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avocados

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I used to hate avocados. Now I crave them. Who dreams about chicken salad sandwiches with avocado, kosher salt, and fresh garlic, I ask you? Short answer: Me. Long answer: Meeeeeee.

Okay, I guess it didn’t happen out of the clear blue. One of my theatre colleagues makes homemade guacamole. Now, normally that ubiquitous dip is an under-seasoned, nauseous-colored mush, dense enough to crowbar into a plastic jug and sell as spackle. His is tender, if that makes any kind of sense, and he’s liberal with the fresh garlic. He also brings it to post-show bacchanals, leaves it right in the big charcoal-grey mortar where it was made. People go crazy. Actors tend to be hungry as it is, and they descend upon this like…well, like hungry actors. And one day I grabbed a chip and muscled my way in.*

Last week I bought two avocados. One went toward the aforementioned chicken salad. I stuffed it into a really fresh, smooshy pita** and it was incredible.

Today I tried a friend of a friend’s idea: avocado smeared on whole-grain bread, with kosher salt and sliced red onion. Also a win. Crunchy sea salt would probably be addictive.

What should I make next?

*It took a while.

**I live in an area with a large Syrian Jewish population, they eat a lot of pita, and they would never put up with the dreck on supermarket shelves.

lucky

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For the past few Marches I’ve made soda bread. Wildly delicious breakfast.

I started out using traditional recipes from Gourmet Magazine* and Linkedin, tender, buttery, raisiny ones. Then last year I decided to get all cocky and do riffs off the usual recipes.

The below is last year’s oeuvre, with a big handful each of dried cherries and dark chocolate chunks. It worked. I’d do it again. And, no, I never slice these dudes.

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Pulled-off chunks taste way better.

This year’s idea clocked me upside the head while in the car, just a few minutes from my place.** I’d thought I’d go with a tropical theme, with dried pineapple or mango, toasted coconut, and rum. It’s a solid idea, and it’s still in the running for next year. Stick around.

Then I thought, no, I’ll stay really, really close to the heart, soul, and fisherman sweaters of the Irish, and use Baileys Irish Cream somehow. I toyed with making a glaze out of it. When I heard a howl of brogue coming from across the pond, I got a mite shaky and poured this lovely stuff right into the dough—halved the buttermilk called for, and made up the difference with Baileys.

The broguey howl mercifully shifted in character and pitch, and sounded a lot more appreciative.

I also threw in a cup of raisins that I had soaked in a combination of hot water and my homemade vanilla extract*** until they plumped up, and dark chocolate that got a very rough chop. Shamelessly big chunks. If you’re gonna do it, you know.

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Do I seem obsessed with chocolate?

Warm out of the oven, this quite knocked me out—vanilla and chocolate in such a grownuppy way, with creamy, boozy, mesmerizingly fragrant undertones. It worked.

OH, and kindest regards to my #1 Irish fan. Brendan, hope I did you proud! :)

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*God rest its soul.

**Most accidents happen near the home. Look it up.

***Because I was out of Jameson.

the rules (2)

No preliminaries from Little Miss Chatterbox this time. Let’s go:

1) Be skeptical of any dessert served with an amorphous heap on top—whipped cream, raspberry sauce, spark plugs, whatever. It usually means the kitchen is trying to distract you. Remember: if the dessert could stand on its own, it would.

2) Smile at your restaurant server even if he or she doesn’t smile back.

3) If you loved your meal, send your thanks to the kitchen. It’s not pretentious or old-fashioned; expressing appreciation will never be thus.

4) If your Filipino friend invites you to an authentic Filipino meal made by her mom, say yes.

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Lumpiang shanghai—homemade spring rolls filled with ground pork, carrots, and onions. Piping hot and crisp. I couldn’t stop eating them, which was rude because my hosts and friends kept trying to engage me in conversation, but I got a little delirious with these.

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This is is monggo, and lovely comfort food. Beans, broth, shrimp, and vegetables. Again, I needed to exercise better portion control and likely didn’t.

5) If a friend who grew up in Wisconsin tells you that a local ice cream place is fantastic, go.

6) Never refuse a cookie made from scratch.

7) When in a burger joint or chain restaurant, don’t order the pasta. Doesn’t matter if the place has an Italian-sounding name.

8) It’s okay to hate marshmallow Peeps and Cadbury Creme Eggs. Get in line with me. We’ll hang out.

9) Always pull over to buy lemonade from kids selling it in front of their houses.

10) When trying an exotic dish for the first time, make sure the people preparing it know it like they know how to inhale and exhale.

11) Own a copy of The Joy of Cooking. Every single standard dish is in there, and it’s plainly written.

12) Eat fruits and vegetables when they’re in season and you’ll find out how they’re really supposed to taste. Watermelon delivered to New Jersey in March is, for example, a disgrace. In August, purchased locally, it’s celestial.

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Organic Sugar Baby.

13) Shop at farmers’ markets. Ask questions. The guy behind the fold-out table most likely grew those sweet grilling peppers himself and loves talking about them.

14) Recognize that your tastes can change. Something you used to hate might taste very differently to you today—or you simply might learn that you hate broccoli when roasted, but love it when steamed.

15) Put your hands in soft bread dough at least once. Making bread is easy. Really really.

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Babka dough…on the rise.

16) Just because a recipe looks difficult to make doesn’t mean it is, or that you won’t enjoy every second of making it.

17) When traveling, eat where the locals eat for the best value and flavor. If you want fancy, ask a local butcher where to eat; he or she will know which restaurants buy the best cuts. If you want simple and hearty, ask a policeman where to eat.

18) Along the same lines, try foods that the place is known for. Taste an artichoke in Rome, heather honey in Scotland, flying fish on Barbados, sharp white cheddar in Vermont.

19) Go strawberry picking. Go anything picking. Wear decent shoes. Flip flops aren’t.

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20) Own a proper set of knives. They should be weighted evenly, with the metal running straight through the handle. I firmly maintain that if you own cooking equipment that you don’t have to fight, you’ll enjoy cooking far more.

21) On the other hand, don’t spend much for ordinary things. An aluminum muffin tin has a design that’s hard to foul up. I bought a few sets for something like $7 at an ex-boyfriend’s sister’s garage sale in 2006. I also bought a hand mixer for five bucks. Both were at least 10 years old when I got them and they’re still chugging along fine.

22) Try different ingredients together, different textures together. If you don’t like it, so what? You can always chuck it if it doesn’t work out. Or you might come up with something wildly groovy.

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This was a weirdo idea I had for a breakfast sandwich: roasted local peaches with my fresh ricotta, basil leaves, and a drizzle of honey. It was too sweet. Next time I’m going to try balsamic vinegar instead of the honey.

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My honeysuckle syrup. One to one with plain vodka over ice was OUT of this world.

23) Eat with your hands. Not at a posh spot with your district manager, but as often as you can. It will taste differently. It’s grounding.

24) Find out what’s growing wild in your backyard, research it, and be clear on it. I’d bet there’s something edible there you can throw into your salad.

25) Eat good-quality chocolate, pure maple syrup (Grade B!), fresh garlic. Spread Irish butter on your English muffin. (Sure, they’ll be fighting in spirit, but in your mouth it’ll be divine.)

26) Try making pumpkin muffins with fresh-baked pumpkin at least once.

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Above: Cinderella pumpkins; below, cheese pumpkins. Highly recommended.

27) When at a Jewish deli, order the hot pastrami sandwich.

28) If you ever come across a cold bottle of sarsaparilla, try it.

29) Ditto for homemade hot chocolate. Ix-nay on the blue packets.

30) Adding a little sprinkle of sea salt to the top of homemade brownies, truffles, chocolate-dipped figs, and peanut butter fudge gives them a happy little punch.

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the running of the sap

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In late winter into early spring, the warmer days and cold nights cue maple trees to get their sap moving up into the branches for bud production. It’s also the brief window of time in which maple syrup producers work night and day to get sap extracted from trees, boiled down into syrup, and bottled. They’re scrambling this year, because the extended cold weather here on the east coast of the USA has pushed off the season. Once spring weather hits, it’s over for the year.

Yesterday I went with my sister and brother-in-law to the western end of New Jersey where maple syrup collecting is a hobby; we don’t have scads of sugar maples (the variety that produces the sweetest sap) the way our northern states and Canada do. Shame, because I could totally see myself doing this for a profession, despite the fact that I was crap at science.

In the meantime, groovy class. Bundle up.

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Allison the instructor showed us three pots of sap in various stages of reduction. You want to get the water out, to get down to the essence of this stuff. This is the sap after just a bit of boiling; it’s faintly tinged with brown.

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Here’s another pot of sap after longer boiling.

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This one’s almost ready to rock.

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Next we headed out to the sugar bush, the name for the cluster of tappable trees. Although, a woodpecker got to this tree first.

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A 100-year-old sugar maple, with ancient tapping scars.

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Another old tree. Sap running down its bark many years ago stained it black.

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Sap bucket.

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The sap is clear, icy cold, and very faintly sweet. We got a taste of it coming right out of the tree. Bloody awesome.

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A bucket lid keeps out random things that float in the air. Wild coincidence that Canadians made these, huh?

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An old-fashioned hand drill. Far cooler, although much less efficient, than a power drill.

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It has a wooden handle and knob. How cool is this thing?

The syrup in the jar at the top is the product of trees tapped right on the property; it’s single-origin (from one region) syrup. It was offered for comparison along with a commercially-sold brand of pure maple syrup and a popular brand name featuring brown-tinted corn syrup and a woman in a babushka. I thought the syrup made on the property was the best. But admittedly I gave the babushka the snub.

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Oh, and then since we were only 20 minutes outside of Princeton, we hit the bent spoon, which, as I posted to my friends, kicks every ice cream ass there is. The proprietors do their own tapping of local resources whenever possible, supporting local farmers and growers. This is chocolate Port and coconut ice cream. A knockout.

 

I’m not a whiner by nature, disclaimer, sometimes it’s good to get things off your chest, disclaimer disclaimer, so you don’t explode, disclaimer.

Chefs, writers, I love you. But not all of you.

Expressions

1) Mouth-feel. We already have a perfectly serviceable word: texture. And it does not call to mind tiny fingers wiggling around on your tongue and in your cheeks, like something Steven Moffat might dream up after his fourth Rusty Nail.

2) Wash it down with. I think of a hose aimed downward, at everything I ate. Tasty image.

3) Grab lunch.* Just cliche. Put it in the same Glad 3-ply with ‘boom’ and ‘bucket list.’

4) Fusion. I spoke with a chef recently who said it’s short for ‘confusion.’ Some make a thoughtful effort to harmonize dissimilar ingredients and techniques.** Others artfully arrange leftovers on a glossy white plate and call themselves geniuses.

Foods and Irritating Substances Pretending to be Foods

1) Greek Yogurt–0% Fat

I know I’m in the minority with this one, but I’ve tried every kind I could find, and they all taste like wallpaper paste. Full fat, now–these are incredible. I love the Honey variety made by The Greek Gods, which is what I suppose they do when not boffing mortal females***; and an Apricot-Mango kind I found this morning. It was amid the 0% and low fat kinds, and I didn’t even think to read the label carefully until I had the first spoonful in my mouth. The second ingredient is cream. Swoonable. Just bloody fattening.

2) Chocolate-Dipping Everything Not Tied Down

Edamame? Et tu, Trader Joe’s?

3) Ditto, but Wrapping, and with Bacon

4) Processed Doughnuts Covered with Processed Cereal and Filled with Icing

This was in the news this week. It bears repeating only as an example of a vomitizing waste of energy and a wicked sharp choice for my list here. Reminds me of an episode of ‘Roseanne’ in which the couple is unloading their junk-food groceries and Roseanne remarks, ‘Hey, Dan? Did you ever notice we eat like our parents are away for the weekend?’

More lists to follow. Charm me, food trenders! I can’t wait.

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I’m just putting this here because I made these today and they turned out great. They don’t relate to anything. Meatball Parm sliders! Yay!

*This expression and the previous one are courtesy of my sister, who’s grossed out by both.

**Just kidding, guys, seriously, your yogurt tastes like butter cream. It’s a knockout. Carry on.

***Shameless plug for my pal Casey’s family: His dad’s wife is French trained and Japanese, and her pastries are glimmering examples of careful, ordered fusion that works (patisserietomoko.com).

the kids are alright (2)

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Two upper-classman girls helping a freshman into her costume belt.

I’ve worked with kids for half my life, usually nursery school kids, and usually in the classroom. About 10 years ago I started working with teenagers in theatre. Then things got a little nutty. I mean, I stopped getting barfed on*, but I inadvertently added in drama onstage, drama backstage (if you want real drama), and much illumination.

Adults like to moan about the shortcomings of kids, and teens in particular. This is nothing new. Back in 20 BC Horace was kvetching to the same tune, and it hasn’t stopped yet. Yeah, there’s vanity and techno obsession and laziness among teens. But so is there among adults. I’ve worked with both backstage, and quite honestly? If I were to assemble a dream team of ideal colleagues**, the scale would tip heavily in favor of the teens. In my experience crewing roughly four shows a year, they’re the reliable, enthusiastic, and hardworking ones. Most consistently.

They’re also fascinating—wonderfully, sometimes heartbreakingly, candid. I like to engage them, and am humbled to be rewarded with a lot of trust.

Everyone wants to feel seen.

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Actors waiting on stage right for their entrance cue.

Story time. Seriously, I have tons. And I haven’t forgotten this is primarily a food blog. Don’t worry; food and teenagers are inextricably linked.

…There was the boy who spent most of his time grinning and jumping off things—easily the most high-octane kid I have ever worked with. Once, after he told me about a beef stir-fry he’d made and was very proud of, he revealed to me—still grinning—that he was a hemophiliac. He hated feeling captive by it and knew risking injury was stupid, but said it kept him sane—like giving the disease the middle finger from time to time.

…Seeing two freshman girls reassure, and embolden, and wipe the tears from an eighth-grade girl’s cheeks when a classmate had said something mean to her.

…The girl who loved acting but became almost paralyzed with stage fright. She said once she got out there, she would forget her nervousness and enjoy herself. So every night at places, she would come to me and I would say, ‘You just have to make it for 10 more minutes. In 10 minutes you’ll be fine.’ A year later I bought a ticket for the winter show, which she was stage managing for the first time. I went backstage to see her because I knew she was nervous. When she spotted me she squealed, ‘OH IT’S MARISA OH I’M SO GLAD YOU’RE HERE!’ And I reminded her that she’d be golden in 10 minutes.

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Lest they forget.

…The boy who raced down the hallway with a pan of brownies, stopped in his tracks, held the pan out to me so I could pull off a piece, then kept going. He didn’t speak because his mouth was stuffed.

…The girl whose mother died just a few days before the run of the show. I was stunned when she arrived to rehearse. The staff said she did not want to talk about her mom yet, but just wanted business as usual. And every single kid in the show respected it. Every now and again I’d see one of them walk past and squeeze her shoulder, but not say a word.

…Once I brought in a big box of homemade cookies, and another day a bigger box of chocolate truffles. I have no pictures because crumbs and empty candy cups dusted with cocoa powder don’t make stellar shots.

…I asked two students what topics they chose for their senior theses: (1) the history of the transgender movement; 2) the wisdom—or folly—of knowing the future, with citations from the movie Dune and Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five). How cool is that, really?

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Costumes for set dressing.

…I asked an actor where he was from, and he told me Virginia. A few minutes later he asked what my last name was. I told him, and asked why he wanted to know. He said he wasn’t sure what he should call me. I assured him he could call me by my first name. He grinned a sheepish grin and fidgeted a little, and said he thinks he’d feel better calling me Ms. Procopio. This was new. Then I remembered: he’s southern. :)

…One actor confided he wasn’t sure he wanted to go to college, and was on the outs with his family about it. He also confided an injury, and when he came up with a new way to dance that kept him from pain he was so excited to share it.

…I learned that the kids who are the shining stars, the most charismatic, the most beautiful, need more TLC and a shoulder to lean on more often than the average kids.

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My most recent crew kids liked to mark the number that was next up so they could look ahead to their cues. They were new to crewing, and I’ve never seen this idea in action before. It’s a good one.

…Asking a sound tech who studied in Spain for a year to tell me what he ate there. His eyes lit up as he told me about octopus eaten at every meal, about fresh anchovies skewered in fire and smoked, and how they charred, and crackled in his teeth. He was from Oklahoma, though I couldn’t tell from his accent (though it explains why he called me ‘ma’am’ when he first met me). He spoke glowingly about game-hunting and how he can tell from the taste of the venison if the deer nibbled trees a lot: ‘It tastes twiggy.’

…High-fiving an actor every night when he came off stage for not incinerating the building in a scene in which he held a Zippo up to a travel-sized can of hairspray. An admirable accomplishment.

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Actors will be actors. Dressing room tidiness.

…When I complimented another kid, from Korea, on the stones it takes to go to school halfway across the world when you’re only 14, and asked why he did it, he said, ‘Do you want the brutal truth?’ I said yeah. And he replied that kids in his home country were expected to study 8-12 hours a day, and by going to school in the U.S. he could do ‘all this,’ and waved his arms across the stage. ‘It’s much better,’ he said. A little later he went to the concession table, bought two Sprites, and gave me one.

…The crew girl who hurdled actors and set pieces to make her cue on time. She lost her house in Hurricane Sandy and was displaced for a year while her family built a new house, but was unfailingly upbeat and worked just as hard as she ever had. She would be on my dream crew.

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A crew girl waiting, tie line in hand, to pull at her cue.

*To be fair, that only happened to me once. Poor kid.

**Because regardless of age, that’s what they are, since we’re all working toward the same goal: a good production.

fire & ice

As the days begin to lengthen, the cold begins to strengthen. Right now it’s 12 degrees F at the New Jersey Shore, and everyone on Facebook is comparing our temperature to that of Anchorage, AK (32F) and Davis Station, Antarctica (31F). It’s totally whack.

I’ve been staying warm working backstage which, with the stage lights lending their colorful gusto, is about 85 degrees. Outside, the ice has been a femme-fatale combo platter of treacherous and strikingly beautiful. Most people don’t stoop to take pictures of the snowflakes trapped in the ice at the bottom of their driveways.

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But I’m not most people.

And a recent fire destroyed some of the stores and homes in Ocean Grove. I did my laundry in the laundromat a few doors down. It was intact, but smelled strongly of smoke. People did what they did when 9/11 struck and when Hurricane Sandy struck: wandered a little, stunned; collected provisions for those who has lost their own; and cleaned up. Water from the fire hoses froze in the trees in the foreground—an eerily beautiful counterpoint to the burned debris behind them.

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And I’ve been in the kitchen, for a change. I love Valentine’s Day, and filled orders for European-style chocolate truffles (55% semisweet Ghirardelli chocolate, cream, and sweet butter rolled in cocoa powder or topped with fleur de sel). I am told hearts were warmed, which makes me happy.

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And I made marzipan. The candy hearts were sold at The Flaky Tart in the Atlantic Highlands, NJ.

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The Japanese maple branches and dragonflies (detail below) were pitches for Confections of a Rock$tar in Asbury Park…

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…along with a little (2″) dinosaur egg. This little guy warms my heart, as he did for the shop proprietor. Hey, it’s almost hatching season.

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