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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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happy accidents & autopilot

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I’ve always been crap at making pie crusts. Fillings, I’m good. Like the above. It has organic apples and pears in it, plus I threw in some brown sugar (didn’t measure), cinnamon (ditto), and gooshed the whole thing with some of the crab apple liqueur I made last fall. It all went into a really wide pan and got sauteed for something like five minutes—long enough for everything to get juiced up and friendly but not so long that the fruit would start to fall apart.

When I make crust, I usually ease back on the fat because I used to have a weight problem, and even though I know in my brain that I don’t have one now,* an old self-image is not something a  person shakes off easily. So even when life’s going just swimmingly, when it comes to cooking for myself, I carefully measure and am all organized and I skim back on the butter. Like a lot. And I use the pat-in-the-pan method, pressing the pie dough into the pan instead of rolling it out. If I didn’t, it would crack like the Mojave in August.

Last week, though, I was chilly, exhausted, and generally fed up with life. Life was going sinkingly. I cook when I need normalcy, so enter pie. And I broke out a new recipe: Martha’s pate brisee, which calls for two sticks of butter—a goodly amount, as Martha would say. Please know I did not use two sticks on a pie I was going to eat myself. But I did dump in a bunch, and fairly indiscriminately. Into the Cuisinart went the flour and salt, then in went the butter. Plop, plop, plop. Blitz, blitz, blitz. Ice water, more blitzing.

I thought not. I simply did. It needs this, and it needs that, make a mess, well done, into the fridge to firm up.

Suddenly this…I was able to roll out.

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I didn’t say I was any good at it, but I WAS able to roll it out.

I pricked the crust with a fork (what pastry chefs call “docking,” to keep the crust from puffing up in the oven) and then I spread a raw egg white across the bottom. I read somewhere that that keeps the bottom of the crust from getting goopy from the filling and not cooking. Call it the barrier method.

The recipe said I could split the dough in half and make a top crust, too, but I only have one pie pan: deep dish. So I sort of folded the upper part of the bottom crust over the fruit, brushed it with an egg wash, sprinkled it with sanding sugar, and put it in the oven.

It was tender and flaky and lovely—the best crust I have ever made, the bouncing baby of enough fed-up-ness and enough experience to let my hands do the thinking. And enough butter.

Go Martha, and go me.

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*A weight problem, not a brain.**

**Well. Depends on the day.

 

whistling in the dark

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It was chilly in my apartment all last week, so I did what came naturally: turned on the oven and cooked.

The above and immediately below are coconut custard pie. I have never made one, so I blind-baked my basic crust, stirred up my basic custard, and did what my revered and liberally duct-taped Joy of Cooking suggested: tossed a 1/2 cup of shredded coconut into the bottom of the baked crust and then poured the custard on top of it. This was pretty good, but it needed to be more coconutty. So I threw in a splash of coconut extract and gave it a stir. And I ate it for breakfast all week because early-American settlers used to eat pie for breakfast, and while I can’t abide everything they did back then, I sure can this.

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Gratuitous second shot.

Next I found a recipe for Quick Jambalaya in an old February issue of Martha. I used San Marzano plum tomatoes, a red bell pepper (which I never buy out of season, but it does not do to argue with Martha), garlic, red onion, Old Bay, dark meat from half a dozen chicken legs, smoked andouille sausage, and jasmine rice. That last is an embarrassing anachronism, and per my last controversial post makes it Not Really Jambalaya, but either way it was pretty solid.

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Trader Joe’s had an awesome deal on blood oranges, so I snapped up a bag and made a sort of marmalade with them, but with less sugar. My cutting board looked like a vampire crudite platter.*

Then I made some vanilla-bean scones and ate it all up with a little plain yogurt. Also a worthy breakfast, early-American or not.**

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The below is my favorite pic. It was not a product of my kitchen.

While I was waiting for the woman at my local post office to ring up my purchase, I asked her what was in the pastry box on the counter next to her. I’ve always thought her sort of standoffish, but when I asked her she brightened and said she didn’t know, and was excited to take a peek. When she did, she squealed, and said I must take one with me.

Yet another reminder—and there will be more, and I will document them, count on it—that food can be miracle-izing. She didn’t know I’d had a chilly week, and was feeling kind of poopy. It hit the spot in a lot of ways. She even introduced herself. Thanks, Chantal.

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*That was totally gross. But true.

**Not. Whatevs.

walking the walk

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Most days, I think you guys would agree, I am not a Wendy Whiner.

Today is not one of those days.

Look, I love to cook, and I love ingredients, and I’m creative to the core (for better or worse. For worse, see here and here and ooooh just recently here). So please know I am all for personal expression, for putting something into the world that has your own stamp on it.

But…what is the unholy obsession today with calling dishes by the wrong name? I see it especially in restaurants that call themselves Italian, the cruelest knife in my side. New Jersey has the third largest Italian population in the country and it’s the densest state in the country. So in essence, we’re talking about a whole lot of Italians who really ought to know better.

But this virus is not just in Italian restaurants, nor it is endemic in New Jersey. It’s everywhere.

Stand by for the dirty laundry.

1) Tortellini in Brodo

This translates to ‘tortellini in broth.’ It’s a very simple dish. You can tell by the name. I ate this as a kid when I had a sore throat. A wanna-be-upscale place nearby serves a dish by this name. It has tortellini, broth, lemon juice, eggs, cheese, and Italian parsley. And it’s actually pretty good. But it is not tortellini in brodo. It’s stracciatella, Italy’s version of egg drop soup.

Chefs. Just because you float tortellini in soup doesn’t mean you can pick any name out of the Italy handbook and slap it on. And most importantly? People who eat it and aren’t aware that it’s not what you say it is are going to be misled. You’re the ones wearing the aprons. You’re supposed to be authorities on this stuff. Hello.

Wait, here’s another one. This same place also serves what they call pasta carbonara, and thinks the odd chunk of ham in a cream sauce does them proud. To clarify, there is no cream in carbonara. This sauce is made when you add (along with pancetta and other ingredients) raw eggs to hot pasta, which cooks the eggs on contact and provides a lovely velvety texture. You cannot get this out of a jar, kids.

If you call yourselves a ‘ristorante‘ and brag on the menu that the experience of eating here is going to be authentic, then p.s., you don’t get to lie to us.

2) Turkey Bolognese

Bolognese is my favorite sauce. Marcella Hazan, who even while dead could cook me under the table, calls for butter, oil, onion, celery, carrots, beef, pork, veal, pepper, milk, nutmeg, white wine, and tomato sauce. Recently I saw a recipe named the above. The creator said she loved traditional Bolognese sauce, but likes to vary it up with turkey.

But she didn’t stop with turkey. She spiraled off the map, using red wine instead of white, adding garlic salt and mushrooms…then she remembered the Alamo and threw in steak seasoning and Worcestershire sauce.

Do I applaud her innovative spirit? Without question. Would I eat this? Sure. But it is Bolognese sauce? Not even CLOSE.

Dear lady. Give your recipe a new name. Name it after your sainted Portuguese Water Dog for all I care. Just don’t call it Bolognese.

Her recipe is sitting on my desk next to me as I type this, and re-chafes me every time I look at it. It’s WordPress’s problem now. Recycling.

Okay.

3) Caesar Salad

I’m not sure anyone makes classic Caesar salad anymore, which kills me because it’s a knockout. The dressing is made with raw eggs, anchovies, fresh lemon juice, fresh garlic, olive oil, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Dijon mustard, salt, and black pepper. This is tossed with Romaine lettuce and topped with rustic toasted croutons. It is not, as most restaurants would have us believe, thick, gloppy, and sponsored by Hidden Valley.

4) Chocolate Mousse Cake

This was an edit I was assigned. After scanning the ingredients I called my higher-up.

‘The Chocolate Ganache Cake looks fantastic. But there’s a problem.’
‘What is it?’
‘There’s no ganache in it.’
Pause.
‘Huh?’
‘Ganache is chocolate and cream. This has lots of whipped egg whites. That’s mousse, not ganache.’
I spoke to the recipe writer and we changed the title. There it is above, and it really was delicious. But again. Before you call something something, make sure you know what that something is.
5) Tiramisu
Your dessert may have more layers than an ogre. But if it doesn’t have espresso, cocoa, zabaglione, and ladyfingers, it’s not tiramisu. Chefs: get lazy in this respect and your customers are going to walk out of your place thinking Nilla wafers layered with Snack Pack pudding and out-of-season Peruvian blackberries are tiramisu. Or worse—you think they are, too. Aren’t.
To all of the accused: You’re dropping more work into my In Box. Give me a leg up here.

texture

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I just ate a chocolate chip cookie after going though the basket until I found the softest. I didn’t pull the Charmin bit because I only buy soft cookies, nor because I’m a really original narcissist who marks her territory by way of finger dents through Saran Wrap.

No, I did it because my jaw’s been on the fritz this week, and I can’t do any heavy-duty chewing. This happens. I was diagnosed with TMJ disorder in 2000. Google can tell you more, but the layman’s description is I’m a tooth grinder, and it takes a toll on my jaw. The cookie was really good, and I’m thanking my lucky stars, because I was starving and it was the sole soft cookie in the basket.

When you have this condition, being under stress often means pain—a little or a lot, depending on the stress in question. Many teachers have given me many ways to chill and to relieve the soreness.* It’s something I just plain manage. And with all of the problems in the world, especially of late, I’m not whining. It just led my brain to some connections.

As a kid I hated any food that was lumpy. Ix-nay on nuts in candy bars or brownies. Fie on chunky peanut butter and chunky tomato sauce. Ice cream had to be soft, the gooshy kind out of the machine. I didn’t even like chicken or beef on the bone.

Hindsight being what it is, I know why. It wasn’t because my jaw was acting up. That happened much later. I was stressed a lot, so I think I just wanted my food to be one less hassle.

And probably not surprisingly, the inclination toward smooth sailing back then went beyond food. This girl wanted simple, predictable, and routine…across the board. That’s common with very young kids, but I hung in with that a lot longer than most. If I couldn’t get smooth, I felt compelled to make it happen…or to tune out entirely.

Mind you, this is not to say smoothness is bad all the time and in every case. Sometimes it’s great. For some, it’s always perfect, and I bow to that. One should have what one wants. But for me it got old. I’d been stifling myself and didn’t even know it. For me, smoothness is fine. Too-smooth, though = too confining.

Things slowly started to change. I had the most delectable hors d’oeuvres here and there of a world that was bigger than the one I was in. A big friend here, three big teachers there. Travel, which can’t help but expand the old worldview. I started asking a lot of questions, talked to people without wanting to burrow into my very well-worn, self-conscious hidey-hole. I got normal answers and I got weirdo answers. I threw it all against the wall of my mind to see what stuck. Laced up my adventure boots. Even my laugh got bigger. It was crazy.

And you saw this coming: I started to eat stuff I’d never eaten before. Lumpy stuff. I ate walnuts in muffins. Grew to adore tomato sauce made with just skinned plum tomatoes. I was on chunky peanut butter like Homer on a doughnut. Spare ribs were cheerfully gnawed. I only wanted hard ice cream and only with a bunch of stuff in it—Moose Tracks, Cookies & Cream, Cherry Chocolate Chip. I’d switched out too-smooth for a crazy quilt of nubbly, and things were Finally Good. Life sparkled like a vampire.

Then whoops, the ancient stress I hadn’t resolved clobbered me. And food imitating life, I mellowed back down again. I had to—I was too spooked to do otherwise, and besides, my stomach wouldn’t let me eat much. Anything with power was strictly off the table, literally and figuratively. After about five years of these boring shenanigans, you’d better believe I went after it all—travel, adventure, FOOD—like a feral dog. And still do until I need a break, or my jaw cuts in for a slow dance.

Going smooth from time to time—this works for me. Sitting on the sand and watching the tide go out. Floating to the bottom of a really, really well-made vanilla ice cream, with only like four ingredients in it. Or when basic stress and my jaw sucker-punch me for a while and I have to soften my diet, as my oral surgeon says. I guess the Tilt-A-Whirl that’s been been my life was setting me up to figure out what’s the best way to get at all of it. A little gorge here, a little smooth there. Maybe I should be shooting less for a crazy quilt than the throw** I’m sitting under as I write this. I love this thing. It’s fleece on one side and nubbly faux fur on the other. It ain’t the fleece that makes it awesome and it ain’t the nubbly. It’s the both.

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*If you’re in the same boat, please Google myofascial release technique.

**Is it me or do I write about this throw a lot? Last week. Over a year ago. It’s totally that great.

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