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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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Most tales that include cold-cured marinated brisket evoke joy and good will. Not so this.

I mean I made sure the story wrapped up on a good note, but there was the cost which whirled away down the potty, don’t think that didn’t hurt, and the time I’d spent each night giving the meat its massage of spices and salt. If I knew what I did wrong I’d just kick myself and learn and be done with it, but I don’t know what I did wrong. And what really got me bummed was missing out on the flavor that Laurie swooned over.

I know, I always get ahead of myself.

Let’s make like Julie Andrews and start at the very beginning: years ago I became enthralled by a recipe for Spiced Beef, a traditional Christmastime treat in the UK, in More Home Cooking. The book was written by Laurie Colwin, who passed away suddenly some 20 years ago, who I’ve never met, and yet miss like a best bud. We’re cut from the same cloth, as two of the 11 people on Planet Earth who champion English recipes. Hers was Elizabeth David’s version. I saw a recipe for Spiced Beef again in a vintage collection of UK recipes I bought at a used book sale. And there was a version of it on Nigella’s site, and another on boston.com. This looked Promising.

Laurie’s recipe made too much (it feeds 8-10), so I went with the recipe in my vintage cookbook instead. Whole Foods kindly sold me 3 lbs. of lean brisket, and I snatched up black peppercorns (1 tablespoon), whole allspice (1 tablespoon), dried juniper berries (1/4 cup), dark brown sugar (1/4 cup), and coarse salt (1/4 cup). It was a combo I had never tasted, and it sounded wild. Laurie called it magnificent. Game on.

The recipe said I was to coat the meat with the brown sugar, place it in a casserole dish, cover it, and let it sit in the fridge for two days. Then I was to crush the spices and salt, then scatter and press a tablespoon of it into the meat every day for 12 days. This dry rub would act as a preservative to seal in freshness*.

I followed the recipe to the letter. I’m a good listener. Okay, one thing—I finished in 11 days and not 12 because the rub ran out. But I coddled that meat like a flat pink newborn. I also took three more precautions:

1) To be sure it would keep four weeks after cooking, as it said it would, I called a butcher for a professional opinion. Went straight to the top—Lobel’s, NYC, five generations. Evan Lobel, who I saw a few years ago on television talking beef with Martha Stewart, picked up. I read the recipe to him and he disagreed with the longevity, thinking it would keep 10 days, tops. I found another opinion online that said 4-5 days. Fine, we’ll polish it off in a week.

2) I had a feeling my oven thermometer was slowly going on the fritz, so I replaced it.** I was right.

3) I set the pan on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator, all the way in the back where it’s coldest.

Yesterday was cooking day. You take some or all of the spices off, drain off the liquid in the casserole dish, put the meat back in, add 3/4 cup of cold water to the dish, and cover it. Then you cook it on the middle rack of the oven for 3.5 hours at 275 degrees F. This is how it looked just before cooking time. I swear I sang little songs to it.

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Can you tell anything’s wrong? Me neither.

After a half hour, I could smell it. That’s when I started to worry, and that’s when it started and ended—right there with my nose. It wasn’t horrible, just…off. I went through all of the question marks in my head.

Will it smell better once it’s finished cooking? Does it smell this way because it’s coated with sugar and a mix of spices I’ve never cooked before? Should I taste it?*** Do I lose my mind now, or wait until I have the meat nicely settling on a cooking rack?

I didn’t even throw it away immediately. Almost went through the last steps of weighing the meat under a board and letting it press down overnight. With as much as I pampered this brisket, it felt like it should be interred, maybe with chanting and a few carefully chosen words, not just tossed away. I put it in a Hefty freezer bag first, which isn’t the same as interment after a soak in myrrh, but decent.

Reliving this has been less than enjoyable. For you, too, right? Let’s bring on the holiday cheer.

I am a stage tech in my down time, and we learn to be problem solvers. If we don’t, we can at the very least foul up the show; and at the very most, get hurt or hurt someone else.**** And yesterday, after it hit me that the meat was gone, I was in a state: I’d eaten half a 72% blueberry-chocolate bar to drown my sorrows, so I was hopping. Plus I have a very big problem, in general, with failing *entirely*; if I fail at something, I want either to fix it or to wring the best out of it, and that’s on me to make happen. So I thought about it.

Replacing the brisket and starting over entirely without the benefit of knowing what went wrong—obviously that was out. I knew I wanted to taste what I should have tasted, that strange primitive combination of flavors with meat. THAT I could do, in a different way.

Night had fallen and it was still raining—had been all day. I put on my coat and turned my collar to the cold and damp. Then I went to the store and bought fresh ground turkey.

When I got home, I formed three patties and into them pressed 1 tablespoon brown sugar. Then I covered the pan and set it on the cold shelf of the fridge to soak overnight.

This morning with my mortar and pestle I crushed 1 teaspoon each of juniper berries, whole allspice, black peppercorns, and salt, pressed it into the patties, and set them back in the fridge for an hour. I sliced a wedge of seeded semolina bread for a roll, which is about as English as baklava, but so what, and I tossed some potatoes from the organic farm with some fresh horseradish from my friend Peggy, who grows it for Passover and always ends up with a yard full. Nigella said the beef goes well with horseradish potatoes.

Then I cooked everything, and then I ate everything, and it was freaking spectacular. I’m not even BSing you to make up for the lurid saga above. I got to taste those flavors. Serious happiness. And tomorrow’s and Tuesday’s burgers will probably be even better because they’ll have had a chance to marinate in the spices more.

Yes, I am going to try Spiced Beef again sometime. And if any readers out there have made it and have pinpointed where I screwed up, speak right up and help a girl out.

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*I sound like a Gladware commercial.

**My oven’s 25 degrees off. The joy of cooking, indeed.

***This was the toughest to resist. You will be glad to hear I did not taste it.

****Or God forbid, hurt the set.

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Shortbreads baked in small tart pans.

In de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, the fox tells the title character that he loves rites because they make each day different from the others and are fun to anticipate. I would add that they add a blanket of comfort, a personal calm or a bit of humor (as the case may be), to our days. Some of my favorites:

Eating something while reading about it.

I’m a cereal box reader. Reading the back of the Kix box while I’m eating a bowl of it makes it taste even better. A five-sense cereal experience :)*

I love nibbling on my homemade shortbread while reading about English treats. Actually, my 1969 Time-Life cookbook, The Cooking of the British Isles, features chapters on cheeses, game, beef, puddings and more, and has taken me through weeks of mealtime reading.

Adopting a new favorite breakfast treat from time to time.

Right now it’s a version of an Orange Creamy (remember those from the ice cream man?): a navel orange peeled and sectioned and put in a bowl with a couple of dollops of Stonyfield low-fat vanilla yogurt. Gosh, it’s so good.

Observing teatime.

I get (what I call) snacky at 3 or 4 every afternoon, so as those bright folks in England have been doing for centuries, I do something about it. Sometimes I’ll make hot chocolate from an incredible recipe that I keep talking about because it’s that incredible. Yesterday I had a couple of squares of Chocolove with a mug of very cold milk. No tea because I don’t much like it. I like sweets, though. It’s the spirit of teatime that counts.**

Whenever J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter had a run-in with (literally) life-sucking Dementors, a few bites of chocolate was the panacea to help clear his head. I took a page from those hallowed books on the five-year anniversary of 9/11 and made brownies to share with the women I worked with. The Muggle (non-wizarding) world of ours has plenty of Dementors of its own, and they were with us in spades that day. The chocolate really did help.

T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock measured out his life with coffee spoons…

Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones reached for the Milk Tray and went out for Bloody Marys when she got stressed…

Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy would eat nothing but tomato sandwiches for lunch…

Charles Dickens’s sympathetic Joe Gargery poured extra gravy on young Pip’s plate every time Pip got chewed out at the dinner table…

Bill Watterson’s Calvin ate Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs every Saturday morning without fail…

What do you eat, and how, and when?

*Not a quote from Jerry Seinfeld. But it could be.

**Yeah, okay, the spirit is usually about chocolate.

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Through the steady cold of winter we wait for the natural world to wake and grow green again. Many of us become disheartened by the stillness and the stark landscape, by counting the days until warm weather returns.

But the darkest season offers gifts none other does. It allows us to follow suit: We, too, are part of the natural world; and we, too, can be still, rest, and incubate buds of our own. This is our time to dream.

Emily Dickinson wrote, “There’s a certain Slant of light/Winter Afternoons,” and went on to describe it as ominous. Much as I love her, I have to disagree. It’s cheering to see that slant now, when light is scarce. I tip my chin up to it and close my eyes, warming my face.

Here are more of the singular comforts, and joys, of winter.

Snowy Sundays

Writing and daydreaming under my aunt’s vintage quilt as the snow piles up outside is coziness defined. Sipping the planet’s best hot chocolate sinks me into the cozy that much more.

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Comforting Sounds

Radiators releasing steam, freezing rain clattering against a windowpane in the middle of the night, a log fire popping and hissing—these sounds seem to make the warm indoors envelop us more fully and make us feel safe.

Winter Wonderlanding

The Scandinavians have a great saying: ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather—only bad clothes.’ They would know, and they have a point. For Christmas my mom gave me a balaclava—one of those all-in-one hood/scarf things. Wearing it together with fleece, my down jacket and long underwear made in Vermont (and they know from cold weather, too), I can walk in warmth for hours, in the still, frosty air mingling with the wood smoke wisping out of fireplaces all over town. Very Currier and Ives.

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Soaking in the Bath

Winter-chapped skin and muscles aching from snowball fights are soothed in a warm bath. Now is the season when I rummage through the bath products I’ve squirreled away, like that luscious bubble bath from Anthopologie that smells like sandalwood. I’ve always wanted one of those cast iron, clawfoot tubs that are so deep that the bubbles would come up to my chin. Until then, I’ll take baths in my ordinary tub this winter, a handful of lit votives on the floor, and my towel warming on the radiator. The feeling is pretty close to goddesslike just like this.

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Afternoon naps

Winter is a time to stretch out on, and wrap yourself in, things that are soft and obliging. On the weekends I plop down on the sofa with a book and my winter trifecta—old flannel pajamas from L.L. Bean, a faux fur throw and thick alpaca socks that I bought from a breeder in south NJ. Sometimes I doze off watching the fading afternoon light, the sky turning shell pink. When I wake up at twilight, the light, and snow, have turned otherworldly pastel blue.

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The Beauty of Snow

Speaking of snow, I love the delicate hieroglyphics that it, along with frost and wind, etches on the window panes. I dust the cakes I bake this time of year with powdered sugar just to imitate and celebrate snow. This morning I cut snowflakes and suspended them from my living room ceiling, the way I used to do in my nursery school classrooms. Looks just as cool.

Lighting Up the Night

When the faint daylight dies and the midwinter night becomes inky black, light a candle and gaze into its flame. It’s relaxing, almost hypnotic. Our ancestors spent their winters this way, too: looking into their cooking fires and into candlelight through hurricane glasses, wondering what the new year had in store for them, worrying about plans they’d made, imagining personal wishes coming true. Winter candlelight is a link to the past, into the collective, restless, hopeful heart of the human race.

Warm Kitchens

Our favorite cold-weather dishes warm and cheer us right through to the soul. It’s time for long-simmering Italian beef stew, soda bread with raisins and turkey noodle soup. This time of year I fantasize about making up two bowls of whatever it is I’m cooking: one for my stomach, and one for my chilly feet. Wrapping cold fingers around little earthenware crocks full of French onion soup, the kind with a toasted crouton on top that’s covered with bubbling Gruyere, suffices pretty well. These wintertime dishes also offer some of the best smells in the world.

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Staples of my winter kitchen

Fresh garlic

Chicken and beef broths

Dried sage and rosemary

Rigatoni

Bittersweet chocolate

Navel oranges

Walnuts

Organic milk

Molasses

Crystallized ginger

Lentils

Black kale

Tomato paste

On New Year’s Day I baked shepherd’s pie. I worked more slowly than usual, chopping the onions and carrots, browning the ground lamb, spooning the mixture into ramekins and layering mashed potatoes on top. It was surprisingly relaxing. Out of the oven they came, hot as winter is cold, asking me to slow down and enjoy every spoonful, this unique and special treat.

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October’s the Nigella Lawson of the year, an earth mother clad in warm colors, exuberant with life and heart, and eager to feed everybody. In temperate climates, farm stands overflow with the last of Summer’s tomatoes propped next to Fall’s butternuts. Apples, pears and figs hang heavy from trees, and the lustrous bloom on grapes foreshadows the frost soon to come.

With such abundance, it’s the best time of year to appreciate terroir—that ancient notion of place, and the confluence of elements from sky and soil that makes whatever that place produces unique.

In Italy in particular, each region takes enormous pride in the food that grew from its own soil, nourished by the peculiarities of the climate and the conditions of the land there. The pride of ownership comes from knowing that that patch of soil has its own character and what grows there can’t really be reproduced anywhere else.

What’s more, bringing together the produce of a region creates a unique harmony of flavor. Pasta made from local wheat, a sauce made from tomatoes from the garden, wine from the vineyard down the road, and ground beef from your sister-in-law’s farm—together they sing in their own distinctive way.

Calimyrna fig, a couple of days shy from ripeness.

Think about what your region produces. Is it known for specific types of fruits and vegetables? Unusual varieties, stuff that’s hard to find elsewhere? Or does it just grow the basics really, really well?

I live in New Jersey, which comes with its requisite jokes. But no one quibbles with our produce. Say what you will about us—we produce a damn good tomato. And peach, and apple, and blueberry, for that matter.

‘Liberty’ apple tree.

New Jersey’s beef, lamb, pork, poultry and cheese have a purity of flavor unmatched by those not eaten at the source. Beef stock made from local, pasture-fed cows won’t smell tinny or salty like canned stock. It will smell fresh and clean—like the grass that created it.

All of the produce in the photos here were taken at Silverton Farms in Toms River, NJ, an organic farm about which I could rhapsodize for hours. They do it right, from their philosophy (sustainability), to their work ethic (hard) to their exceptional produce (authentic flavors). They live terroir.

‘Pink Banana’ winter squash.

Now’s the time to get it all in—flavor, pleasure, pride.

Find out what’s growing around you right now and seek it out. Wherever you are, there’s something growing nearby; and whatever it is, since it’s in season, it doesn’t need much to make it taste the best it can. It might need nothing at all.

Take a bite. What you’re eating won’t taste like THIS anywhere else on the planet.  Do you taste it, the sweet conspiracy of sun and rain and wind on your little bit of the earth?

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