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the american black walnut

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Project: Crack Open Black Walnuts. Me: Luke Skywalker trying to infiltrate the Death Star. A lot—a LOT—of little Death Stars.

I’m writing this on the night before the U.S. inauguration, trying to keep my mind occupied with something more positive than the impending event. Bear with me.

Last October I dragged a Hefty bag containing some three gallons of local black walnuts upstairs to my apartment. Then I began what was a month-long, three-part combo platter: 1) Husk the green hulls and contend with the damp, inky-brown insides. 2) Dry (and turn daily). 3) Crack and pick.

Item 1 took me about an hour and a half, sitting on the floor of my kitchen while wearing rubber gloves which soon ripped at the tips. That was just to remove the top hulls.

Item 2 required turning over the damp nuts every day to allow even drying. I sliced open the Hefty bag and used it as a tarp, setting it by a radiator.

Item 3 took the better part of two days, and truthfully? I still have a half gallon to go. Once I had about a half-pound of nuts shelled for a pastry chef who has visions of (holy cow, get ready) tarts filled with chocolate, caramel, and black walnuts, and topped with whipped cream infused with white pine needles (they taste like wintergreen; still have to get that for him) and candied kumquats, I stopped. I mean, I toasted the little guys, popped them into a sandwich-sized Ziploc, and stashed them in the fridge.

That’s the really abridged version of Item 3, by the way. You might be thinking you crack black walnuts with a basic nutcracker and fish out the nuts easily, as you would on Thanksgiving, stuffed and semi-catatonic. Oh, how wrong you would be.

Loyal reader Angie, retired Kentucky farm girl, tells me that in the ’50s and ’60s her family used to back the family truck over the nuts just to get the green outer husk off. This just goes to show you how tough the bad boys are underneath. Angie’s mom, come Item 3, would use a hammer and nail to open the nuts. I used a cutting board, a dishtowel, and a brick.

Wrap the nut in the dishtowel, set it on the cutting board, and clobber it once, with good spring back, to split it. Think Thor and his hammer. Many’s the time it doesn’t crack the first time, or the second, or the third. The goal is to hit it hard enough to open it, but not so hard that you crush everything inside. It took me about five minutes per nut to open it and pick the meat out. (I used a vintage fondue spear.) This is why black walnuts are $14/pound.

I told friends that my neighbors, hearing the erratic pounding over several hours, were probably wondering if I’m perhaps nailing together an armoire very, very slowly. That was the sound.

Raw, the nuts have a strange flavor. I wrote to Angie and said, ‘Are they supposed to taste like a garage?’ She about laughed her posterior off. I mailed her some to taste. She told me they were perfect, that she had not had them in decades, and loved them. I toasted them and was surprised to find not only that it immeasurably changed the flavor, but that they had sorta grown on me.

Matt (the pastry chef) is getting the lion’s share; I’m giving Angie some more (I know you have to go easy on them, A); and the rest are for me. I’ll work on them again sometime next week, leaving my neighbors to wonder how big that fekakte armoire could possibly be.

This project also helped keep in sharp focus that I am an American, delivered to this sacred ground by ancestors who left their homelands for my benefit, so I could be in a place where I could steer my own life. We don’t yield. It’s our birthright. It’s the whole point of this place. My back is sore, my cutting board is permanently pocked, my dishtowel is stained and nearly shredded. But I got what I was after.

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An American black walnut.

the sweet life

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Toad-In-The-Hole, an egg, sausage, and rosemary dish baked inside Yorkshire pudding batter. My recipe was a gift from a Manchester, UK reader, and it’s so deliriously satisfying that I will never make another.

Hygge (pronounced like a tugboat’s horn: HOO-gah) is a old Danish word that’s difficult to translate into English. My best definition: It’s the well-being that results from surrounding oneself with comfort, safety, and, if Pottery Barn has anything to say about it, off-white bouclé throw pillows.

I’m not knocking Pottery Barn, mind you; once I learned about hygge, I realized my own North Star has been leading me toward the concept all my life, including my love for that store’s aesthetic, which is totally doable without the price tag. The New York Times recently advised people who were seeking hygge to take the following as a Step One: ‘Go home, and stay there.’ A fair starting point.

As someone who can get overwhelmed easily—a door prize from my childhood—I will probably always gravitate toward hygge. The photos below show some of my favorite things to eat to feel soothed and safe, but this is really a way of life, if you can swing it—a way to live more civilized life.

My methods (and you’ll have your own, and I would love to hear about them):

-Using only wooden, glass, or ceramic dishware. Plastic and metal are a no-go.

-Yoga every morning.

-Serving my most I’m-glad-you’re-here dessert to guests: a hot, fresh, fudgy brownie, a blop of melting homemade ice cream on top, served in a bowl.

-My fireplace, which is gas, but still way cool.

-Changing the feel of my place with every season; most recently, a fresh Christmas tree in my bedroom and vintage Advent calendars from my neighbor, long gone and much missed.

-Breathing in fresh cold air after a snowfall, and wearing my best snowball-making mittens from when I was 12 (I didn’t get much bigger).

-Foraging.

-Traveling on my bike as soon as it’s warm enough to, as much as I can.

-Getting virtually all of my furniture secondhand so it has a little soul to it. I find it in antiques stores, from friends, and from garage-sale lawns. I refinish it to make it my own, and sew my own pillows and curtains. (Not really good at it, but they hold together.)

-Vanilla extract made from vanilla beans and local vodka. Laundry detergent made from Borax, washing powder, and Ivory soap. Fresh herbs wrapped in cheesecloth and hung to dry.

-Reading the delicious essays in the weekend Times.

-Cooking from scratch. (Making sausage bread next. Yowza, and stay tuned.)

-Hanging my own work on the walls of my place—photography, drawings, and pebbles I’ve collected from all over the world.

-Very thick hot chocolate made with great-quality semisweet chips, milk (or make it with half milk, half cream, if you want to see me genuflect), and a smidge of cornstarch.

-It’s astonishing how much clutter stresses people out. I shoo it right out the door so it never has a chance to put up its feet.

-Relaxing in ten-year-old L.L. Bean flannel pajamas and blogging, like, say, right now.

-Laughing really hard with friends.

-Bringing a little bite of something good to share when I visit someone.

-Cooking to ABBA, or classical music, or the Mamas and the Papas, or The Cure. Any music.

-Celebrating Chocolate Day every third day (to stave off migraines), and eating organic dark chocolate on my favorite little 1960s-era plate that once belonged to my aunt.

-Opening the windows and leaving them open as soon as I can every season. I am happiest when the indoors feels as much like the outdoors as possible.

-Living where the ocean mist rolls down the streets on foggy mornings.

-The hiss and bubbling of old radiators.

-Feeling the charged energy in the air on Mischief Night and Christmas Eve.

-Reading fairy tales, different versions of each, and then studying the analyses of each. Scrumptious.

-Freshly laundered cotton sheets, a down comforter, and a cool, dark bedroom. A horizon I’m heading toward very soon.

Peace & love.

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Hot homemade sourdough bread with melting Kerrygold butter.

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Shepherd’s pie, properly made with lamb. The UK knows from hygge, even if it’s not their word. Chronically gloomy skies demand it to preserve the sanity of the people.

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Maple cream tart.

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Local apples on a reclaimed vintage farm bench.

 

 

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Mozzarella in carrozza, a grilled-cheese sandwich that’s battered before it’s fried.

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I think I put five pounds of apples in this dude. An avalanche of fruit every time I sliced it.

butter

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The holiday season is a cranium-clocker of a monkey wrench when you’re told to keep an eye on your sugar intake. Ten years or so ago I significantly lowered the amount I eat, but of late, have had to reduce it further. A treat now and then is fine, but when you bake a cake for yourself, that’s some ten or twelve treats. And if you only eat certain cakes once a year, and really look forward to them…well, let’s just say the treat quotient adds up.

I wasn’t about to bend on making my favorite holiday cakes. I have to have two—sour-cream cinnamon chocolate chip cake, and sour-cream coffee cake. I’d already reduced the sugar in them, and had for a few years. But now I either had to reduce it further, or go without. I think we both know what happened.

Solid recipes stand up to almost anything, thank goodness.

The result was surprising. When you’re already accustomed to tasting less of one thing, everything else on stage steps forward to mug for the audience. (This is why I rhapsodize about restaurants who have the stones to serve a plain dessert on a plate. It means they trust that it can hold its own without a pile of goo on top.) Going even further: Making a cake with far less sugar, even than usual, made the other ingredients pop that much more…and the biggest diva in this cast of ingredients was butter.

As I ate, I thought about the things in our lives that we’re used to doing, and the things we’re obliged to change for whatever reason. Granted, some things just don’t fly, and never will.*

But who among us, biting into warm homemade cake and eagerly awaiting the first hit of flavor, would snub butter?

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*Things That Don’t Work Despite Any Amount of Optimism
1. Driving while eating yogurt
2. Bruce Willis’s 1987 R&B album
3. Me wearing anything Empire-cut

more

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My Grapes of Wrath shot. Western meadow, Locust, NJ.

I got myself into a proverbial pickle this past weekend, working really hard and zipping all over the place for work, but forgetting to stock the larder. Well, part of it was Foodtown’s fault; I usually get ground turkey at Trader Joe’s, but the prospect of shopping there on December 23 (let alone Christmas Eve) put me in the cross-hairs for a panic attack. I love TJ’s, but not in December. A shopping trip there earlier this month compelled me to call the place a Ralph Lauren-encrusted Night of the Living Dead. With oversized tins of salted-caramel toffee.

So it was off to Foodtown, where they had ground turkey but with no price tag, and I had no energy to go to customer service to find out what it cost. I went home and did what my peasant forebears did: cobbled. Then gobbled. And gobbled well.

  1. Defrosted some chicken legs, made broth, and added bits of chicken. Dried leftover thyme went in next, and some soba noodles from my pantry shelf. Seriously capital stuff.
  2. Cut up leftover apples, mixed them with fresh cranberries and ground ginger, added oats and toasted walnuts, and made a huge pan of fruit crisp that I’m semi-embarrassed to admit that I destroyed in two days flat. Semi.

Then the craziest thing happened: The weekend kept surprising me, stretching everything that was lacking. And not just with food.

As I was halfway out the door, headed to the park to hike and take pictures, I realized I hadn’t recharged my camera battery since Hector was a pup. But it was too late to do it then; the sun had already started its decline and I couldn’t afford to lose any more light. I’d have to shoot until the battery burned out…and that might be after one shot. Or none. But it never happened. And I took nearly 30 shots.

And before I started out I remembered I needed gas. Gulped, kicking myself for not getting it the day before, because are gas stations even open on Christmas? My dashboard warning light had come on and I didn’t want to risk an hour drive, round trip, and then getting stranded while gas station workers (and everyone, really) were where they deserved to be—at home and drenched in eggnog. But first try, at my own hometown station, a guy was there. I filled up without another worry. Maybe he doesn’t like eggnog.

Even the sun hung in for me: When I arrived at the park the sun was still up but I felt it fading, and scrambled to shoot. Then out of nowhere it roared back, glowing a fierce amber and giving me another 15 minutes. I was shocked, but I shouldn’t have been by then. It’s as if the universe was saying no matter what little I have, it will stretch a bit further if I need it to.

Christmas is over and I made my way back to Foodtown (but not Trader Joe’s just yet, mind. We’re still shy of New Year’s Eve), but I’m not done cobbling in the kitchen with stuff from beforehand. I still have broth left. Guess what else I found? Two onions, bread chunks I saved in the freezer, and a wedge of Fontina.

2017 is on the horizon, and so is French onion soup.

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Many people have told me when they see this shot, they think of the Wizard of Oz. Minus the tornado. Locust, NJ.

road trip

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Along with food and props, I make maps for people—personal ones showing a physical or emotional journey. The above, a recent work, is my third. It was created for an unusually resilient couple: A few months back I approached my friend about making one for his wife. She is a fierce and loving mom to their little boy, who has autism. He is feisty and smart and charming, and he is often up at all hours and is non-verbal, so this family has its share of challenges as well as joys. The map was meant to serve as a sort of voice for him, showing his personality and the roads he takes every day with his mom, depicted on a 19.5 x 25.5 sheet of card stock.

As I was collecting information about this little guy, which included his favorite things, I was struck by how often food plays into his life.

Above, the header statement’s left and right borders are filled with tiny yellow rings. These are Cheerios. The base of the statement is lined with pretzels.

The puzzle pieces at the right of the map, detailed below, are a nod to the autism logo. They show Oreos, a sippy cup of juice, Goldfish crackers, and an apple. This kid has good taste.

And to make his mom laugh, I added a travel stop to Dunkin’ Donuts. She loves her coffee, and deserves every drop. 🙂

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stollen

Stollen

Short and sweet tonight, quite like the little number above. I love making stollen this time of year, and had some fun with the recipe, from The Joy of Cooking.

-Doubled the amount of raisins (I like a lotta fruit) and used orange rind instead of candied orange. Soaked them both in my homemade apple vodka to fatten them up.

-Decreased the amount of sugar to just two tablespoons and you couldn’t even tell. Although, now that I think about it, the apple vodka probably had a pretty solid hand in that.

-Used just shy of a stick of butter instead of the 1.75 sticks they called for. The dough was slippery as a politician in November even so. Wacky.

-I used half all-purpose flour plus half whole-wheat pastry flour in the dough. Again, couldn’t tell. I can’t imagine it would do much to counteract seven tablespoons of butter, but Lord knows I’m enjoying the pretense.

Took it out of the oven, ran an errand, got back a couple of hours later, and ate two slices just barely warm for lunch. It was tender and full of fruit, and had a crackly crust. On a chilly day—heck, on any day—it was profoundly soothing.

But I told my Facebook friends the hard truth.

Pros to living solo: having an entire stollen to yourself.
Cons to living solo: having an entire stollen to yourself.

pie five

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Flagrant imitation of a Four and Twenty Blackbirds shot. Their pies always look like the work of a New England grandma, made as geese fly overhead and honk faintly, wistfully, as wood smoke curls into the grey clouds.

My pies tend to be fruit based. Or homemade low-fat vanilla pudding + fruit based. This is because I’m usually the one eating my pies, and if I made pies like the above for myself, I’d be as big as a Boeing*. I made it for my friend Matt’s annual ‘Pie-Day Friday’ party**, for which he requested something that comprised his favorite combination, chocolate and peanut butter. This is also my own personal kryptonite, so I was happy to oblige him.

But it was strange, and not just because Martha Stewart’s recipe was written too loosely, and not just because her staff has a worrying obsession with writing recipes using off-sized baking pans that no one owns. It was odd to make a pie crust and fill it with peanut butter and chocolate, and no fruit at all. And they have you press in bits of homemade peanut brittle into the peanut butter. There was a lot of leftover brittle, so I ignored the instruction to drizzle more peanut butter on top (which was easy to ignore, as I don’t own a microwave to melt it, and warming it in a pan just burns it and makes your house smell like the boiler room at J.M. Smucker. Hypothetically speaking.) and instead I just stuck more pieces of brittle around the edges, Stonehenge style. It was odd, and all told, it was honestly less of a pie than a giant round candy bar.

But conversation noticeably dried up for a little while while the guests ate it, so I know it went over well.

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It didn’t call for fleur de sel, either, but there it is.

*Wüsthof-sharp analogy that will be dated embarrassingly soon, like circa Thursday morning, so I hope you’re reading this is in a timely fashion.

**The invitation said to bring leftover pie from Thanksgiving or to bring a new one. I asked Matt, a prosecutor, ‘But if we all walk in with pies, wouldn’t that leave you with still more leftover pie, necessitating yet another pie party?’ He replied, ‘Tell no one you have unraveled our scheme.’