Lark, alone. It always feels like home.

L. has often remarked that she gets terrible service when she dines alone, which surprises me. She is very pretty and intimidatingly stylish and I would expect waitstaff to fall all over her, but apparently this is not the case. J., on the other hand, says she projects an aura of "I belong here, bitches." I don't remember those first few times of eating alone at Lark, but I am sure that I did not project that aura of "I belong here, bitches." I might have kept in mind Mary Cantwell's words about keeping my posture straight, my gaze confident while asking for a table for one. They must have been kind, for I kept going back. K., who is one of the owners, would always stop by for a word of greeting.

Anyway, I am here again. It is late when I walk in, and they are surprised (usually I come for dinner very early). I chat with my server, M., and collapse gratefully and ungracefully in the corner booth, order the foie gras and one of the night's specials, a poached duck egg. I eat far too much bread and butter (and what wonderful bread and butter it is) because lunch was ages ago and suddenly, I'm starving. My poached duck egg arrives, floating in broth on a raft of toast and a tangle of braised chard, covered in cheese shavings that melt slowly as I eat. The yolk is molten gold, and I am torn between eating it all quickly, before it gets cold, and savoring every last bite, slowly.

The foie gras, too, is perfect, seared and served on a crispy pig's trotter cake, with a few stray bits of crispy trotter (there are few phrases more delightful than "crispy pig trotter") sprinkled around. There is a pool of tangy-sweet peach puree, slices of pickled peaches that send shocks through the rich haze of the foie and trotter cake, and a few green curls of mizuna so you can pretend you had some vegetables. It is exactly what I wanted. No dessert tonight, no need for it. I am happy when I head up the hill towards home.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Brunch. the gold standard.

Some friends and I gather together most Saturday mornings for brunch, trying different places around Seattle. While we sometimes have a bigger group, often there are just three of us, the original three who met at a diner early one morning when I was completely jet-lagged and uncharacteristically up early. (I can hardly believe it's been just about a year now). We've eaten at greasy-spoon diners and casual cafés and fancy restaurants. There have been hits and misses, and a few clear favorites, some dependable standbys. I am always late, rushing in with my hair still damp from the shower.

We had been meaning to try Harvest Vine since I first heard that they had started serving brunch. Some friends who have impeccable taste had gone, months ago, and raved about it. Finally, we made it there, after a quick trip to the farmer's market earlier in the morning. It was early, just after they opened; only a few tables were full. We ordered coffee and caracolillos (sweet rolls shaped like the snails they are named for), quickly, and debated over the rest of the menu. We all ordered eggs; I chose eggs scrambled with chanterelles and bacon. The caracolillos were perfect, spiraled rolls of soft dough that seemed like a cross between a croissant and brioche. They are a sign of good things to come.

Everything was perfect - M.'s baked eggs with tomato sauce and goodness knows what else, J.'s poached eggs and sausage, my scramble that is almost custard-like in its softness. The bacon is home-cured and the chanterelles are cooked just right, even if my revuelto looks, honestly, a little revolting. (There is no way to make eggs scrambled with mushrooms attractive). We mop up every bite with our toasts and mutter about what we might order next time, or if perhaps there is room in our stomachs for another dish. There isn't, of course. We'll have to come back, and soon. There have been few brunches as spot-on as this one. Watch out, Seattle. A new gold standard has been found.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Plus ça change...Rover's.

I first ate at Rover's in 1996. I had just turned 16. Nothing will ever equal that first, unforgettable meal. My next dinner there was some four months later, a dinner I had arranged for 12 people in the restaurant's private room. There are two things I remember about that night. One is that the only dish I recall is a terrine of foie gras, pale and cold and not nearly as lovely as the hot seared foie gras from my first visit. Two is that the next night my father told me that he had cancer, and I was the last person to know. Everyone else who had been at dinner the night before had already heard the news, and in my mind I went over the evening's conversation again and again, wondering what I had missed.

That year, every milestone was celebrated with dinner at Rover's. My father's recovery from a several-hour surgery to remove a fist-sized tumor that had wrapped itself around his thymus gland. The night before his radiation therapy began. The end of said radiation therapy. The first anniversary of his surgery, repeated each fall thereafter. In between there were birthdays and wedding anniversaries, and soon I knew the restaurant's phone number by heart. I'd make and confirm reservations from my high school attendance secretary's office, the phone reserved for students calling parents for rides home from soccer practice.

Eventually, our visits there were fewer and farther between (although I still knew the phone number by heart), especially after my parents moved back to Taipei. I went for brunch with my father early last year, but I have not had dinner there for four or five years now. We went with some friends the other night, and I wondered, would it be the same? No, it wasn't, it couldn't be. The dining room is still quiet and elegant. The service is as polite and polished as ever. The bottled water is now Fiji instead of Evian, but it is still presented in a silver holder, with flourish. There are three menus now, instead of two, with four, five, or nine courses instead of five or ten, and each course can be ordered à la carte. I confess I miss the old ways, with fewer choices.

The dishes I loved best this time were black cod with summer herb pistou, and the extra course of foie gras I had ordered, which was as good as I remembered it. We drank a cool, white wine to start, with a pale, clear Burgundy to follow. Now the cooking is a little less classically French - at least it was this time - a sign of changing times. The nages are gone, as are the smoothly piped rounds of pommes de terre purée speared with a finely waffle-cut shard of crisply fried potato. Still, my rabbit was a little overdone, its accompanying couscous a bit wet, the olives overwhelming the sweet carrots. But I loved the espresso crême brulée, and the chocolate-cherry-almond mignardise at the end of the meal. I was happy to be here again, with my parents, with some of their dearest friends, eating foie gras and laughing until it hurt.

What I love most about Rover's, aside from an enduring consistency of cuisine and ambiance, is the sense of preserving a moment in my life. Like a fly in amber. No, like an oeuf en gelée. That first year I came here was a terrible year, a sad, frightening time. Dining in that quiet restaurant with its ever-changing menus and floral adornments brought a measure of peace from the anxieties of our everyday lives.

I'll keep the phone number memorized, for next time.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Strawberry fields (forever).

My alarm went off at 6am. Somehow I stumbled out of bed and into the shower and got dressed, eyes still closed, and drove up to J.'s house. We got in her car and headed north, up to the Skagit Valley, stopping for coffee and donuts along the way (salted caramel for me, apple fritter for her). We got lost, thanks to my inability to follow directions. We made wrong turns and were sniffed at by suspicious dogs and finally I saw the unmistakable silver-thatched head of our leader across the road, near a beautiful farmhouse set amongst rolling fields. Strawberry fields.

There were maybe 60 of us, men and women and children and babies. We listened to our hosts talk about strawberry varieties and what it takes to run a family farm, generations in the making. Then we gathered our empty half-flats and trooped across the road to an untouched strawberry field. These are Shuksans, deep red to the core and pure in flavor; they are everything a strawberry should be. I am kneeling in the dirt, lifting up the dusty leaves in search of ripe berries hiding beneath. The ripest berries fall into my hand, gently. Every few minutes I eat another one. Quality control. I look over at my friends with their baby, I., who is enthusiastically diving into his first strawberry, his lips and even his nose stained bright red.

Little kids are running around, leaping over the strawberry plants, helping their parents fill their flats, popping the occasional ripe berry into their eager mouths. I hear the occasional shout of "Mommy! I gotta go potty!" and laugh to myself. I remember being a kid and coming up here to go strawberry or raspberry picking. I remember the heat, the sun beating down, and am grateful that today is cool and gray. We take our heaping half-flats back across the road, and gather to eat strawberry shortcake. The kids are all eagerly waiting for their share, a giant biscuit piled high with fresh strawberries (simply macerated with a little sugar, I think) and whipped cream. Jon solemnly asks each child if they are sure they can handle all that shortcake; each child eagerly nods yes.

Finally, I get my own serving of strawberry shortcake. I feel like a little kid again, tasting some forbidden fruit. That combination of strawberries and whipped cream, it always feels special, and every time I have it again I feel that same shock of excitement all over again.

Full and happy, we drive home, stopping at the Rexville Grocery for an egg scramble to counteract all the sugar bouncing around in our systems. It was a good day.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The first dish. eggs scrambled with tomatoes.

Eggs scrambled with tomatoes is a classic Taiwanese home-cooked dish. I don't actually remember what the first dish I ever made was - steamed rice? Brownies from a mix? - but surely this is one of the first things I learned to cook on the stove. Sometimes I burned the scallions, undercooked the tomatoes so the whole dish was too watery, stirred the scrambling eggs so enthusiastically that everything broke apart into clumps, added too much salt or too little, both cardinal sins. Sometimes the scallions were too raw or the tomatoes too mushy. We would sit down to dinner, me folding my legs under me in the window seat, and my parents would (kindly, gently) point out what I had done wrong, and how I could do it better. Sometimes, though, they would be just right.

A while back, some coworkers and I had an intense, trilingual debate over the proper way to cook scrambled eggs and tomatoes. There is no single, canonical recipe. Some people scramble the eggs first, remove them onto a plate, then cook the tomatoes and scallions separately. I don't understand this, because then the tomatoes and eggs don't stick together at all. Other people add ketchup, or wait until the end to add the scallions (sliced into two-inch logs) so they remain crisp and fresh. I also don't understand this, because I don't like raw scallions unless they are very thinly sliced. My own method has evolved over some twenty years, and now I can do it without thinking.

I use Roma tomatoes, and slice them into chunks about 3/4 inch square, two tomatoes for three eggs. I slice a couple of scallions thinly on the bias, beat the eggs with a fork (if I were being properly Chinese, I'd use chopsticks for this), and heat a little oil in a frying pan. In go the scallions, and when they start sizzling, I add the tomatoes. I let the tomatoes cook until they soften, release their juices, then cook them a little longer until the juices are almost gone. Season with salt and pepper, pour in the beaten eggs. Fold the eggs over on themselves as they set, turn golden around the edges. Once in a while, I manage to get everything to hold together into a soft frittata; usually it falls apart in irregular wedges. It doesn't matter. It's always delicious.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Four ingredients.

It was an impromptu potluck, with only one direction: you could only put four ingredients in your dish. (Not counting water, salt, pepper, or oil/butter). I agonized for hours. I consulted cookbooks. And then I took a deep breath, and made something of my own, or rather, two things: a cool salad of thinly sliced cantaloupe, mint, burrata, and roasted hazelnuts, tossed together haphazardly at the last moment, and another salad of Persian cucumbers in a soy, sesame oil, and vinegar dressing. The former was a sudden inspiration, the latter is something that I have been making since childhood, and I can do it in my sleep. Sometimes we add crushed garlic, or hot peppers, but I was restrained by my four ingredients.

Others rose to the challenge. There were toasts topped with marmalade, Gouda, and prosciutto. Carrots with butter and cumin and borage blossoms, as beautiful to look at as it was good to eat. A simple salad with fresh lettuces, translucent, ruby-rimmed slices of tiny radishes, radish sprouts, and a light vinaigrette. Spicy stir-fried cabbage with bacon. Barbecue-smoked ribs rubbed with brown sugar and chili powder and cumin. Everything was delicious; everything came together into a meal, something more than a hodgepodge of ingredients carelessly thrown together.

The truth is that the limitation of having only four ingredients is no limitation at all, but rather a new kind of freedom. It forces you to think about what you don't need, and concentrate on what you do. This is home cooking, the kind you do every night; short on ingredients and time to put it all together (with the exception of the ribs, which take a couple of hours on the barbecue, I think), and long on flavor. I didn't really need to think about it - mint goes well with cantaloupe, burrata tastes good with everything, and hazelnuts add a nice crunch. Those quick pickles are easy to put together, take no effort at all, and everyone loves them. At the end of the day, I don't want a million flavors and ingredients and garnishes battling it out on my palate, much as I prefer the clear melodies of Bach to Beethoven's symphonies. I want to taste my food, enjoy it, savor every last bite.

I ate five of the ribs. Everyone made fun of me.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Lazy Saturday.

After a breakfast of tea and a toasted croissant and the leftover landjäger from last night (which still reminds me of a fancy Slim Jim) I head down to Melrose Market. I buy chocolate mint and chives from Marigold & Mint (no flowers; I bought peonies and lupines and sweetpeas and a single, perfect rose a few days ago). I buy burrata and a baguette and a few odds-and-ends of cheese from Calf & Kid. I get some Duroc bacon from Rain Shadow Meats. I love the Melrose Market; I will love it even more when Homegrown opens and I can get sandwiches here.

I walk home thinking about the things I've bought, but also thinking about a dinner tonight. J. and B. are celebrating the completion of their respective books, and are throwing an impromptu potluck. There is one thing - we have to bring a dish that contains four ingredients, no more. No garnish. We are sad that M. can't be there, because he is the kind of cook who garnishes his garnishes. I had initially thought of making a pea-and-bacon salad in endive boats, or corn-and-pine-nuts (also in endive boats). But that would involve going to the supermarket in search of endives.

I make myself lunch, bacon and eggs and a hunk of baguette, and ideas turn themselves over in my head like stones caught in the waves at the beach. I think about a salad of thinly sliced melon and slivers of mint, roughly torn chunks of burrata, a sprinkling of sea salt (salt and pepper and oil do not count as one of our four ingredients), perhaps some toasted hazelnuts for crunch. Just in case, I make a back-up dish - quick pickles of Persian cucumbers, sliced into slim wedges and marinated in a soy-sesame vinaigrette. Usually I use soy sauce and rice wine vinegar, but as there is a slim possibility of a gluten-intolerant guest I make it with wheat-free tamari and Chardonnay vinegar. It tastes just as good this way, and I won't have to worry about making anyone sick. In the end, she doesn't make it to the party, but everyone else digs in with gusto.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Friday Lark.

There are many new restaurants now, places I've been wanting to try. But first I head back to Lark. In the city where I grew up and where there are still restaurants who remember my parents but not me, Lark is the one place that is completely mine. I ate there several times with my parents, but after they moved to Taipei and I moved to the neighborhood, I started going alone, striking up conversations with one of the owners and all of the servers. I became a regular. One of these conversations led to the Whole Beast dinner one spring evening two years ago. That dinner led to more adventures beyond anything I could have imagined. My life as it is now began that night.

J. is late, stuck in traffic. The dining room is empty and quiet; white linens, dark wood, wineglasses gleam in the sunlight that streams through the front windows. I'm in one of the booths that run along the south wall of the restaurant, and as I wait for my friend I hear M. recite the specials. I hear the words "crispy trotter cakes" and my ears perk right up. J. arrives, and we order the crispy trotter cakes, along with several other dishes. We have a simple green salad, a plate of burrata with pine nuts, basil, fava beans, and the best croutons ever. I love burrata.

We have landjäger, a kind of cured sausage served with two kinds of mustards, and the main event, the crispy trotter cakes. The cakes have the perfect crunchy crust, all meltingly tender pork inside, with a luxurious foie gras sauce sprinkled with porcini mushrooms. I almost asked for more bread to mop up the sauce, but I am distracted by the rösti potatoes. I am glad J. is here with me. I would probably die if I tried to eat both trotter cakes by myself, and I only ever get burrata or rösti potatoes when I come here with other people. By now the dining room is full, and I am glad. The last year or two has been hard for the restaurant industry, and while new places seem to open every week so many other places have been struggling.

But for now, all the tables are occupied, and we are eating dessert. J. has Meyer lemon ice cream, and I have a rhubarb-rosé 'consommé' with coconut sorbet with pistachios and mint. It sounds improbable but turns out to be light and refreshing, and I love it.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Let them eat cake.

The other night I was thinking about that offhand comment, made by a friend on Twitter, taken out of context, about how anyone can cook. Out of context, it sounded a little like "let them eat cake!" I know there is more to the story, but leaving that behind, I kept thinking more and more about why I cook. How I learned to cook. How I push myself, as R. put it, to "raise my game." I thought about standing on a chair, age 3, carefully washing a bowl of mushrooms, rubbing away every speck of dirt until each mushroom was a gleaming white. I thought about that miserable year, after college, when I felt lost, jobless, living at home and making dinner for my parents and I every night. How I kept up the cooking even after I started working, making quick stops at QFC on the way home or calling my dad and asking if he wouldn't mind picking up a few things.

I have always cooked. Tunnel-of-fudge cakes from a mix. A horrifying late-60's casserole involving chicken thighs, canned mushroom soup, Lipton's Onion Soup mix, and orange juice over rice. Lasagne. I moved away from special-occasion dishes that took hours and dirtied every surface of the kitchen - I was and still am an extremely messy cook - and into simple, everyday dishes like teriyaki chicken wings, scrambled eggs with tomatoes, and fried rice. While I am still terrible at things involving beaten egg whites and my cheesecakes rise and fall and crack like Krakatoa during a volcano eruption, cooking is something I do all the time. If not every night, then almost every other night. For the most part.

The hard part, as R. commented a few nights ago on an earlier post, is waste. As a single girl, I am always halving or quartering recipes so I don't wind up with more than three or four meals' worth of any one dish. More than wasting food, I hate boredom. I hate eating the same thing over and over again. This is especially hard with soups and stews, rich things like curries and borscht that I crave for days and then can no longer bear the thought of by the time I struggle my way through the last spoonfuls. A few weeks back I made myself an Indian-spiced curry with two medium-sized Yukon Gold potatoes and half an onion, and it lasted just long enough (three servings) to leave me wanting more, which is the ideal.

I have the luxury of time. I get off work early enough to head to the farmer's market on weekdays for vegetables and meats and a frothy, creamy cup of horchata from the taco stand that appeared all the markets this year. I can have an early dinner and spend the evening baking cheesecake for my coworker's birthday. I can walk to the new butcher down the hill for a slab of pork belly and buy tiny white turnips at the flower shop nearby to braise with said pork belly and everything will be ready by 6:30. And I love that I have all of this.

Another day I'll dig deeper into the archives . I don't quite remember what I ate when I had a different schedule and came home at 6 or 7. Maybe I ate later, stayed up later, woke up later. I still ate the same things I do now, I think. My life is different now. Food, as it has always been, is the only constant.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Dinner for one.

I timed myself as I was cooking dinner tonight, starting with washing two cups of rice and putting it in the rice cooker. This is always the first step; it takes 45 minutes for the rice to cook, and it will taste better if you let it rest for an additional 10 minutes before you scoop it out. It was always my job to make the rice before dinner when I was growing up, after piano practice, before chopping vegetables and setting the table. I hated how cold my hands got unless I turned the water to lukewarm while rinsing the rice. Did you know that in Chinese, the word for uncooked rice (mi - 米) is not the same as the word for cooked rice (fan - 飯)? This has always confused me.

Once the rice is out of the way, the rest of my prep is easy. I have a few Shanghai bok choy left - unlike regular bok choy (large or baby), it has brighter green stems and leaves, instead of nearly white stems and dark green leaves - and I slice off the bottoms, detaching the thicker outer leaves and keeping the heart intact. I roll cut some Chinese eggplants - or maybe these are the Japanese ones, I can't remember - into smallish chunks so they'll cook faster. L. is the only one who has ever noticed that I roll-cut my vegetables, creating irregularly-shaped pieces that are, nonetheless, about the same size. Twenty-some years of cooking under the eagle eye of my mother means unbreakable habits.

Quickly, I slice some shiitake mushrooms to stir-fry with the bok choy, and finely mince several cloves of garlic for the eggplant. I check my timer. Half an hour has gone by. I clean up the kitchen - a little - and pull out blocks of cream cheese for the cheesecake I have to make later, so they can come to room temperature while I eat dinner. I know from experience that if I start the actual cooking when the rice is nearly done, then I can eat by the time the rice has rested long enough. I take a break, and come back to find 5 minutes left for the rice cooker.

To cut down on the number of pans I have to wash, I generally use one pan for two dishes, and don't bother washing the pan in between. This works for me because, to keep a balance of flavors in my meal, I usually cook one dish with soy sauce, and one without. Obviously, you cook the dish without soy sauce first, to avoid contaminating the second one. In no time at all, the bok choy with shiitake mushrooms is done. The eggplant takes a little longer; I add water to the pan to steam it soft, then stir-fry it until the soy sauce begins to caramelize around the edges of the eggplant. Finally, it's done. I check my timer. 54 minutes, 03 seconds. Time to eat.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Roast chicken and other thoughts.

It started out on Twitter, the way so many things do these day. One famous food writer declared that roasting a chicken took no time at all, and anyone could do it, even on a weeknight. Another food writer declared that if she could cook three meals a day, plus baking in the afternoon, with a toddler, then other people could, too. It was one of those off-hand comments that hit a nerve. This second writer is someone I admire, love, respect, someone I consider a friend. And on the one side: anyone can learn to cook. And on the other side: first, they need the desire to learn, and the willingness to make mistakes. That is the hard part.

The beautiful part of Twitter, for me, is the tight-knit community of food-loving people that I have found in both my own city and across the globe. The bitter part of it is that what makes us so close can also, temporarily, blind us to what is outside: people who don't share that same passion. Who don't have certain luxuries that I, for one, take for granted: a childhood with parents who loved food and took me everywhere from roadside stands in Taipei to the Russian Tea Room in New York City, money to buy food and experiment with ingredients that may be expensive and/or hard to find, time to shop and cook, and the kitchen skills and confidence that allow me to turn out a meal for one person (when I am alone) in about half an hour, or three people (when my parents are in town) in about an hour.

I have a repertoire of dishes I can make with my eyes closed. I have a well-stocked (if not well-organized - where the hell did I put that bottle of Worcestershire?) pantry. If I lack a true professional chef's speed and skill - I am sure my friends who have actual training would wince if they saw me cook - I do know what I am doing, most of the time. I have a schedule that means I am home by 4pm. I am always thinking ahead - what can I prep tonight so I don't have to do it tomorrow? What leftovers can be stretched and reassembled into something different so I don't get bored? I do this because I love to eat, and because I care enough to take the time to think about what I eat, at least 90% of the time. (Except for nights like tonight, when I had one salami sandwich and one smoked-salmon-and-cream-cheese sandwich for dinner). I'll bake a cake because I see a recipe I want to try, just for the hell of it, and I am not usually intimidated by a mile-long list of ingredients or three pages of instructions, although I save complicated things for the weekend.

The conversation about mothers-who-work and mothers-who-stay-home and mothers-who-work-from-home is one that I am completely unqualified to participate in. I am single and childless. I am not responsible for the care and feeding of anyone besides myself, except for, occasionally, my parents (they spend about six weeks of the year in Seattle, with me). Laurie Colwin wrote movingly and clearly about her feelings about being a working mother who nevertheless was determined to make sure that her family ate well, nearly 20 years ago, and she put it better than anyone. (See the chapters "Real Food for Tots" and "Four Easy Pieces;" hell, see ALL the chapters in More Home Cooking, a collection of brilliant food essays collected just before her sudden death in 1992).

In college I would buy poussins at the slightly larger, fancier Wegman's supermarket over in Pittsford (a short drive from the University of Rochester, where I was a student). I'd spatchcock them with a pair of kitchen shears and roast them, seasoned simply with salt and pepper, in my toaster oven until the skin was golden and crispy and the meat was juicy. I'd make soup with the bones and have chicken noodle soup (with spinach and scallions and Chinese wheat noodles), sorry, poussin noodle soup, the next night. Why doesn't anyone talk about roasting poussins or Cornish game hens on a weeknight? Splitting the birds down the back and flattening them (the complicated way of saying "spatchcocking") enables you to cook them quickly, making them perfect for when you are short of time. It's roast chicken, with a little bit of fiddly work with a pair of scissors but minus the feeling of being in Spain when dinner isn't ready until 9pm. Unless you want to feel like you've gone to Spain.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The week of eating meatlessly. day 8.

I should be truthful - on day 1, last Sunday, I had steak for lunch, left over from a fancy dinner a few nights before. Dinner was vegetarian, and every meal thereafter, until tonight, when I end my week with a cookbook club that meets once a month. I believe I heard that salmon and duck would be on the menu. Still, 21 vegetarian meals in a row (ok, some of those were breakfasts of fruit and tea and the occasional muffin) is nothing to sneeze at. It is the longest consecutive time I have ever gone without meat in some form or another. I feel good. I haven't lost any weight, or at least not more than a pound or two. But I have been thinking more about what goes on my plate, and it has been a good exercise in creativity, balance, and planning.

The hardest part of this whole exercise has been consciously avoiding meat. Craving fish, and remembering, "oh, not this week." Thinking about a roast chicken, and catching myself before I turn towards the butcher counter. The dried seasoned tofu I love so much isn't something I can pick up on the walk home from work, whereas I have a supermarket, a butcher, a cheese shop, and a flower shop that sells vegetables within walking distance. I have to plan a little bit ahead. But the meals during this week have been good, better than good, and I hope to incorporate more of them into my life in the future. A long trip followed by a week or two of continued gastrointestinal turbulence led to a recent laziness and apathy in the kitchen; this week has changed that.

Planning ahead, eating more vegetables, eating more fruit, eating less meat, are all things that I want to continue. Over the past few years, I have been buying more and more of my meat - and all food in general - from farmer's markets. It costs more - so I buy less of it - and tastes better - so I savor every bite of what I have. I won't go into how cheaply produced meat will cost us more in the long run; that is a conversation for another time. But I will think about eating vegetarian more often, perhaps a few days a week, if not more.
The week of living meatlessly. day 7.

I went out to breakfast with my friends this morning. We often do this on Saturdays, a practice that began early one jet-lagged morning several months ago at a diner not far from my apartment, where my Southern friend averted her eyes from my (come to think of it, vegetarian and possibly vegan) desecration of biscuits and gravy. Aside from the occasional vegetarian biscuits and gravy, nearly every breakfast since has involved pork in some form, sometimes corned beef, but usually ham or bacon or sausage. Even if I order, say, pancakes or waffles or French toast, I will still get a side of meat. This time, though, I ordered the bananas Foster French toast. It was stuffed with creamy ricotta and topped with caramelized bananas, and while I like my French toast a bit more custard-soaked - the bread was a little dry - I didn't even notice the lack of bacon.

Lunchtime, and I still wasn't hungry. I had one of the Nutella blondies that L. gave me, all chewy caramel-y goodness swirled with the chocolate-hazelnut Nutella. She had used Demerara sugar, which tends to sink to the bottom when you use it for baking. It reminded me of a Laurie Colwin essay, where she talks about kitchen disasters and how, once, she made a batch of brownies with Demerara sugar and they baked up into a solid brick that was completely impenetrable by any kind of implement. Here, instead of an impenetrable brick, there was a subtly layered square of deliciousness.

For dinner, I turned to the leftover potato curry from Thursday night, again not hungry enough to cook up some side vegetables. I was cheating. I was being lazy. My plan of eating balanced, thoughtful meals of many colors had fallen by the wayside. Breakfast and "lunch" was laden with sugars and fats, and dinner only marginally better. (Potatoes and rice? As my friend mocked when I once almost ordered a side of hash brown with pancakes, "Have some carbs with your carbs, why don't you?"). What the hell, it's the weekend. Tomorrow is another day.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The week of living meatlessly. day 6.

Today was a little less...structured. I had leftovers for lunch, the stir-fried tofu with mushrooms and carrots. As I chewed on the strips of tofu I felt almost like I was eating red-braised pork belly, and was concerned that the vegetarianism was causing me to hallucinate. Then I figured that the tofu had been flavored with 5-spice powder (and soy sauce), and the star anise was making me think of the red-braised pork belly seasonings. Phew.

Going into this week, I remembered how my mom was always hungry when she was a vegetarian. She ate triple chocolate Dove bars every day and gained five pounds. I was determined not to derail all the healthy food I had been eating by consuming cake and ice cream ("Cupcakes are vegetarian," joked a friend on Twitter). Instead, I'd snack on fruit or a few crackers or a small handful of nuts. I made sure I had a side vegetable - skillet-steamed broccoli or carrots - in addition to a main dish; I ate a little more rice than I usually do. Strangely, I rarely felt hungry during the past week.

I didn't even feel like dinner tonight, still full from my generous plate at lunch. I stir-fried crisp sugar snap peas from the farmer's market in a little oil, sprinkled them with salt, and ate them straight up, like French fries. They were sweet and still a little crunchy, and satisfying. Then I went to Bingo & Karaoke Night at the Greenwood Senior Center (long story), and was lured in by the tater tots. They were vegetarian. Our table mate proffered a bag of caramel corn, and I took a few. Also vegetarian.

While I ate my greasy, cooling tater tots, I thought about friends in high school and college, going through vegetarian phases and living on grilled cheese sandwiches, French fries, popcorn, hummus wraps and falafel from the cafeteria. Waffles are vegetarian, if you eat eggs and dairy, and when you are living away from home for the first time in your life there is a certain thrill to eating waffles for dinner. It isn't hard to eat vegetarian. It's hard to eat a healthy, balanced diet that happens to be vegetarian. Or rather, it isn't hard at all - you just have to think about what you are eating and why. But then again, we should all think about what we are eating and why, whether we are vegetarians or not.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The week of living meatlessly day 5.

When I was in India last month, I ate potato curry every morning for breakfast, either in the form of puri bhaji, which was fried dough puffs served with potato curry, or pao bhaji, which was a brioche-like bread, fried in butter or ghee, and served with a similar potato curry (it contained peas whereas the other one did not, and I think the combination of spices was a little different). I was addicted. Still, some twenty straight meals of Indian food, with all its unfamiliar array of spices and flavors, took its toll on my gastrointestinal system and it was a while before I could entertain the thought of Indian food again.

Then I started thinking longingly of that potato curry, fragrant with cardamom and coriander and cumin, bright with turmeric and pepper. I bought the spices at PFI and a few potatoes and an onion, a bag of frozen peas, and set to work. Ground the spices by hand, with a mortar and pestle (actually, a stainless-steel espresso tamper and a small bowl), heated them in a pan until the air was scented with spices. Heated some oil, and added the onions. I cooked the onions slowly, until they were translucent and browning around the edges, then added the diced potatoes. Poured in some water, covered and let it all simmer.

It took longer than I thought; the potatoes had to cook through, then continue cooking until they started to melt a little around the edges. The wait was hard, but at last the curry was almost ready. I threw a handful - maybe two - of frozen peas, and stirred it all together until the peas were done. I scooped some rice into a bowl, added the curry. It smelled like India. It was cold and gray outside instead of sunny and burning hot, but I felt some of the warmth in my kitchen, standing at the stove over a pan of curry. Next time I'll grind the spices more finely, use more seasoning, but as an experiment it turned out very well.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The week of living meatlessly. day 4.

The week is going by more easily than I had anticipated, in terms of craving meat. What has been a little more difficult is planning and prepping my meals - everything needs to be picked over and trimmed and washed and chopped, unlike, say, a steak which you just sling into a pan. I finally understand that there is a difference between feeling 'full' and merely feeling 'satisfied.' And I finally understand what people mean about 'mindful eating.' I am thinking about food all the time. I have fruit for breakfast instead of a cookie, and in the afternoon instead of another cookie. I cook myself two dishes, plus rice (which involves little more than washing 2 cups of rice and pressing 'start' on the rice cooker), for dinner instead of just one. My dinner plate looks like a balanced meal instead of a piece of leftover steak and a heap of rice. I've resisted falling back on macaroni and cheese or a bowl of cereal or a handful of crackers and a piece of chocolate, and it feels wonderful.

Tonight I stir-fry the softer kind of dried seasoned tofu with carrots - the leftovers from yesterday, sliced into slim irregular batons - and shimeji mushrooms, with scallions and a splash of soy sauce. I skillet-steam some broccoli and eat it all over a plate of rice, hunched over as usual at the coffee table in the living room. I'm in the groove now, the place where tofu and vegetables over rice is a deeply satisfying meal. The tofu and shimeji mushrooms are just browned around the edges; to call them "meaty" is a dishonor to their complementary flavors, but they are meaty against the sweetness carrots. This is the best meal I've had so far this week.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The week of living meatlessly. day 3.

Today I headed to Uwajimaya, over at the edge of the International District. The couscous salad and spinach soufflé were both delicious, but I wanted to return to the kind of vegetarian cooking I was most familiar with, the foods of my childhood. I bought garlic and ginger and scallions, baby bok choy and green beans and eggplant, shiitake and shimeji mushrooms, spiced dried tofu - both kinds, one smaller and thinner and chewier, the other a little bigger and fatter and slightly softer - and plain soft tofu.

For dinner I sliced up the chewier of the dried tofus into batons, and stir-fried them with green beans and plenty of garlic, adding a splash of soy sauce with some water to steam the beans tender. There was rice, of course, and irregularly-shaped wedges of carrots that I had skillet-steamed and then stir-fried to caramelize the edges a little. I thought about Elizabeth Andoh's Japanese cookbook Washoku, where she talked about the philosophy of composing a meal by making sure you had different colors of food on your plate. I looked down at my plate, white and green and brown and orange. It was beautiful. Tasty, too.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The week of living meatlessly. day 2.

I remember clearly the last time I ate a steak. I was maybe 19, or 20. We were in Portland, having dinner in the hotel restaurant, the kind of place that is all dark wood and forest-green carpet and dim lighting, clubby, with a hint of a bygone era still lingering like the smoke over a grill. I can still taste the slight char of the beef, the rich fat streaked through it all. I don't mean that I haven't eaten steak since then; I have, again and again. I mean that I haven't eaten an entire steak, as served in a restaurant, all 16 or 20 ounces of marbled beef lounging insouciantly on a heavy oval china plate next to the sautéed green beans and baked potato. I haven't finished a steak since. Maybe I'll eat half, or even a third, and take the rest home. Last Friday, I went out to dinner and ordered a Porterhouse the size of my face. I remembered how full I was, that time in Portland, that uncomfortable sensation of having eaten more than I should have.

Tonight I came home and rummaged around in the fridge for something to cook. Earlier, the idea of a spinach soufflé had been tumbling around in my mind. There was spinach from the farmer's market, and half an onion left from last week's carrot salad. I had milk and a small wedge of cheese. I didn't have a recipe; sometimes you just have to wing it. I browned the diced onions in butter and olive oil, added flour, milk, seasoned with salt and pepper and a few scrapes of nutmeg. In went the spinach, stirred until wilted and tender. I beat some egg whites until stiff, buttered and bread-crumbed an oval baking dish, grated the cheese. Folded the egg whites into the creamy spinach, poured it into the pan, sprinkled it generously with cheese, and slid everything into the toaster oven, crossed my fingers.

The soufflé rose gloriously, golden brown and crusty, and collapsed almost as soon as I took it out of the oven. It was perhaps a little damp and under-seasoned inside, but never mind. It was good, better than good enough.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The week of living meatlessly. day 1.

Recently, L. mentioned on her blog that she would be going meat-free for a week at the end of May, and invited her readers to join her. All of us who know her laughed and laughed and laughed. Let me put it this way: the first time I heard about L., I was reading about a dish she had created for a party - "bacon-wrapped bacon" (bacon wrapped around red-braised pork belly and roasted until the bacon renders out its fat and becomes crispy). She writes recipes like a Taiwanese beef noodle soup that calls for 3 pounds of beef shank ("serves 2, with leftovers") and once cooked us a 10-course Chinese feast that involved some form of pork in nearly every dish. If L. could go meatless for a week, so could I. It was a challenge, a throwing down of a gauntlet. I like a challenge.

I thought I would start with cooking my way through the odds and ends cluttering up my fridge. I always buy vegetables, in a half-hearted attempt to eat a bit more healthily, and leave them until they wilt and shrivel into brittle shadows of their former selves. Now they were all I had. There was some asparagus and a few tomatoes; I would stir-fry the asparagus and use some of it in a couscous salad for lunch during the week, then eat the rest with rice and eggs scrambled with tomatoes. I would keep eggs and dairy in my diet, call on the dishes from my childhood, the ones I returned to again and again when my mom went vegetarian for a year. There would be tofu, but no tempeh or seitan. I would not be eating quinoa or lentils.

After I had my simple dinner of eggs scrambled with tomatoes - one of the first things I learned how to cook - and asparagus over rice, I turned to the couscous salad. Loosely based on a recipe from Falling Cloudberries, I skipped the roasted tomatoes and cucumber and kept the mint, scallions, and chèvre. It was light and Spring-like and would do for the next couple days for lunch. A promising start to the week.

Friday, April 16, 2010

I think it’s a requirement for all Seattle Public Schools to go on a field trip to the Pike Place Market in 4th grade. I went with my 4th grade class twenty years ago, and a few weeks ago my friend accompanied her 4th grader to the market. The girls all got those spiral beaded thingies you twist around your hair so it looks like some fancy braid you got on the beach in Mexico. I’m pretty sure I had one twenty years ago, too.

All this talk about Jamie Oliver and his food revolution in schools has made me think about my own school lunches. Chicken fingers. Tater tots. Salisbury steak. I loved Salisbury steak. It came with mashed potatoes. I’m Chinese. We never ate things like that. I was in my teens before it occurred to me what made a grilled cheese sandwich extra tasty was frying it up in some butter instead of just sticking two pieces of bread and a slice of cheese in the toaster oven, and that white bread - which I never bought - was more delicious than wheat. And I always looked forward to chimichanga day. I kind of even liked the pizza.

School food has been terrible since there have been school cafeterias, with the exception of certain countries that prize food above economy (France comes to mind). I do remember an essay in Gourmet magazine called "In Praise of Boarding-School Fare" or something, but it was about life at Miss Porter's School in the 1950's and the standards that apply to an expensive girls' finishing/boarding school don't align with the public school system's. But somewhere along the way we lost the ability to feed ourselves.

It is easy to point fingers at the school system. But they are only part of a larger problem. When you come from an upper-middle-class household (as I did), the crap you eat in the school cafeteria (which was very foreign and exciting to someone who ate Chinese food 24/7; I was 24 before I owned a potato masher) is balanced out by the food you eat at home. I had parents who cared about food, and could afford to do so. What do you do if the best meal you have all day is the one you get at school? If your parents don’t care, or can’t afford, or don’t have time to cook at home? Teaching children is one thing - they are a captive audience, and you hope that at least something you throw at them will stick. But how do you educate people on how to feed their own kids? How do you teach them to care?

(Photo above taken at the Pike Place Market, Seattle, February 20, 2010).

Monday, February 15, 2010

Eating is a small, good, thing.

Friday morning I was grumbling about having to make two kinds of cupcakes for a work lunch on Monday. Then I found out that a friend's father-in-law had passed away, after a brief, brutal struggle with cancer. She and her partner went down to be with family as soon as they heard, and L. suggested that we leave food at their home - M. had a key and would be housesitting - for when they returned. Then I remembered what cooking is all about, ultimately - it is about love. Then I would bake for my coworkers and friends, and I would do it happily, with love.

Eating is a small, good thing at a time like this, wrote Raymond Carver in one of his short stories. People who write about food always bring up this line when they talk about grief, followed by a recipe for something soothing and comforting, a soup, perhaps, or some sort of cookie with a childhood story behind them. The instinct, when it comes to baking, is to make something sweet. I would be doing all that, because I had to make cupcakes anyway, but I wanted something savory. I had bacon in the fridge (home-cured and smoked by my friend L.), a wedge of cheese. Savory biscuits, then, with bits of bacon and shredded cheese. But how was I going to do this all in one day?

I started by measuring out dry ingredients for everything on Saturday night. I scooped out flours, leavenings, salt, cocoa powder, sugar, sifted them into plastic boxes. I made the filling for the black-bottom cupcakes, whipping together cream cheese, sugar, egg, a handful of chopped bittersweet chocolate. I counted eggs and diced sticks of butter, stacked boxes of dry ingredients and washed up dirty dishes. I would be organized, which does not come easily to me. I stopped short of pouring out buttermilk and oil and measuring out teaspoonfuls of vanilla and vinegar (which I should have done - I forgot the vinegar in the red velvet cupcakes).

In the morning I blended butter and lard into the biscuit "mix" with my hands, until flakes of dough appeared. In went buttermilk, crumbled bacon, grated cheese. Too much cheese. Oops. I scooped out the dough with the ice cream scoop that turned out to be too big. Oops. I grabbed the smaller scoop and redid the biscuits, making nine instead of six. Into the oven, and I ran off to get dressed before work. The biscuits emerged, twenty minutes later, golden brown and speckled with bits of smoky bacon, gooey with cheese. I set aside the four prettiest ones for my friends and ate two, quickly, before heading out to work.

Much later I boxed up my cupcakes and biscuits and put them in a bag. Eating is a small, good thing, I thought. I hoped my offerings would give a small measure of comfort.

Sunday, February 14, 2010


A few days ago, I was musing aloud about what to make for our Chinese New Year/Valentine's Day lunch on Monday. G. voted for her favorite black-bottom cupcakes. C. felt that a cupcake without frosting was not a cupcake, and voted for red velvet. G. shuddered at the thought of red food coloring. I began slamming my head against the wall. Actually, I yelled "FINE!" and decided to make both. I had to work on Sunday and go to dinner at a friend's house to celebrate the Chinese New Year, and somehow bake two kinds of cupcakes. This would require advance planning, which I always fail at, and I grumbled under my breath about ungrateful, picky eaters. On the other hand, it's a win-win situation for me, because I love both kinds.

I started Saturday night, measuring out flours and sugars and leavenings, making the cream-cheese filling for the black-bottom cupcakes. After work I come home and hit the ground baking. I've been thinking about this in my head all day - get the red velvet cakes in, and while they're baking mix together the black-bottom ones. I hit a stumbling block when I notice that the red velvet recipe makes 24 cupcakes. I thought it only made 12. Whoops. That's ok, moving on. I can clean up the kitchen while they bake. First tray goes in, comes out, second one goes in, I start making black-bottom cupcakes. The last bit of cream-cheese filling goes in just as the timer dings for the second tray of red velvet. I've found the groove, that moment when everything is coming together smoothly. I taste one of the first cupcakes, and it is soft and tender and moist, dusty rose-red (I used gel food coloring instead of liquid, and it hasn't quite turned out how I expected).

The black-bottom cupcakes look wonderful, deep-chocolate-y brown around a pale gold, chocolate-flecked cream cheese middle. I'm running short on time now, beating together cream cheese frosting for the red-velvet cupcakes, packing up some biscuits I'd made in the morning for friends, and spreading the frosting and putting everything together. It's time to go.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Toothless in Seattle.

Friday, after years of putting it off, I had all four wisdom teeth removed, a process involving many, many drugs. I went home with a bottle of some Ensure-like product (theoretically vanilla-flavored) and instructions to eat soft foods, avoid carbonation, drinking through a straw, and smoking. That would be easy. The fridge was stocked with vanilla ice cream and sweet-potato congee. These, along with a bottle of strawberry milk, got me through the first evening, a haze of sweet milky drinks and blood-soaked gauze. My mother laughs at me, because I have no memory of paying for the surgery, or making the follow-up appointment.

Saturday passes in a stream of vanilla milkshakes. I get bored with plain vanilla, and, noticing the instructions to eat "healthy" foods chop up a banana and throw it into the blender. Better. I have a bowl of congee, thick with the starchy sweetness of sweet potatoes, and a bowl of soup made with pork broth and half-moon slices of Daikon radishes. By now I am desperately craving crisp-skinned fried chicken, potato chips, bacon cheeseburgers, all things crunchy and salty. It has only been a day and I am already longing for my sore mouth to heal, even as I remind myself that I am lucky that all I have is a slight soreness, not even worth taking a painkiller.

Sunday, I make myself a banana-chocolate-malt milkshake (delicious) and another bowl of congee. Even though it is all tasty, it begins to pall. I want to chew again. I want to wallow in self-pity. I feel ashamed of my boredom, more so when friends arrive, bearing gifts of soft, tender food. L. brings sopa de malanga, a creamy soup of taro root, its thick sweetness tempered with the bite of garlic. She brings a giant hunk of chocolate cake leftover from her birthday party the day before, so tender, moist, and light it barely qualifies as solid food. While I am spooning down the wonderful soup, the other L. arrives, with homemade butterscotch pudding. It is not too sweet, with the soft smokiness of real Scotch whiskey underscoring the lovely dark taste of brown sugar, and I can't stop eating it, either.

It is such a comforting feeling, warm and somehow humbling, to have people care for you, cook for you, make sure that you have tasty treats that can be eaten without chewing. I feel so grateful for my friends, and my mother, who made me change the date of my surgery so she could be here while I was recovering. I have been so accustomed to being alone and taking care of myself, that to have others stepping in feels like the lifting of a burden I didn't realize existed, and I am so thankful.