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Wild persimmons, Navesink, NJ.

Last week I tossed my stepladder in the car and headed out to pick more persimmons in the woods, and right about now you’re all wondering if I ever actually pay for anything I pick, aren’t you? Between the mulberries and wineberries and peppermint and beach plums and quinces and—wow, it really has been a banner year for wild pickings.* The answer is yes; I pay when I pick at my favorite farm, and will from time to time pick n’ pay at an orchard. But the thrill of the hunt that many get from Black Friday I get from what I spot driving down the road or taking a walk. Two plusses on my end: 1) No wallet necessary, and 2) no one’s squalling in line with me. Three, actually: 3) I never have to wrap what I find and stick on a bow, either.

The fruit above was spotted by my friend Lauren, who was picnicking with her kids in a beautiful wood that is also shared by a cemetery. She sent me a photo and asked what it was. I knew they were persimmons, but these didn’t match the shape of either Hachiya or Fuyu, common Japanese varieties. They were as small as cherry tomatoes. A Google search proved it: they’re wild ‘uns. SCORE.

I climbed the hill looking for them and saw there were two trees, right next to each other. I pulled a fruit down and popped it in my mouth. The flesh was slippery and musky sweet. It was a frigid day, but I picked about 20—as many as dinky me on that dinky stepladder** could without also freezing my fingers off.

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Baked Laurie Colwin’s cake as a worthy persimmon vehicle and mushed them up as a topping. Didn’t need to add a speck of sugar to them.

We move on to Thanksgiving Day, when most people are cooking, eating, convalescing comfortably as they watch football, or squalling comfortably in line per above. Most are not teetering on a stepladder in the countryside, cursing first one’s own lack of height and then the stepladder’s. I wanted to pick from the only Fuyu I knew of in all of New Jersey, the place was deserted just as I’d hoped, and I was too low to the ground to pick even one. Cheers!

No, wait! Just as I did my first futile reach, out of freaking nowhere, a guy ambled up the hill right toward me. I called out, ‘I’m five foot three.’ He answered, ‘I’m five foot ten.’ As good a greeting as any, especially when he insisted on getting a couple of fruits down for me afterward. The holiday of thanks was redeemed, and was made even more touching when he didn’t ask if I’d had any kind of tree-raiding permission. Keep your roaring fires and pashmina throws from Nordstrom—that was bloody cozy right there.

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Fuyus, almost a lost cause, deep in the heart of Navesink.

I forgot to tell you the wild persimmons at top were quite pit-ty, but unless I did something wrong, the Fuyus were totally pit-free. They are much bigger, too, and look like a red-orange tomato. I learned that you just pull off the top, dig in with a spoon, scoop all of the goo out, and eat straight up.***

I winged it this morning—made a parfait for breakfast. You can do it too if you raid a local tree, or more respectably a local supermarket:

-Take leftover homemade ricotta mixed with a little granulated sugar

-Add two layers of the inside of a persimmon

-Sprinkle a little ground cardamom on the whole shebang

The Fuyu persimmon tastes a little like its cousin the wild persimmon, but is much mellower–like a very, very, very ripe apricot. Again, no sugar at all was necessary to add to the fruit.

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And you can’t beat the price.

*Wait till next year.

**Santa, please give me a couple of extra inches in height or a small, collapsible ladder. While you’re at it, generously disregard how much of that Endangered Species 72% dark chocolate with blueberries I ate yesterday. Thanks a bunch.

***A handy note about me: I didn’t grow up eating persimmons. I don’t know anyone who did, actually. I tasted one from a store many years ago and remembered it was good, but not much else. I just knew them when I saw them in the rolling hills, and figured everything else out afterward. This is a big part of the appeal.

You can also eat the Fuyu variety crisp, like an apple, but that’s earlier in the season. I needed to wait until the location was cleared out, like, say, on Thanksgiving. You understand.

 

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The wood-burning oven at Rafele.

You might say I made the most of my press pass.

Last Wednesday my sister and I, together with a handful of Australians, Brits, Canadians, and a pair from Sacramento, ate up most of New York City’s West Village. Sorry about that.

To be fair, it was the old Italian section of the Village, which at face value sounds as if we were among scuffling men in overcoats worn at the elbows, mourning loudly of Kids These Days, but it actually meant the district in which some of the oldest Italian specialty shops can be found. Which means good eating. But while Italian they may be, our tour guide Naheem pointed out, ‘Today we’re eating like Americans….We’re going to taste our way through it. Now for realsies, let’s go.’

My sister Amanda is the PR rep for Foods of New York Tours. She totally twisted my arm to bring me along on this odyssey*, which started with pizza.

There are 800 pizza places in New York City. We ate at one with a loyal following since 1975: Joe’s. One-ingredient sauce.** Dripless. Firm cheese. Pliant crust. Only four pizzas are baked at once. These are pizza requisites to those of us in the New York tri-state area, but to out-of-area/out-of-country/out-of-bloody continent patrons, what we call requisites can be sadly lacking. Amanda and I wept a little tear thinking of the crap that passes for pizza in other places, because we’ve eaten it, too.

I asked one of the Aussie ladies if the pizza at Joe’s was different from the pizza she gets at home, and her eyes widened and said, ‘Oh, yes–this is amaaaazing!’ I asked how it differed, and she said, ‘It’s not greasy.’

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Peripheral customers.

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The inside-outside counter at Joe’s.

Next we hit O & Co., the olive oil and vinegar purveyor. They do right by olive trees by harvesting their fruit without shaking the trees, and do not use heat to extract the oil from the olives (which destroys nutritional value, to say nothing of flavor). From little spoons we tasted a buttery, thick, late-harvest oil from Provence, then an early-harvest oil that tasted like crushed arugula. Fascinating.

Bread rounds smeared with Pecorino-Romano truffle cream came next, and as I stood munching on my little slice of fungi heaven I remembered that my sister is not a mushroom person. The hushed conversation went like this.

‘You’re grossed out. ”I’m grossed out.’

Cheap balsamic vinegar was next, and tasted like the kind of wedding wine you get in mini bottles with the happy couple’s name in Lucida Calligraphy on the label. It made my eyes water and got me on a coughing fit. The good-quality balsamic vinegar from Modena tasted almost warm, and was sweet, smooth and thick as honey.

We made an impromptu pop-in at Royce’ Chocolate, where we ate chocolate-covered popcorn, green-tea candy-covered almonds, and tiny squares of…I don’t know, but they tasted as if the pastry chefs made butter cream out of powerful milk chocolate, semi-froze it, dusted it with cocoa, and balanced it on a toothpick. A mouth-melter.

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The next sample, from Faicco’s, might have been my favorite, one, because it was the very first rice ball I’d ever had that didn’t taste like hot spackle; and two, because it was so wonderfully crunchy. No bigger than a plum, it was peppery, cheesy, and I need to stop thinking about it. Moving on.

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There. Now it can haunt on. You’re it!

Palma is the romantic little spot we visited next, and is inside a renovated old carriage house. The restaurant is in front, and the owners live in the back. It’s genteel; you can smell the genteel. Naheem joked, but nailed it: ‘You go in, you eat, you say you’re sorry.’

And the details—milk-glass and fat fragrant roses and paint that’s been loved off century-old cabinets. One whole room was sky-lit, and earthy elements of wood and stone and tile were everywhere. I loved all of it before we even ate. The owners make a point to offer dishes from small Italian cities, dishes people don’t usually get to try unless they travel there. When we ate it was from a platter of chopped cauliflower that was vinegary and delicious. And that’s true, I mean it; but that’s all I remember, because the notes I took were about the setting. It’s really that lovely. Go.

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I mean, look at this. A wooden farmhouse table with roses in little glass cups. We met the woman who cuts and arranges all of the flowers. And tiny, colored ceramic cups.

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Right?

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This was the door, heavy and marred and made more glorious with a wooden latch. I was ready to move in and sleep on the floor.

Rafele came next, where the chef/owner keeps the food pure and the setting comfortably homey. I’ve never been an eggplant fan; it’s usually over-breaded and as light as an insulated leather utility boot. But this rollatini was filled with buffalo ricotta and mozzarella that was like liquid velvet, and was delicate as a pappardelle noodle. The sauce was made from tomatoes grown on the restaurant’s Catskills farm.

Oh, may the industry’s current fancy with farm-to-fork cooking continue. There are a lot of things we can rightfully complain about in today’s world. This is not one of them.

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Rosemary, squash and painted piggies at Rafele.

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Plein-air artist. Came across a few of them. Natural habitat and all.

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This was wild—the entire facade of a teensy, triangular shaped locksmith’s place. All in keys.

If ever there’s something to leave room for. Milk & Cookies, a little storefront with a wallop of sweet smells, you are my friend. I’d been before. This time, we all got cookies right out of the oven: oat-based chocolate chip. Translation: hearty and fat.

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And butter-staining. Look, it’s smirking.

While we ate cookies, I asked another vacationing Aussie, a young redhead, if she liked the food she’s had in New York so far. She told me that she had a good slice of pizza outside Yankee Stadium (bit of a head scratcher, that), but didn’t like McDonald’s. I politely made a face and said, ‘You didn’t really expect it to be good, did you?’ Her boyfriend said that when they told their friends they were coming to the U.S., they all said they just had to go to McDonald’s. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘It’s all over the world. You’ve had it before.’ They said they’d heard the price was better here. And so it was. But they learned the difference between price and value, I suppose.

Cool little non-food side trips on the tour: This is one of the two alleyways leading out from 86 Bedford, also known as Chumley’s, the notorious speakeasy from Prohibition days (Naheem: ‘Where my Canadians at? That’s when you saved us from ourselves.’). When the place got raided, the cops came through the front door, the owners would yell ’86!’*** and the patrons would tear out the side entrances, into the alleyways, and scatter.

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This is one of the boot scrapers (for mud) on the front steps of many residences, and is a reminder that this area used to be very much the country.

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And this is a slice of spicy, firm-edged soppressata made in house back at Fiacco’s, a five-generation business. We were warmed to hear how this shop fed New York City’s bravest, exhausted and famished in the weeks after 9/11, and how those firemen come back every single day to support the shop. Community goes both ways, and it always will.

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Murray’s Cheese is an institution. I had never been. Place is massive. Cheese caves right there, cured meats drying behind panes of glass.

We were treated to several kinds of cheese (the white variety was very young and unpasteurized, and was so wonderfully, sweetly fresh tasting. It tasted like spring, if that’s possible), with a dried apricot chaser.

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Not a cannoli girl so much, but Rocco’s—43 years in business—did a pretty nice job of it. Everything in this sweet shop is made on site and by hand except for the sfogliatelle, for which we can give them a break. The cannoli shells were fresh and crispy, and the filling was not insipid pudding or icing but proper sweetened ricotta with citron.

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And baby chippies.

Happy exhale.

*Oh, like you just met me.

**Guess.

***This historic remnant is still in use today, when we say to ’86’ something. This needed to be explained to our out-of-town guests. They dug it.

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There’s no rhyme or reason behind some compulsions. Take the tart above. I bought some rhubarb and wanted to make something other than the hackneyed strawberry-rhubarb pie, so one night I chopped up the stuff into a saucepan and stewed it down with a little brown sugar until it softened. Made Martha Stewart’s vanilla pudding and set it to cool in the fridge. Then made pie dough, pushed bits of it into brioche pans to make cute little tarts, and blind baked them.

When they cooled, I loaded them up with the pudding and rhubarb. Start to finish was about an hour. Righteous breakfast for the next few days. But the weirdest thing was that I didn’t really have a plan; I just knew the type of flavors and textures I wanted to taste that day. So I sort of walked around the kitchen until I got them.

(An aside: a friend’s son saw the above picture posted on Facebook, said his wife loves rhubarb without strawberries, and would I make a full-sized pie for them for that weekend? Well, yeah. Pucker up, buttercup. They dug it.)

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It happened again earlier this week, this freaky burst of inspiration, and this time with strawberries. For eve’s apple newbie types: I’m a born harvester. Why I don’t know;  I didn’t grow up on or near a farm, so it’s one for the ages. I’ve talked about my craziness for picking stuff, like here and here and also here. Hang tight for more; it’s inevitable, lucky you.

So here’s me going strawberrying twice this week since it’s a short season, and in New Jersey you never know when rain will wipe them all out in a crimson tide o’er the land.

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Loves me a mutant strawberry.

I decided to make a free form, small rustic tart and fill it with sweetened ricotta and berries. Another first. Cooked the fruit down* with brown sugar again, since it’s a little weird versus regular white sugar, and I was in a weird mood again, and it worked with the rhubarb, so etc.

Brushed an egg wash on the dough and sprinkled it with white sugar (brown would have melted or burned) and blind baked that little dude. When it cooled I topped it with my ricotta + a bit of sugar (this is the traditional filling for cannoli, by the way. It is not pudding, nor icing. Gah to the preceding.) I made the ricotta by putting two quarts of milk into a heavy-bottomed pan with 1/4 cup of fresh lemon juice. I brought it to 200 degrees F on low heat. Takes about an hour. It’ll curdle. It’s supposed to. Then I put a lid on it and sat it in a cold oven overnight.

The next day (or 6 hours later, whichever comes first), I put some cheesecloth in another pot with some ends hanging over, and I rubber banded it to the pot.** Then I poured the cheesy goo into it and stuck it into the fridge. Do this, and a few hours later most of the whey will have drained out, and you will have ricotta.***

The happiest part of this: you spent WAY bloody less than buying it at a store, it’s almost no effort, you know precisely what’s in it, and you can use any percentage of milk fat. I am a 1% fan, so that’s what I use. But you can use anything, even skim.

Here’s Mr. Purty. I cut it into three long slabs, and it killed. Making another one tonight.

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I always freeze some strawberries for use later, sliced and very lightly sugared. Many think the inside of a strawberry is white, and that’s because most supermarkets buy them before they ever had the chance to ripen. They’re flavorless, just to tempt us further. Ripe strawberries, right off the field, are red—clear through the middle.

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Like this.

It’s a delirious luxury to buy strawberries you picked yourself, when you can choose the perfect degree of ripeness and flavor; and having them be small, sweet, and organic are major plusses. Christian Louboutin shoes aren’t my bag. A girl needs some luxuries.

Just now hit by the wacky idea lightning again, halfway through prepping more strawberries for jam. It would be wild to make a spread by mixing the jam into melted bittersweet chocolate and milk. Right?

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*I have a reader in Athens who doesn’t say ‘stewed’ or ‘cooked down;’ she says ‘melted’. I love that. Hi Katerina! 🙂

** Can you tell I was classically trained? No? You’re perceptive.

*** If you have a pig handy, they love whey poured into their slop. Just a tip. Charlotte’s Web says so, and we can believe anything it says.

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I ate a slice of apple pie at a restaurant on Friday night. It sat on a plate that was predictably be-squiggled in caramel. It had such sharp edges you could have used it to slice diamonds. It looked perfect—but it was in fact a triangle of sugar.* Heavens to Mergatroid, was it sweet. That was all I took away. Call me a zealot, but apple pie is supposed to taste like apples. Right?

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For hire.

This pie? Pump Gully Washer Slurpee intravenously into Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island while tossing yellow Skittles** into her mouth at nine-second intervals, and it will be a few degrees shy of how sweet this was.

And there was no butter in it. Twist the knife.

Sondheim’s Into The Woods hammers home a crucial point in the song ‘I Know Things Now’, Little Red’s post-mortem of her famous scuffle with the wolf. He’s a real smoothie. ‘Even flowers have their dangers….Nice is different than good,’ she tells the audience. There’s a difference, and it’s important to be able to discern one from the other.

You know what I mean, right? Go to any bakery and you’ll see offerings all pretty pretty inside glass cabinets. Many are over-the-top fancy, squares on a platter with Pollack-like splatters or anti-gravity curlicues hovering above. Not until you try them do you find out if they’re quality or schmutz.

Over-the-top is fine. It is. Go nuts, really. But make sure the quality is there.

The chicken noodle soup below, from Ben’s Best in Queens, NY, is a good example of this. Everything in it is from scratch and is homey, honest and real. It just happens to be served in the dinner dish of a full-grown Rottweiler.

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Woof.

Then there are places that have the decency to offer quality but insist on gilding the crap out of the lily. (Exceptions in the dessert realm are rare, in my experience. Here’s one. And I typically order desserts without toppings, which unnerves the wait staff, which I quite enjoy, and which I describe here.)

But while it’s usually desserts that chefs overdoll, it’s not just desserts. The below pizza was made with homemade crust, fresh homemade ricotta and prosciutto, and it all went into a wood-fired oven flown in from Italy. It was gorgeous, just as it was. So why did they need to pelt it silly with arugula? I ended up dragging the greens off with every bite, looking like a sheep with an iron deficiency. My friend’s little daughter didn’t even know it was a pizza. When it arrived she took one look and asked, ‘Can I have some salad?’

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Demands a lawyer.

How screwed up is the food business? Last point of exasperation: inventing stuff that looks cute but makes no conceivable sense in your mouth, like peanut-butter-and-jelly sliders. These are on the menu at a place near me. Adorable little hamburgers—charmers!—topped with…yeah.

Audible sigh.

The American public (and others as well, for all I know) is smitten with nice instead of good. What gives, and what prompted this?

*Corn syrup, more likely, actually.

**Slurpees and Skittles are corn syrup tenants as well.

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This is a Buddha burger, from the very popular and much missed ‘grease trucks’ at Rutgers University. It’s a cheeseburger with pork roll, french fries, mayonnaise, and a bunch of other things I’m better off not remembering. I wouldn’t have done this until recently. Then I did, and life was so much prettier.

In one of my very favorite scenes in the new incarnation of the Doctor Who series, little Amelia Pond finds the ravenous Doctor in her backyard and tries to offer him something that will satisfy his hunger. Matt Smith’s charmingly loopy Doctor says he loves apples; she gives him one, he takes a huge bite and then spits it out, calling it disgusting. Same goes for beans, yogurt, bacon…(this goes on). Then he tries fish fingers dipped in custard and they have a winner. Obviously, I mean, who wouldn’t go for that?

Amelia doesn’t understand why he is changing his mind so much. But the well-versed* Doctor Who viewer does: the Doctor regenerates from time to time, and when he does, he is a spinning roulette wheel; every characteristic—physical, emotional, everything—is in flux. When he’s in this state, his food preferences are like that of others in flux—a pregnant woman, or a child, for example. ‘New mouth, new rules,’ he says.

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Asparagus, which I never liked until maybe 10 years ago. Roasted or bust!

I wasn’t ridiculously finicky as a kid—I know kids who will eat nothing but processed cheese slices and frozen waffles—but I decided to abhor certain things and stuck to it. My dad once handed me a morsel of something fried, said, ‘It’s a french fry,’  and watched. That was the tell: if it had in fact been a french fry, he wouldn’t be watching for my reaction. He knew I liked french fries. I handed it back to him. Turns out it was calamari.

No. No way. Not when I was eight.

Another time I asked if whatever he was making had mushrooms in it. He said it did but, ‘You can’t even taste them!’ My reply: ‘Then why did you put them in?’ This is a tough question to answer if you want to hang on to your original statement.

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Pizza with ricotta, caramelized onions and figs. The second two were no-go’s as a kid.

Environment also plays a factor. We all know kids who wouldn’t even sit at the same table as pasta fra diavolo at home, but if somewhere else, will gobble it blissfully.

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Pasta made with the black ink of a squid and fresh garlic. A horror, both, until maybe five years ago.

But more interesting to me than environment is how time and experience alter our food preferences. We’ll pick the raisins out of everything we see at 11, but at 31 we’ll double them in our cookie recipe.

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Sandwich with tuna and anchovy. First fish, fine. Second, forget it—until I was in my twenties. Now I think almost anything can benefit from anchovy except maybe strawberry shortcake.

For all of the foods I didn’t like as a kid, there are a few I liked then that I’m not crazy over now. Milk chocolate is one. Unless it’s great quality—smooth, not gritty tasting like Hershey’s—I stick to dark. And I hated dark as a kid.

In my wild, misspent youth I also ate chem lab projects like Pixie Stix and those freaky little candies attached to long strips of paper. Do you remember those? The paper stayed attached to the backs after you ripped them off the roll. Fiber and artificial flavors—quelle deal!

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Horseradish, another no-man’s land until maybe my 30s. Fresh grated and kept in vinegar, it’s surprisingly sweet and works in dozens of ways.

My food tastes changed toward the spicy after I had an ulcer. Wrote about it. That esophogeal burden prohibited me from eating citrus, chocolate, and more, but especially from eating anything with so much as a fleck of caliente. When the ulcer was gone, I hit the hot pepper full force—much more than I did before the ulcer.

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The sausage sandwich, that favorite of my Italian family, and its spiciness made it out of the question for me until I was well into adulthood.

New mouth, new rules.

How have your food tastes changed? What did you used to scorn but now love, and the other way around?

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Mushrooms plain grossed me out as a kid. I didn’t eat them until I was in my mid-twenties, when my friend ordered them on a pizza and I was too hungry to pull them off. Now I can’t get enough of any variety.

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When I was a kid, tomatoes always tasted like sodden gym socks to me. I suspect many still do. Then I tried heirlooms. Home run.

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The only nut I’d eat as a kid was peanut butter. Not peanuts, mind you—but peanut butter. Now I love them all. This is a cupcake with my homemade gianduja (Nutella) in the batter and on top.

*Euphemism. Obsessed is closer to accurate.

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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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