Years ago, two friends started a debate about how many dollar bills could be stuffed into a soft-sided suitcase (it was a Le Sportsac, if you must know–it was the 80’s, and we can only apologize for the time in our history when we referred to suitcases by their brand name). “Infinite!” said one of them. “Finite!” said the other.
About three months ago, my friend Suzi asked me to participate in a kind of blogger’s chain letter, a mutually supportive exercise in talking about writing and raising awareness of each other’s work. It was just the sort of thing I ought to be saying ‘YES!’ to, in order to be More Committed To Writing and Building My Readership. And it was just the sort of thing I ought to say ‘no‘ to, in order to be actually more committed to actual writing, and because if one more skinny little figment of a commitment gets stuffed into the decidedly soft-sided suitcase of my mind, the seams surely will not hold.
It should come as no surprise that I said yes. It came as something of a shock that I failed to deliver. I try not to fail to deliver, even when I have overloaded the bag and things are looking burst-y.
Here are the four questions I was supposed to answer, back in April:
- What am I working on?
- How does my work differ from others in the genre?
- Why do I write what I do?
- What is my writing process?
Well, we know I have rather a smart mouth and I am inclined to use it whenever I have questions like this to answer. But I will suppress that tendency, to the best of my ability.
What I am working on is fitting writing, which I have come to see is closely connected to feeling capable and creative in all areas of my life, into a life with a lot of other areas. So I work on keeping this site updated (with varying degrees of success), and on writing for publication elsewhere, while I work on the dozen or so other things that will take all the time I have for them unless they are closely supervised (which takes some time). I work on understanding that I am useless to others unless, and until, I feel that rush of capable, creative energy.
And I work on dinner. A friend asked me this week to identify the loudest or most frequent thought in the cacophony of thoughts in my head. Really, I think it is “what is for dinner?” Sometimes this is expressed as “this is clearly the kind of day when I should have made dinner this morning” or as “I bet I could make dinner out of that leftover chicken if someone didn’t poach it for lunch.” Sometimes as mental arithmetic on when a dash into the store can be edged into the itinerary (“French people shop every day!–those tiny fridges!–so I’m not disorganized, I’m continental.”) or on who will be home to turn the oven off if I can manage to brown things and turn it on before I leave. Or any of the other endless mutations of this thought process that feeding five people can produce.
My process for writing about food is simple. 1. Agonize that I have nothing to say, 2. find that some odd thing about something I’ve eaten is oddly connected to something else that I think, and 3. find, suddenly, that I can’t get anything else done until I solve for all those factors on a page. I loved this post because I always feel I have to aim for something that feels simple and I liked imagining that my marching orders instead were to freely somersault through complex pastries and so forth. Her GF piecrust inspired me to try something pretty fabulous for my mother on mother’s day; I’m of the mind that cherry-picking in a maze of complexity (and mixed metaphors) can be inspiring as easily as it can be daunting. But I try to stick to things that are more broadly considered feasible here. (It was a purty pie, though. Maybe you’ll hear about it later.)
When we are living from grappled meal to grappled meal, I hardly feel qualified to write about anything edible. In a time span largely occupied by four-hour Planning Board meetings, this is par for the dinner course. But a dear friend whom I love to feed came for lunch the other day, and I made time to think carefully about what I could assemble.
Thankfully, it’s spring, and I can poke around in the yard for things to eat. If you don’t live on the east coast, where it has been winter for 7 or 8 months, you may find it hard to appreciate how miraculous it feels to pad outside in bare feet and grab some greens to play with.
I made hash. I made nettle and potato hash. And I imagine how that can sound exotic and peculiar and difficult, and I can tell you that it was easy and satisfying–to think of, to make, to eat, and to share.
nettle & potato hash
Boil one whole, medium-sized, smooth-skinned potato (red or yellow) per person until it is just beginning to be tender on the outside. Set aside.
Carefully pick as many of the tenderest nettle tops you can find (read more about eating nettles here and here, and here, and its merits as a superfood here). Blanch them quickly in salted, boiling water, drain (reserve that liquid for soup or a quick tonic drink for the chef), cool under running water, and chop coarsely.
Mince up a little garlic.
Chop the potatoes into half-inch cubes.
Heat a few tablespoons of good olive oil in a skillet, and saute the potatoes until they are golden and tender, stirring often.
Shove them to one side of the skillet. Drop the garlic into the empty space, stir, and then add the greens. Saute them around for a minute, then stir everything together and season as you like with salt, pepper and (entirely optional) chile flakes.
One rotten thing about modernity is how the word ‘friend’ has been pilloried and debased. Oh, I friended her but she unfriended me and now he’s my friend but not my FRIEND-friend–we’re just, you know, friends. Air-quote, Air-quote.
I love my friends. One unfailing measure, to me, of friendship–the real kind, minus the air quotes and other paraphernalia–is whether I know something about what or how this person likes to eat, and vice versa. It’s a marker of having spent some time, paid some attention. Loves cilantro, hates cilantro, allergic to potatoes, can’t stomach white food, will not eat citrus with a meal, dessert first, no green salad in the winter, not crazy about squash. Those are some of my peeps.
Once I have some curious little fact of this nature to file away, I realize me and this person have moved past the opening event.
A couple of benefits of friends (not the same as friends with benefits, so don’t you start): they expose you to new things to eat, and they often lead you to more friends, who will do the same.
I don’t mean to brag or anything, but Alana is my friend. Marisa is her friend. I’ve had dinner with Marisa and registered how she responds to fried chicken and hot sauce. Now I have a new friend.
This has plenty of benefits. One of them is that I have never had to say “full disclosure” before, but now I can: I received a review copy of Marisa’s new book, with all its handsome new pathways for tasty things to eat. Watch for the R&P plug in the headnote for quince chutney!. It’s like Hollywood, this food blogging business. Limos and swag and webs of influence.
Friends or strangers, Marisa is a hot one to follow, even if you are not (yet) into canning. She gathers up amazing links from all over creation and I always end up cooking something new when she posts them. She’s quick to point out ways to engage mason jars for purposes other than canning. And her canning 101 is a great resource, so you’re in good hands if you do decide to start canning (or take it to the next level) once you fall under her spell.
In my ongoing quest to find something to make eating feel like fun again while we wait for the food to come up, I made a few batches of her herb salt. The total investment was about 5 minutes of active time per batch, and the results were outstanding, something you can play with endlessly and tailor just to your liking.
Basically you mix minced fresh herbs with aromatics and salt, and either let them air dry for two days (her method) or zatz them in a slow oven or food dehydrator (my impatient solution), and then Bob is your uncle. I lightly pounded it all in a mortar and pestle when things were dried out, to even out the consistency. Popcorn, roasted brussels sprouts, my new favorite mixy mixy one-bowl meal, eggs and other items have not been heard complaining when they were dusted with the stuff.
adapted from Preserving By The Pint, by Marisa McClellan
version #1: 1 bunch of fresh cilantro, 1 bunch of fresh scallions, 1T freshly grated fresh ginger, microplaned zest of two limes, pinch of cayenne, 2T good quality coarse salt
version #2: two handfuls of fresh shiso leaf (available in Asian groceries, and in a few weeks as a weed around my chicken coop, hard as that may be to believe now), 2T toasted sesame seeds, 2 cloves of garlic, 2t freshly grated fresh ginger, 1t korean red pepper flakes, microplaned zest of two limes, 2T good quality coarse salt
Mince everything up as finely as possible, then add the salt and mince it all together some more. Spread it on a plate to air dry, stirring occasionally, for a day or two, or put it in an oven, set as low as possible, or dehydrator for a few hours. Pound it lightly with a mortar and pestle if you like, to grind out anything chunky, and fling with merry abandon over anything you like to eat.
It is possible that cautious optimism that it will not always be winter is warranted.
The daffodils are ready to commit. The robins are back. The pesky birds nesting in the eaves outside the window by my bed are hard at work at sunrise every morning, 7 days per friggin week.
This is the time of year that I find I have grown entirely tired of eating, and cooking, and especially shopping for food. Before spring begins in earnest, here in the north east we are down to the bottom of the barrel of foods that have overwintered, like apples and squash, and despite our global economy (surely it is not winter all over the world?) all the produce in the market looks like it was dragged here behind the truck instead of inside it. Nothing imported looks good. Nothing local is up. We are sick of soup, and do not want to hear anyone talk about “seasonal eating” because this is the season when there isn’t much to eat.
It’s a good moment to clean the slate and clear the system out. The change of season always is. But every time I reach for the re-set button, I find myself pretty quickly in a lather of confusion. Go whole grain? Go paleo? Go vegan? A juice fast lasts about a day before I become homicidal, plus it can bankrupt a person in this zip code at this time of year. Between the plethora of philosophies and the lack of tempting ingredients, my virtuous plans often go astray.
I was happy to see this piece in Bon Appetit about making yourself a tasty lunch, for a couple of reasons. One, it reminded me that the road to table happiness for me often leads through the territory of some kind of inspiring condiment. Two, it has some groovy suggestions for simple, appealing ways to eat well. Three, it reminded me that I have often wondered if one could make a savory granola. (The world never tires of pointing out that there are no original ideas anymore.)
I set to work immediately leaving the useful launching pad of their recipe behind, and made two versions that were appealing enough, and different enough, to help me see that it is pretty hard to go wrong and a good amount of fun could be had. One batch used their notion of an egg white as the glue, and that does produce a handsomely shiny product. For my egg-intolerant sister, whom I like to feed, I subbed a chia-seed slurry to hold every thing together, and it worked just fine, though it was less shiny to gaze upon. One batch engaged their same oaty base, and one (hello, Paleo houseguest!) employed coconut instead. This seems like a handy concoction to have around, to toss on top of salads or rice bowls or empty hands seeking snacks.
Guidelines below. Have at it.
inspired by Bon Appetit, April 2014
makes about 3 cups
- 1 c rolled oats, or coconut ribbons or flakes
- to this add a scant 2c c of nuts or seeds, e.g. 1/2 c each of three of these: sliced or slivered almonds, coarsely chopped pecans, cashews or walnuts, pumpkin or sunflower seeds, shelled unsalted pistachios, or pine nuts, plus a 1/4 cup of sesame or flax seeds
- 1 egg white OR
- 1 T chia seed, bloomed for a few minutes in 1/4 c water
- 1/4 c olive or coconut oil
- 1-2 t maple syrup, agave, or coconut sugar
the spice mix:
- 1 tsp kosher salt (or something salty, like the liquid from a jar of preserved lemons, or tamari, etc)
- about 1 T of mixed spices (see below for suggestions)
Heat the oven to 350. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment or a silicone sheet
Combine the dry ingredients. Combine the wet ingredients. Combine the two mixtures and toss well; taste and adjust the seasonings (I didn’t do that with my version 1, and ended up wishing for more flavor).
Spread it out on a rimmed baking sheet lined with baking parchment, and bake it, stirring a few times to prevent scorching at the edges and get a nice even toastiness, for about 25 minutes. Cool it, and store in an airtight jar.
My version 1 had pine nuts, almonds, cashews and sesame on a base of oats. The glue was the chia slurry and olive oil, with a teaspoon each of sesame oil, tamari and preserved lemon gravy added to it, and the spice mix was about 1/2 a teaspoon of black pepper, a pinch of cayenne, and a teaspoon of fresh grated ginger.
Version 2 used coconut as a base; the nuts were almonds, sunflower seeds and sesame seeds. I used an egg white and coconut oil, and added a teaspoon each of cumin, coriander and brown mustard seeds, along with 1/2 a teaspoon of fennel seed and a shake of ground fenugreek, and a scant teaspoon of korean ground red pepper which is very handy stuff to have around–lots of chili flavor with medium heat–and some fresh grated ginger. You can crush the seeds a little or leave them whole.