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Posts Tagged ‘Ziploc’

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Project: Crack Open Black Walnuts. Me: Luke Skywalker trying to infiltrate the Death Star. A lot—a LOT—of little Death Stars.

I’m writing this on the night before the U.S. inauguration, trying to keep my mind occupied with something more positive than the impending event. Bear with me.

Last October I dragged a Hefty bag containing some three gallons of local black walnuts upstairs to my apartment. Then I began what was a month-long, three-part combo platter: 1) Husk the green hulls and contend with the damp, inky-brown insides. 2) Dry (and turn daily). 3) Crack and pick.

Item 1 took me about an hour and a half, sitting on the floor of my kitchen while wearing rubber gloves which soon ripped at the tips. That was just to remove the top hulls.

Item 2 required turning over the damp nuts every day to allow even drying. I sliced open the Hefty bag and used it as a tarp, setting it by a radiator.

Item 3 took the better part of two days, and truthfully? I still have a half gallon to go. Once I had about a half-pound of nuts shelled for a pastry chef who has visions of (holy cow, get ready) tarts filled with chocolate, caramel, and black walnuts, and topped with whipped cream infused with white pine needles (they taste like wintergreen; still have to get that for him) and candied kumquats, I stopped. I mean, I toasted the little guys, popped them into a sandwich-sized Ziploc, and stashed them in the fridge.

That’s the really abridged version of Item 3, by the way. You might be thinking you crack black walnuts with a basic nutcracker and fish out the nuts easily, as you would on Thanksgiving, stuffed and semi-catatonic. Oh, how wrong you would be.

Loyal reader Angie, retired Kentucky farm girl, tells me that in the ’50s and ’60s her family used to back the family truck over the nuts just to get the green outer husk off. This just goes to show you how tough the bad boys are underneath. Angie’s mom, come Item 3, would use a hammer and nail to open the nuts. I used a cutting board, a dishtowel, and a brick.

Wrap the nut in the dishtowel, set it on the cutting board, and clobber it once, with good spring back, to split it. Think Thor and his hammer. Many’s the time it doesn’t crack the first time, or the second, or the third. The goal is to hit it hard enough to open it, but not so hard that you crush everything inside. It took me about five minutes per nut to open it and pick the meat out. (I used a vintage fondue spear.) This is why black walnuts are $14/pound.

I told friends that my neighbors, hearing the erratic pounding over several hours, were probably wondering if I’m perhaps nailing together an armoire very, very slowly. That was the sound.

Raw, the nuts have a strange flavor. I wrote to Angie and said, ‘Are they supposed to taste like a garage?’ She about laughed her posterior off. I mailed her some to taste. She told me they were perfect, that she had not had them in decades, and loved them. I toasted them and was surprised to find not only that it immeasurably changed the flavor, but that they had sorta grown on me.

Matt (the pastry chef) is getting the lion’s share; I’m giving Angie some more (I know you have to go easy on them, A); and the rest are for me. I’ll work on them again sometime next week, leaving my neighbors to wonder how big that fekakte armoire could possibly be.

This project also helped keep in sharp focus that I am an American, delivered to this sacred ground by ancestors who left their homelands for my benefit, so I could be in a place where I could steer my own life. We don’t yield. It’s our birthright. It’s the whole point of this place. My back is sore, my cutting board is permanently pocked, my dishtowel is stained and nearly shredded. But I got what I was after.

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An American black walnut.

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What’s the difference between what truly satisfies and what doesn’t? We’ve heard about determining what’s enough; that’s been posed at least since the ’90s, when the Benetton and zircon-brooch* excess of the previous decade got to all of us. The threshold of enough is in the eye of the beholder, and for me, it’s pretty easy pickings.

It’s being in reasonably good health (check), which I don’t take for granted after many years of stress-related illnesses and a further-cheering car accident chaser. It’s people around me who want to be there (check). A non-leaky roof over my head and warm walls within a safe town (check). Having a few electronics and a car that behave (check). A well-stocked kitchen (checkity check check). Grains, olive oil, good quality chocolate**, milk, yogurt, some protein. An avocado ripening on the dining room table is a lovely thing. It’s having a freezer with butter and snoozing yeast, slices of my homemade coffee cake, tubs of chicken broth, Ziplocked fruits I’ve bought, foraged, or picked at the farm. That’s close to what constitutes enough, at least for me.

One step farther. What’s the difference between enough and plenty? What constitutes plenty? Because as I see it, if we’re operating from a place of plenty, it significantly changes our experience of the world. It feels a lot different than enough.

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I saw this book in Anthro as soon as I started thinking about this post. Riddle: How many Plenty books are plenty? Answer: JUST ONE. Ha! I slay me.

Lest you think I’m advocating the spend-happiness of our culture, no. When it comes to buying extras, I generally don’t. I’m not a stuff person. Small and manageable is my thing. (To further amplify: I don’t have a kazillion dollars, but if ever I did, I wouldn’t build an 11-bedroom monolith to myself with two sun rooms and a cat porch.*** Plenty might mean torso-high vases in a color West Elm calls ‘aubergine,’ but I’m skeptical.)

Plenty, like enough, is in the eye of the beholder. The Danes have a word that comes closest to what plenty means to me: hygge (pronounced HUE-gah). There’s no clear-cut translation into English, but here: it’s the well-being that comes from creating and living in a place of warmth, coziness, and safety, of enjoying the good things in life with the people who matter most. That’s a different planet from enough; that’s letting the peace that comes from plenty wash over you, and deliberately and consciously sinking into it. I think it’s worth seeking out, for ourselves and for the old ripple effect of it, you know?

The last time I felt a sustained sense of plenty—I narrowed it down—was in the late ’80s when I wore Benetton and zircon brooches and was sent to a small boarding school with my brother and sister. It was an unusual place, one in which I felt constant, enthusiastic, and unconditional support from the staff. And the food was decent to boot. I remember crossing the grounds at night on my way to the library, looking up at the winter sky, and feeling deep peace, of being right where I wanted to be and with the right people.

I’ve felt a sense of plenty in bits and pieces many times since then, and have made a point to suck the marrow out of each instance. It hit most notably a few years ago when I had a surge of creativity that brought me squarely into food writing as well as bigger leaps into marzipan-making and theatre. I’ve always been a project person, but I was unexpectedly gobsmacked with a whoosh of new and cool and way more fulfilling. The Mad Hatter told Alice that she’d lost her muchness, and so had I. I got it back. I had to slay a few Jabberwocks to get there, but all in a day’s work.

It hit again recently when I had a windfall of sorts and felt a calm ooze over me like warm blackberry honey. That evening I zipped off on my bike. And with no plan at all I felt my feet take me to places I’d never been before, found new foraging grounds, and came within a few yards of one seriously surprised white-tailed deer.

My years of working with children taught me that the more secure kids feel, the more adventurous they are. It does not fail. That night felt like a crazy and delicious head trip, but it wasn’t drugs. It was the plenty.

I’m still looking for that elusive sustained plenty, that sense not just of having enough but of being sated. I’ll know it when I see it.

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Macy’s, for example, spells it wrong.

Here’re a few ways I feel the plenty, when I find it in bits and pieces.

-A shamelessly exuberant, burst-open flower.

-A really good conversation.

-Harvesting anything, especially foraging, and really especially finding new plants.

-The beach—its smell, its textures, its ever-changing and unabashed wildness.

-Nailing a cue onstage. The tougher, the bloody well better.

-Kneading and punching down bread dough.

-Celebrating every season.

-Making something with my hands.

-Warming someone who’s been cold inside.

-The magic in a genuine connection.

-Watching a small-town parade.

-Dramatic weather—being utterly immersed in snowflakes, blowing leaves, or fog.

-Noticing something beautiful amid the ordinary.

-Writing this piece. It’s been banging around in my head for months.

-A full-fat ice cream cone.

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*I had a bunch of these and wore them with a shoulder-padded black jacket and looked FLY, dude.

**Hey, I made that the third item and not the first. Impressive!

***I have no idea what this is. I hope I just made it up. Please don’t google it. If you do, please don’t tell me it exists.

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Not a lemon cake. Read on for the gripping truth!

I am not an Elvis fan. I mean, I’m not a mouth-foaming, sobbing-on-the-steps-of-Graceland Elvis fan. Seems to me there’s no other kind, and moreover it would require a Swiffer and a lot of Kleenex. I’m not lazy, but that’s a lot of work. His music is good. But his food is even better.

Whenever you see a muffin, crepe, milkshake, or anything named the ‘Elvis’, it usually contains chocolate and/or peanut butter and/or bananas.* And if it can be deep-fried, it will be.** I love it all. But I have a favorite, and while it smugly holds its own in the fattening department, it features none of the above attributes.

Years ago, back when there was a Gourmet Magazine, the editors interviewed Elvis’s personal cook. This lovely lady heaped them with the best kind of blessing: she gave them the recipe for Elvis’s favorite pound cake. The editors mince no words: it was the best pound cake any of them had ever eaten.

The cake looks like nothing; you’re already glancing askance at the pictures wondering why I’m suddenly trying to bore you. Maybe this will help: It contains two sticks of butter, seven eggs (which explains its yellowy-ness), three cups of sugar, and a cup of heavy cream.*** It also calls for cake flour—much more powdery soft than regular AP flour—and has you sift it three times for the ultimate in lightness.

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Those crumbs are so gracefully arranged, aren’t they? Within seconds they were disgracefully devoured.

Yesterday was the Fourth of July, Independence Day here in the States, and I was torn between two recipes to make for the pre-fireworks picnic I was going to with friends and family. I have always wanted to make this cake, but whined internally that I wasn’t feeling awake enough to handle it. Halfway to the store for ingredients to make cookies, I told myself to stop being ridiculous and bought cream and a pound of butter to make it.

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The snickerdoodles will have hold their snickering.

It came out of the oven about half an hour before I was supposed to bike out to Asbury Park. I sliced it up still warm, and it was like slicing through warm wax—the tenderest, squishiest texture, comparable only to the King’s own belly. (One begat the other, after all.) I wrapped the pieces one over the other in parchment. Then I put it all in a Ziploc, closed it only halfway so steam could escape, and loaded it into my backpack.

The friends and family and I ate Cuban sandwiches and caramelized plantains and then we ate cake. The best reaction came from young Charlie, whose eyes widened as he ate. The King must have been watching from up north, and if that didn’t put the sparkle in his sequins, I miss my guess. I sent the leftovers home with Charlie and his family. Elvis would have wanted that.

And the recipe was not lost to the ages; it’s on Epicurious now, making me happily reconsider my agnosticism.

I have three pound cake recipes. Two are Martha’s, and they are sensational. But I concur with the Gourmet crew: this is the best I have ever tasted.

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Cooling by an open window and toying with the neighbors.

*You will never come across an Elvis spinach salad or hummus platter.

**OH, somewhere someone has figured out a way to deep-fry a milkshake, don’t you think otherwise.

***Crap, I meant to suggest you swallow a Bayer before reading that.

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