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hot mess

On my kitchen counter I keep a little stack of recipes that I’ve torn out of my weekend New York Times. Some, like Caribbean-style ribs, look astoundingly delicious, but I’m never going to make that just for myself or I’d eat them all and they’ve have to cut me out of my apartment through the window, the way they move grand pianos out of pre-war walk-ups in the city. Recipes like that I file away for when I cook for company. For me, I do simple but powerful.

A couple of days ago for dinner I pulled just such a recipe from the stack, a spicy open-faced sandwich from Mumbai called Eggs Kejriwal. The ingredients are fairly normal, but together sound maniacal: cilantro, Cheddar cheese, red onion, a chile pepper…and mustard? Then you top it off with a fried egg and serve it with ketchup? I did it all but the ketchup, which seemed like double overkill at the time (but now that I think about it, next time I’ll give it a whirl).

You butter both sides of a slice of Pullman bread and sizzle it up in a pan until it’s lightly browned. Then you top it with the mustard, the cheese, and the rest of the veg. Pop it under the broiler until the cheese melts. In the meantime, fry the egg. You can use the same pan. Top the slice of bread with your egg, add cracked black pepper, and go to town. It’s gooey, it’s drippy, and it makes you cry, but in a good way. A perfect dinner.

The cilantro and egg I got fresh from the farm; the latter came right out from under the hen and was still warm. The recipe calls for a serrano chile. But Tom at the farm is a friend of mine and gave me a ghost pepper for free*, so I cut up a teensy bit and added that. The ghost pepper, also known as Bhut Jolokia, is the hottest chile produced, doing the Watusi at around 1,000,000 Scovilles. I keep it in my fridge crisper where it’s likely antagonizing the leftover cilantro. Adding just a 1/4 teaspoon of ghost pepper at a time pretty much assures I’ll have it until Halloween. Appropriate.

Boo.

*With apologies to Billy Joel. You Gen Xers know what song that sounds like.

elegy in sugar

I’m going to talk about friendship, loss, and candy. It’s a tall and improbable order and it’s also late at night, but I’m going to try anyway. Let me know how I did.

Once upon a time there were two families whose houses were just a few yards away. The kids were pretty close. Holiday parties, birthday parties, in and out of each other’s houses, falling out of each other’s trees, playing Atari and street games until dark, waiting for the school bus.

The two boys in the two families were especially tight. When the green-haired clown at one kid’s birthday party would call him up to the stage, the other would go up in his place. Not just once, either. No one ever really figured out why, but it was pretty funny.

One time, while talking on the phone, one of the little guys was eating jelly beans and wanted to share with the other, so he put a jelly bean on the receiver. It didn’t work and he was bummed. They were pretty young.

And remember when we all had land lines, and when you called someone, there was a split second before the phone rang? Once one of the boys picked up the phone and dialed the other…who was right there on the other end in that split second, ready to call as well.

The little girls in the one family delivered, then got older and made and delivered, holiday bread to the other family. This has persisted, without fail, since the late 1960s.

Everyone grew up, as these things go. The boy in the one family married, moved across the state, and became a dad to three daughters. One of the girls in one of the families became a kitchen fiend, the kind who makes Grandma-style treats and talks about it a lot. Once she made Martha Stewart’s recipe for marshmallows, which makes eleventy-hundred of them, and gave the boy some for his three daughters.

Suddenly the boy with the three daughters fell sick and didn’t recover. I know it looks like I just dropped that into the story out of the clear blue sky, but that’s actually how it happened. Everyone was blindsided. The families, both of them, kind of went numb, as these things go, too. At the wake the kitcheny girl spent a good amount of time wiping her eyes and hugging his dad and his sister. And she met his three daughters, now teenagers, for the first time.

In the hallway of the funeral home were cards on which visitors were asked to write a favorite memory of the boy. The kitcheny girl remembered, in writing, the time she asked him if his daughters might like some homemade marshmallows. How could she forget? His reply was, ‘…Is this a trick question?!’

His sister said goodbye with a last hug and said, “Allie, Vicki, and Stephie remembered you. They said, ‘It’s the Marshmallow Girl!'”

Life’s story, right? We’re lucky if it starts sweet and ends sweet.

RIP Johnny.

laissez-faire

It’s beautiful weather now, and has been for a few days. But this month, for a good long spell, the weather was blazing, and every brand-new flower and fruit was gasping along with us humans. The pastry chef I work with was panicking that he’d lose mulberry season either to the heat or occasional sudden downpour, and I scampered out to pick the first round for him as soon as I could. And they were pretty small and dry, sure enough.

I had the same concerns about elderflowers and honeysuckle, which share the season with mulberries. Today I picked one of the last of the elderflowers and what must have been the last in reach. These shrubs love watery areas, which means I risk tumbling into a marsh, and/or usually have to contend with other shrubs around them, which I try to avoid traversing because I’m afeared of ticks. The flowers are a little dry, too. And I’m sure the honeysuckle will be as well. Doesn’t take much for them to shrivel.

Once the irritation/guilt at not getting my butt outside to pick them faster because work runs me ragged, etc., passed, I thought I’d just go with it. Why fight it?

So they’re dry. I’d pick them anyway, let them keep right on drying, and make tea with them. Never did that before. And I think honeysuckle and elderflower tea might go down pretty nicely in the raw of January blizzards.

While snooping the banks for reachable elderflowers tonight in Asbury Park, a city so eccentric that no one blinks at anything remotely weird (the reputation is eerily accurate, and whew to that), I saw what looked like old rose canes, and what looked like rose hips on them. Then I remembered it’s June, and rose hips don’t show up until August. A wineberry. I was close; they’re in the same family. Tasted one. No, not tart enough. They’re dark…it’s a blackberry. No, too small—and they come off hollow inside like a raspberry. Because that’s what they are.

As if as soon as I decided just to go with whatever nature happened to be, dry or not, and quit whimpering about it, the universe rewarded me. Here’s a cookie. Better than that.

Would you believe I found wild black raspberries tonight?

strawberry festival

I’ve been eating strawberries close to three meals a day for the past week. This time of year we must, and must not apologize, because winter is long, my friends. Often enough it’s berries in a bowl with plain yogurt, but I also made two recipes to take me through breakfast with aplomb.

The top is a Martha recipe, originally written to accompany late-season summer fruits (which it does very well), but it sure doesn’t hurt with June’s best, either. This is a nubbly, buttery, tender pound cake that calls for semolina flour, ground almonds, and my favorite spice, cardamom. I didn’t slice the berries because I’m a heathen, but you could. Someday I’ll try the cake toasted with butter, but for now, it’s been soaking up berries and some of that plain yogurt, making it lovely and pink and damp.

Then there’s my never-miss, never fail traditional strawberry shortcake. The recipe is from my 1968 Time-Life cookbook, American Cooking. It’s the author’s grandmother’s, and she used to make it with woodland strawberries that grew in the brambles on her farm in upstate New York. I try not to think about how deliriously good it would be with wild strawberries and just take what I have, which is fine enough indeed. (Though I can’t lie: when I someday get my hands on woodland strawberries, their fate is sealed with this recipe.)

Take a hot, fresh, homemade buttermilk biscuit. Split it with two forks, butter the fluffy insides, close it back up, set it in a bowl, and top with sugared strawberries and cold fresh cream. Sweet fancy Moses, but that’s a good breakfast.

Okay, the below isn’t a strawberry recipe or any recipe for that matter, but I thought you’d dig it. In fact, disclaimer: all but the very top pastry (a chocolate-covered cream puff) are pretend. I made this tray last week for a production of ‘The Drowsy Chaperone,’ carried by the goofbally Gangster Bakers. They say stuff like ‘You biscotti be kidding me,’ ‘You’re really in truffle!’ and ‘One cannoli hope.’ I could go on, but I don’t want to lose readers. There are fortune cookies, too, containing theatre platitudes I made up like ‘Cold free pizza is still pizza.’

Made of craft foam, white Model Magic, homemade play dough, glue, gel paste, paper, and paint. I guess technically that’s a recipe. Got a bang out of making this, and there’s muffin you can do about it. 🙂

never say die

For a dozen years I had as a neighbor an Army veteran, borough fire chief (in the 1950s), a gardener who outlived two wives, and one of the last true outdoorsmen from the Greatest Generation. He loved canoeing as a kid in the 1930s and said he knew every stream and byway of Deal Lake. He taught kids how to fish on Sandy Hook when he was in his eighties. He showed me the secret patch of beach plums that he’d been visiting every year since childhood, at first with his mother, and then on his own, to get fruit for his favorite jam. He hunted wild turkey every Thanksgiving week, teaching me all about those very smart and very fast birds, and swearing they made the best soup in the world. He’d wave at me from his tiny front porch, pushing 90 years old, and call out, ‘Still here.’

When he went into the hospital for a couple of weeks, he told me to help myself to anything I wanted in the little 10×10′ garden he planted between his house and detached garage, and I loved pulling sweet baby carrots for dinner. When I’d bring him a piece of coffee cake I made with my wild mulberries, he was one of the very, very few people who wouldn’t look at me like I was a mental case. He’d devour it, then grin and tell me to keep practicing.

In front of his little house grows a lavender rhododendron bush. One day, when his second wife was still living, he showed me a straggly rose bush planted in front of it and told me he really wanted to pull it out, but didn’t because she liked it.

We lost him a few years ago. I rode my bike past the house today. The rhododendron is still there, healthy and enormous, and taking over the yard. But it took me sticking my bike-helmeted head under the branches, and looking around in the dim light for a quite a few minutes, to spot what I was looking for.

He was a widower for a good five years after she passed, and never lost his sharp mind. He didn’t forget to pull it out. He left it because of her, and I’m probably the only one who knows. But I guess all of you know now, too.

Saluting Mr. Cook this Memorial Day. Your rosebush is still here. So are you.

pudding

I love lemons and I love old recipes. Recently, after a long hiatus that involved too much hither and yonning all over the state, I got on Google maps and actually found my kitchen again. The above and below are testament to what can be done while exhausted and needing to be comforted.

My friend Rachel loves to bring me little treats when she visits, and last September she brought me a copy of Woman’s Home Companion Cook Book (1942). I don’t mind relaying that I can do without their recipe for Boiled Asparagus, and don’t understand the preoccupation of the day with suspending almost anything in gelatin. But most of the recipes are true blue, and many more look really incredible; to my modern mind, the authors show a wonderful audacity with ingredients and flavors, and I really, really envy how common oysters, black walnuts, and persimmons were back then. Whew.

But a few days ago I was in the mood for lemons, certainly because it’s spring and they’re in season, and also likely because I was run down and in need of a smack of citrus. This was a treat: Called Delicate Lemon Pudding, it combines lemon juice and zest, sugar, milk, egg yolks, egg whites beat to stiff peaks, butter, and a little bit of flour to hold it all together. It gets poured into a baking dish, set in a bain-marie, and baked. Then it goes into the fridge to chill up.

I made this during last week’s heat wave and told my friends I imagined people in the ’40s pulling it out of the icebox on a sultry day. Did it myself. When you dip into it, the pudding has an appealing way of being dry and tender on top (that’s the browned meringue), frothy in the middle, and sweet and milky underneath, almost like a lemon milkshake. Next time I’ll use less sugar and more lemon juice and zest, but it was a really lovely win.

restart

I haven’t had a second to write since I pulled the Easter bread out of the oven! This is a first, and I’m not jazzed about it. Being a contractor means you’re never bored and always busy. Which, as any contractor can tell you, is simultaneously great, and blows. Today was the first day in months that I haven’t gone Mach 2 with my hair on fire.* I’ve been so happy to relax a little, to start cooking again (brownies for my teenage cast and crew)…

Three sticks of butter plus cake flour mean they’re essentially a semi-solid.

to eat ice cream (hoooo doggy. Twice this week, actually, and both bloody spectacular)…

Chocolate-orange and coconut ice creams plus hot fudge sauce, all homemade, at the bent spoon in Princeton.

My beloved peanut butter moose tracks, greedily gobbled an hour ago.

I am unusual in that I am oddly, inextricably connected to nature; I must see and smell and touch everything new each season. This past month I missed my ephemerals. I only barely nuzzled the Kwanzan cherry blossoms before the rain took them down. I’ve never missed these, and the lack of them has affected me powerfully, like trying to breathe with the only one lung’s capacity. Subtracting them has not been not healthy for me.

But I’m dreaming about visiting the farm (finally open), foraging (wisteria right now, and much more to come). And I had the loveliest surprise a couple of days ago:

I thought I had missed the lilacs, too, blooming so early this year. Drove in between rushed errands to try to find some blossoms that weren’t spent so I could bury my nose in them, and didn’t have much luck. Then I happened upon a huge, lush group of bushes next to the art building at my alma mater, where I was finishing a prop contract. The school is at the opposite end of the state, and I’d forgotten that flowers there bloom later. The wind off the lake blew their fragrance around me before I even saw them, fresh and sweet as could be. I remembered the strange miracle of more: my theory that whatever we miss, somehow the universe makes it back up again. And then some.

*Gratuitous Top Gun reference.