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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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Lombardi’s outdoor sconce, lighting our way at the start of the tourney—an All-Carb Olympic torch.

Porta in Asbury Park, NJ makes a pizza carbonara so good I want to roll in it like a dog. Before I say anything about pizza anywhere else, I need to impress this upon you, because this kind of quality is what I had in mind when my sister and brother-in-law treated me to a pizza tour of Manhattan last October. Porta’s chewy, deliriously addictive crust and buttery, runny, full fat housemade cheese—my mozzarella muse, which I say with precisely zero shame—that’s the taste I had in my mouth, and it’s what NY was up against.

Five pizza places, some new, some very, very old; five thin-crust Margherita pies (tomato, mozzarella, basil) to keep the playing field level; five pies judged for quality of crust, sauce, cheese and overall experience.

Below, a photo essay of our day, and I’ll be sure to unpack my adjectives.

Lombardi’s (below), A.

Often enough, the big-name grandpas of the restaurant world strut their leisure suits and flash grins full of metal bridgework, hoping to convince you that they haven’t lost their mojo. But their best years are usually way behind them. Others, happily, have still got it, and the oldest pizza place in the city is one of them.

Crust: Straightforward with a bit of a crunch, somewhat light hand with the salt.

Sauce: Bright flavor, sweet.

Cheese: Chewy, perfect amount.

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Luzzo’s, A.

Crust: Delicate, thin as a Saltine cracker.

Sauce: Salty, but it worked.

Cheese: Creamy little dairy pillows.

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Luzzo’s beautiful old interior–brick, beam and detail.

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Well worn swivel chairs, bar paneling and vintage tile floor.

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Tools of the trade plus a bit of incongruous Indian corn just for fun.

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Patina in the old tin ceiling.

Motorino, A+. Good and soppy pizza extravaganza.

Crust: Chewy, rustic and doughy.

Sauce: Fresh and sweet.

Cheese: Happily runny cheese pillows.

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Worth a second shot.

Gruppo, B+.

Crust: Paper thin and crispy, somewhat forgettable.

Sauce: Spiciest so far.

Cheese: Plentiful, chewy.

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Okay, next was Grom, because with four pizzas down and one to go, we’d already thrown our hats over the fence, so what did adding authentic Italian gelato matter? Below is vanilla bean and chocolate. I was quite undone by it, and not because I was full from pizza. Out-of-the-ballpark good.

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Co. Pizza, A++ As close to Porta as I could find. We were stuffed and yet still ate two of these pies. Better than Motorino by a hair* (please forgive the indelicate expression; I know we’re eating).

Crust: Drug like. The doughy, pliable kind that stretches a little when you try to pull it away from the other slices. Tip: Everybody pull at once.

Sauce: Fresh, evenly flavored.

Cheese: Oozy, goopy and plentiful.

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More than a little dismaying to think that Co., which offers such outstanding pizza, felt they needed to add a disclaimer such as this to their menu. To the customers that inspired it: Kindly get a grip.

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Reigning champion.

Where’s your favorite ‘za? What makes a pie the best? Don’t hold back—it’s a cold night. Consider it a public service.

*I just grossed out my mom. Sorry đŸ˜€

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I know it’s almost Valentine’s Day and I know that’s not a picture of heart-shaped Scharffen Berger chocolate and Bordeaux up there. I’m dispensing with tradition again and deliberately not talking about candy and wine in the interest of…well…I don’t want to be trite, especially not this week. I don’t even want to get into the gooey romantic language, if I can help it. Hope you’re good with that.

Instead we’ll salivate over other combinations I adore,* stuff that’s not typical, starting with sandwiches. The first one, above and at the very bottom, makes an incredible lunch.

-Sweet** onion (like a Vidalia), caramelized in olive oil or butter

-Chicken, roasted (or grilled, or whatever), shredded and added to the onion

-Apple (pick anything that’s not a McIntosh because those’ll just dissolve on you), sliced, don’t bother to peel it, thrown into the pan with the onions and chicken and cooked until golden brown

-Fontina (a European, kinda nutty, kinda pungent, eminently oozeable cheese that any supermarket has)

-Ground allspice, a few shakes into the onion/chicken/apple pan

-Black pepper, coarsely ground  (I like a lot in this) into the pan as well

Now. Butter and toast your bread under the broiler (I used a Cuban roll because it was all the bakery downtown had left but it was awesome), melt your cheese, then pile your stuff on top.

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When I shot this I accidentally had the camera set on video like a dope. So right now I have valuable footage of a sardine sandwich in its natural habitat, on a plate, on my dining room table. It’s fascinating. They’re very docile, much quieter than you’d imagine.

The next sandwich, above, makes an incredible breakfast if you’re my mom. I grew up in a house that relished the combination of sardines and raw onion on a sandwich. The above is normal to me and wildly addictive, too, actually. I hope I don’t lose subscribers over this.

-Sardines (skinless and boneless, packed in either water or olive oil)

-Mayo

-Red*** onion, thinly sliced

-Bread of some sort (I used a whole wheat roll from Trader Joe’s)

-Salt to taste

Add mayo to bread. Add the rest. Wipe exertion from brow.

Since many of you are already appalled, another delirious combination is tuna packed in oil into which you’ve mixed in a good amount of anchovy paste. Keep the sliced raw onion, hold the mayo, and sandwich-ify.

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Other yummy food combinations:

-Almond extract, just a teaspoon or so, baked into anything that features peaches, nectarines, cherries or apricots. Almonds and all of these fruits are botanical cousins. Ever notice that the pit of a peach looks a lot like an unshelled almond? Yep. And they are lovely together.****

-Mushrooms cooked with a few splashes of chicken broth. Not cousins, to be sure, but for some reason they bring out the best in each other, like Tim Burton and Danny Elfman. Okay, mellower than the two of them, but the point stands.

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*Sorry. Crap. That was quick.

*Totally not my fault. Vidalias are sweet!

***It’s a color, not a holiday.

****%&#%*!!!

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About a week ago at the farm I bought the last of the freshly-dug carrots. And instead of just snacking on them bunny-rabbit style as always, I got curious (as bunny rabbits are also wont to do) and wondered how they would taste grated up inside a carrot muffin. I’ve always been a nut for carrot cake,* with extra cream cheese frosting (priorities first), and of morning glories and basic carrot muffins, but have never tried making them with anything other than store bought carrots.

At the farm I pulled off most of the carrot tops and brought them out to the goats, who predictably acted like goats with them. If you ever find carrots with the tops still attached and don’t know an obliging goat, chop the tops off as soon as you get home. Keeping them on sucks the life out of the carrots and makes them limp and wibbly-wobbly.**

I found a recipe online that called for yogurt in the batter, which delivers tenderness, and no raisins. I love them, but didn’t want anything to distract from the flavor of the carrots. Baked up the muffins. Verdict: just as you’re imagining. The fresh carrots packed more intense flavor, noticeably different from those that were picked in Iowa and have been sitting on a shelf playing the harmonica for two weeks until purchase. And I was lucky to find small ones, which were really wonderfully sweet. No dryness or bitterness at all, which can often happen in store bought carrots. The muffins pulled apart like the softest ever angel food cake.

It’s so much easier to make the transition from summer to fall when it can taste as good as this.

*Course there was a pun intended.

**For all of you Dr. Who fans.

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A week or so ago I started feeling overwhelmed—by everything, by nothing. All of the details of my life swarmed up and around me and my concentration was like a hummingbird’s: I went from place to place and from thought to thought but couldn’t seem to finish anything. I wasn’t really cooking, either. I kept a bunch of elements—cheese, wraps, vegetables, yogurt—in the refrigerator, but there wasn’t anything prepared, no go-to meals ready for when I was starving at 12:15pm. Each day on my calendar had a list attached of stuff to do, but I still felt as though time was getting away from me, that I wasn’t spending it wisely. And worst of all, I felt like there wasn’t anything I could do about it because I couldn’t settle on one thought for long enough to accomplish anything. It was frustrating to say the least.

And yet…amid all of this chaos, quiet, insistent thoughts nudged me from time to time. They felt like life preservers, ways I could pull myself out of this anxiety. I didn’t know if they really were, because they sounded so ordinary.

I want to bake bread again.

I want the house to feel cleaner.

I want to rest.

One afternoon I decided to find out if these thoughts had any merit. I cancelled everything on my to-do list, and instead I would clean and cook. As I took out the vacuum, I felt a bit of serenity bloom in my chest, sort of wrapping itself around the stress and neutralizing it. That night I made banana bread for my breakfast so I could have a proper breakfast all week. Chopped up a leftover dark chocolate bar into the batter just for fun. As it baked it smelled peaceful—really it did. Homey. And I made enough zucchini cakes to last me the week.

They’re so simple that they’re hardly a recipe: The day before you want to eat them, take a bunch of zucchini, however much you want, green, yellow or both. Wash well of grit (especially if you get them from a farm or a farmers market). Chop off the ends, slice the zucchini into wedges into your Cuisinart, and blitz. Turn the whole thing out into a strainer (or if you have a ton, into a colander set over a bowl). Put it into the fridge to drain. You want it to be pretty dry.

The next day, take it out and add chopped onion, an egg or two, salt and pepper, and a crumbly cheese like feta or ricotta salata. Stir it all up.

Turn your oven to 350. Take out a rimmed cookie sheet and line it with parchment. With your hands, form cakes out of handfuls of the zucchini mixture and place on the sheet. Bake for 15 minutes to half an hour or more, depending on how brown you like them. These are great dipped into hot sauce or left on their own, hot or cold. They’re healthy and satisfying, too.

By the time I went to bed my blood pressure had gone down to a soft beat and I felt delicious inside. Looking back I suppose it was deprivation that had been eating at me, that I had just needed to take care of myself better. I was, and still am, so surprised and happy that peace was accessible, and grateful that something in me told me what I needed to do. I didn’t have to hunt for it in a self-help book (which was good, because I never would have been able to concentrate on it) or try 714 different things at random in the hopes that they would pull me out of my anxiety. And paradoxically, by doing this I ended up getting the rest I needed; it was restful knowing I was in a clean house, and that I had great meals waiting for me.

I am sure I have probably offended some people, probably all of them women, by this account of what I did to make myself feel better. I guess it doesn’t seem like a feminist way to handle stress, that instead I should have been strapping on my attache for a corporate takeover or something like that. But I do consider myself a feminist—hard core. A clean house and a full larder is what worked for me, though I understand it wouldn’t be everyone’s way out. I admire any way a woman (or man, for that matter) is able to regain peace and a personal sense of power. Maybe that’s what the essence of feminism is, after all. Maybe it simply comes down to each woman knowing she has the ability and the right to do whatever she needs to do to get there.

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I was wandering around in Red Bank’s Galleria last Sunday morning, looking for a little tiny snack to have before going to the farmers market out in the lot adjoining (very dangerous, waistline-wise and wallet-wise, to shop there while hungry), when I passed a little eatery called The Danish Cafe. Immediately I said to myself, “Wouldn’t it be nice if this was an actual Danish place, as in Denmark Danish, with Scandinavian cuisine, instead of doing what it probably does, which is to offer scary yellow ‘Danish’, sodden and leaden, with that ghastly colored gel in the middle?”*

But guess what? It actually WAS an actual Danish place! As in Denmark Danish! Totally brand new to me, unless you count the cute little Scandinavian bakery in EPCOT.**

This place—wow. Smorrebrod! Red cabbage! Rye bread! But now, remember–I was just there for a snack. So I didn’t try any of that (this time), but instead asked the server about the pastries in baskets on the counter, all of which looked as though they had advanced degrees in integrity. There were nicely-browned cinnamon buns and Danish, with several varieties of filling in the latter. I asked if all had been baked that morning. He nodded. Good answer.

I chose a cheese Danish and took it outside. Maybe you’re the same; when I think of Danish, besides the gruesome descriptors above, I think of it as sort of doughy and malleable, as if you could, with a few squeezes and pinches, make an ashtray out of it for your auntie. One bite of this told me otherwise: It crackled and shattered in my hands, revealing it was made of many, many buttery layers. And the cheese within was soft, fresh-tasting, delicate and tangy; in other words, it did not taste like an afterthought, as I am (and I suspect most of us are) used to.

Nothing puts a smile on my face like finding out people care. Nothing makes me GRIN like knowing where those people are. Looking forward to an open-face roasted pork on rye.

*As any qualified mathematician can tell you, jaded + hungry = cranky.

**Which I love, and I gobble their lefse (sweet dough slathered with butter and cinnamon sugar and rolled up) without fail every time I get down there.

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Peach blueberry pie, Red Bank.

Mid-April. We turn our winter weary selves to the strengthening sun and take deep breaths of the sweet air. The world is yawning, stretching, and growing greener. Another spring.

The predictable sameness of the supermarket isn’t going to cut it this time of year. A farmers market is. Hat, small bills, some cloth shopping bags (French housewives know the stretchy mesh kind are best because they can always fit one more onion), and off you go. Ride that spring momentum.

Like New York City during Fashion Week, the farmers market is a seasonal showcase; specifically, for the local and the just picked. This is what’s in fashion from the earth, right now. Produce sold there is going to be more nutritious, more flavorful, and often cheaper than whatever the supermarket has recently misted with water and glossed with wax.

Young cheese, Red Bank.

This is an opportunity to try stuff you’ve always wanted to, or to try stuff you’ve never even seen before. The blog you’re reading says ‘open your eyes’ at the tippy top for this very reason. If you’ve only ever shopped at supermarkets, going to a farmers market is like entering another galaxy—albeit one right at home—and in the best imaginable way. It’s a way to make your life bigger. Sniff the freshness of lemon verbena now, be dazzled later in the season by the explosion of sweetness in an heirloom tomato. Take in the greens and golds, the deepest, plummiest purples.

One of the best things about farmers markets is of course that they feature farmers. And bakers. And other people who are invested in what they’ve grown or made for you. They’re excited to talk to you about it. Questions are good. (Once a supermarket cashier held up the greens I had put on the conveyor belt and asked me what kind they were. This is not good.) You can talk about butterstick zucchini with the guy who planted it, tended to it, and picked it. This bin of zucchini is his labor of love, not just his job. And the man can give you recipes in his sleep.

Introduce yourself and get his name. After you take the zucchini home and cook it, go back and tell him how much you dug it. Or tell him you fouled the recipe up, if you did. He’ll give you pointers on how to get it right. It’s hard to beat that kind of attention and service.

Local brown and white eggs, Asbury Park.

Collards, Atlantic Highlands.

Ask for a taste. (You can do that there.) Prepare to be surprised. Ask more questions. You’ll find out oddball stuff, like if you add a teaspoon of almond extract to peach pie it will make it celestial. Think about what an almond looks like in its shell and what a peach pit looks like. Pretty similar, right? It’s because peaches (and nectarines, and cherries) and almonds are all cousins. Because of that, they have a natural affinity for each other.

Have you ever bitten into a strawberry that was picked three hours ago? It’s still warm. Chances are it’s also smaller than the ones you’ve seen at the supermarket. Often those are dipped in chocolate—and a good thing, too, because on their own they taste like wet cotton balls. Big strawberries are bred to 1) wow you by their size 2) sit on a shelf for a week. Flavor? Niente.

Taste one that’s small and local. That means it’s bred for flavor, which further means it’s never going to be sold in a supermarket. The farmer grew this variety because he knows he can pick these little guys, pack them in the back of his flatbed and get them into your hands inside a day.

Red cabbage, Asbury Park.

Hot pepper jam, Asbury Park.

If you come across a table behind which stand an elderly woman and her son, and you can’t pronounce their last name, and they make old-style sour rye bread, please buy one.  Ask the woman how long she’s been making bread and why she still does it. She wants to talk about it.

Last summer I met a portly man whose parents taught him to make focaccia and fresh bufala mozzarella, in his hometown of Rome, 50 years ago. I could tell you how good this bread and cheese tasted, but you’ve probably already guessed.

Many of these purveyors are keeping ancient traditions alive. One taste, and both the flavor and the link from past to present will astonish you, bring tears to your eyes if you let it.

Heirloom tomatoes, Asbury Park.

Everyday life can make our heads spin. But farmers markets can bring us back down to earth, literally and figuratively. The growers chatting, your neighbors browsing and tasting along with you, the pooches scooting along beside them—all make a farmers market a bustling place. But paradoxically, it can also give us a sense of peace. The handmade, the homegrown, and the people who offer it have the power to soothe the overwrought spirit as well as to make us feel more alive. It can make us want to stretch along with spring itself.

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