Creamed Spinach (for Lanny).

Do you know creamed spinach? It is, in my opinion, one of the dishes given to us by the gods to make our lives more than usually glad. I even loved it when it came out of those horrid little plastic packets that ’60′s moms dropped in boiling water before snipping open and decanting. I loved it when you could get it by the bowlful in a little restaurant in downtown San Francisco: a perfect lunch. I have loved it in every incarnation I have ever eaten it in steakhouse restaurants specializing in the stuff as being the only side that didn’t overly gild the beef lily. I even loved it through my many experiments with overly fussy recipes: bechamel, garlic, white wine and all.

But really, as so often proves to be the case, simplest is best. Simplest, unadorned, classic, one skillet creamed spinach. Easy. Quick. Adorable. Liable to draw loud bouts of applause at the dinner table. Delicious and good for you.

This is how:

A big armload of fresh spinach (more than you think you’ll need, it cooks down incredibly like all greens)
Butter
Shallots, minced
Wondra flour (or plain flour, but Wondra mixes better)
Lemon
Nutmeg
Salt & pepper
Cream

Ready?

Take your large bag, or part of a large bag, of preferably organic spinach. Dump in a colander. Wash thoroughly—fresh spinach has a tendency toward clinging dirt, a sign of its serious organic intent. Drain but don’t shake off all the extra water still clinging to the leaves.

Heat a large skillet on medium low (or big pot, or whatever you have, as long as it’s big enough to hold the spinach before it cooks down). Add a chunk of butter. Say one or two tablespoons.

Mince one or two shallots, however many you like. Add to the butter. Push around until they start to sizzle and soften. Don’t brown them (although if you do, don’t panic, they’ll still taste fine as long as they’re not burned).

Add a tablespoon or so of Wondra or plain flour.

Watch carefully now, so the flour and the shallots don’t burn. Stir around so a paste forms and cook it a bit.

If you’ve used plain flour, turn the heat way down and cook it an extra few minutes to get the floury taste out. Wondra mixes more quickly, so you don’t need this step.

When a paste has formed and is starting to turn golden, prepare to act quickly.

Turn the heat up under the pan to about medium high. When the contents of the pan start to sizzle attractively, dump in the spinach with the water still clinging to its leaves. This is important. It’s this water hitting the hot pan and creating steam as it evaporates that is going to cook your spinach quickly, so it maintains its lovely fresh spinachy taste.

Turn the spinach over and over in the shallot butter as it cooks. Tongs are very useful for this. Watch the fresh spinach shrink and turn into cooked spinach.

Squeeze some lemon over, as much as you like. Hear it sizzle? It’s cooking the spinach too, as well as adding flavor.

Add a little salt. A little fresh ground pepper.

Now stand over the pan with your carton of cream. Add a little. Stir till it amalgamates with the butter and flour. Add a little more. Stir again. Add as much as you want, and cook down till it looks creamy and good.

Grate some fresh nutmeg atop. A grate or two (I usually do three). You won’t taste it later, but it’ll make a difference.

Turn off the heat. Give it a final stir.

And serve.

 

I made this on Easter to go with a lovely bit of lamb for my brother John, and he immediately asked how it was done—it tasted so much of our childhood festivals. Then I served it up last night to my friend Lanny (there was spinach left in the fridge from the Easter binge on the weekend) to go with a mushroom and garlic frittata, and SHE said it reminded her of eating in a German restaurant when she was a child, and how did I make it? So it seemed important to get it down. It’s so simple and good, and it does tend to remind those of us of a certain age of a happy childhood. Even when the childhood in question wasn’t really particularly happy. It was, though, I maintain, whenever we ate creamed spinach.

Creamed spinach to the fore! Onward!

(And don’t forget leftover creamed spinach is a very handy thing to have, if you can ever manage to have some. Folded into a French-style omelet it is, I still maintain, food for the gods and goddesses in your life. Put some sauteed mushrooms atop, and sit back to bask in the admiration of those you love.)

 

 

 

 

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Kentucky Curry or Talking Food Over with Friends.

One of my favorite games is the ‘what’s in your refrigerator?’ game. What I like to do (in fact, I get so enthusiastic in this game that I end up tripping all over myself in my eagerness to play) is get on the phone with a friend or two, find out what they’ve got in their kitchen, talk about what they feel like eating, and then construct a menu out of those elements.

It’s especially fun, I have to admit, when the person whose kitchen is at issue insists there is NOTHING in that kitchen with which to make a meal. I once came up with six different possibilities for dinner in such a kitchen, but of course, Jennifer and Jeff, the couple who owned the kitchen, had totally forgotten all that late autumn chard they still had in their garden, and the bowl of purple potatoes on the sideboard. Not to mention the eggs.

Recently, I played this with my friends Margaret Hultz and Marie Davis, who, I must admit, are no slouches in the kitchen stocking/cooking department. I mean, when they told me what they had in their refrigerator, and the cupboards surrounding that refrigerator, I was overwhelmed by an embarrassment of riches, as it were. And they knew it, too. In fact, I realized that they were just being kind, letting me play with their kitchen like that. They had contributed to EAP’s Indiegogo campaign (as if their writing wasn’t enough!) and asked for that  phone call game as their perk. I think they were just being friendly. They didn’t need me at all. Still it was fun to play.

And their kitchen, in the South, was filled with typically American 21st Century ingredients, as well as all the bounty one expects from a southern household that keeps a garden. So, I mean, this was such a no-brainer, I had to make it more difficult for myself. I cudgeled my brain as to how to do this as Margaret chanted, “And then there are the vegetables we froze from the garden, there’s green beans, and okra, oh, and tomatoes, I almost forgot that, and…”

“Wait, wait, wait!” I wailed. “Isn’t there something you have in there that you don’t know what to do with? Something I can really (figuratively) sink my teeth into?”

There was a moment’s silence.

“Well,” Marie said finally. “There’s that coconut milk.”

“I don’t know what she was thinking, buying that coconut milk,” said Margaret.

“It is just sitting there,” Marie admitted.

“Hah!” I said. “HAH! Eureka!” Then I said cautiously, “Wait a minute, in all that list you gave me, you never mentioned garlic or onions.”

“Oh,” Margaret scoffed, “Of course we have THOSE.”

“We ALWAYS have those,”  Marie said.

True cooks. That is their mark. So for two true cooks, who let me play with their kitchen that day, I made the recipe below, from ingredients they found in their refrigerator:

Kentucky Curry (atop Tabouli Salad)

For two you need:

A chopped or sliced onion
A bit of minced fresh chile pepper or a pod of dried
Frozen vegetables from the garden: green beans, okra, tomatoes
Whole peeled garlic cloves
Coconut milk
A bit of olive oil
A bit of minced fresh ginger
Curry powder
Salt
Chopped fresh mint from the Southern winter garden

&

Tabouli
Kale/parsley/romaine salad
Lemon juice

In a big skillet, fry the chopped onion till soft. Add a bit of minced fresh chile pepper or a crushed dried chile pod. Add the minced ginger and about a teaspoon of curry powder. Salt. Taste to see if you want more curry powder, and if you do, then add a little more. Fry till it all smells heavenly of curry and ginger. Then add as many frozen green beans and okra as you think both of you can eat, with a few over for lunch leftovers the next day. Coat well in the curry oil, then add the whole garlic cloves and one or two or three frozen tomatoes, chopped. Cook it all till the veggies are defrosted and the tomato has started to disintegrate. Then add enough coconut milk to make a nice sauce, as much as you like. Cook till the whole begins to amalgamate in a deliriously delicious smelling way.

In the meantime, prepare the tabouli. Mix with as much chopped kale/parsley/romaine salad as you like. Squirt it with lemon juice to taste.

To serve: Spoon the Kentucky Curry atop the tabouli, sprinkle with chopped fresh mint from the garden.

I suspect even more that Margaret and Marie were humoring me with this, in fact, I know it, because I found out later what they had for dinner later that night was reheated pot roast with corn bread and salad and a nice Beaujolais. But I still maintain Kentucky Curry is a cheerful dish to cook in the depths of any winter, and I know for sure that the recipe has already given me a lot of satisfaction: as so often happens in cookery, much of the pleasure in any dish comes from the plotting of it and the thought of it and the enjoyment of the discussion together.

Thanks for that, Margaret and Marie!

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Flood Soup.

It was a king-sized disaster for way too many, but for us, a small one, at least above the anxiety we felt when Alex got caught at home in the biggest flood in Boulder’s history, and I was caught on the way there, unable to make the last 100 miles because of road closures and detours. We had a flooded crawl space, but that put us in among the lucky ones. We didn’t lose our home, or even any rugs, and we were both safe.

I managed to get home in the break between storms–amazing how the roads clear suddenly, and then, when the rain comes again, clog and close just as fast. But I did get home. Tired and spacey after driving 1300 miles with my little dog, but happy to be there, happy to see my loved ones, happy to be home…since home is defined as where your loved ones reside. The Dear Husband had really thoughtfully gone out and bought some grocery store sushi rolls for lunch, so I wouldn’t have to think about feeding us. And he suggested we go out to dinner down the street at the local pub, which invitation I accepted gratefully. Dinner, hearing stories about how our waitstaff had to watch, helpless, as the water roared down the street in front of the restaurant–”right down to where most of us live”–sympathetic ear, back home,  and then an exhausted tumble into bed.

Next morning, I looked blankly into the refrigerator. Well, there was almost nothing there. “What have you been living on for the last six weeks?” I asked, though, amused, I was pretty sure I knew the answer.

“Oh, you know. The usual. Cheese and salsa sandwiches and granola and bananas for breakfast.”

Ah. Thought so. I laughed and started to make a grocery list.

Then it started to rain. Again. Hard. Continuously. You could almost feel the collective anxiety of the county begin to rise. For the moment, it was foolish to think of going outside on the unstable roads, with the sheets of water pouring down. But life goes on, people need to be fed. We were hungry. I’d bought a jar of pickled okra on my way home, and we had some of that, with Alex’s cheese and Triscuits he’d been living on. That was lunch. But what were we going to do for dinner? I considered my possible courses of action.

And then, of course, I did what I always do in these circumstances. I rooted around to see what we had. And I made something out of that.

Here was what we had:

1 old, wrinkled turnip (but turnips can keep a long time, as long as you shave the wrinkles off, they’re always good in soup…)

1 almost equally wrinkled potato, with sprouts (see above comment about turnips)

A half a bag of baby carrots (obviously bought as a salad course for the Dear Husband’s cheese sandwich meals)

One wilted celery heart (obviously left from a bunch bought as a … see above)

A half a bottle of spicy tomato juice

A can of beets

 

I don’t know what that says to you, but what it says to me is soup. Especially on a cold, rainy, potentially dangerous day. Soup. Definitely soup.

So this is what I did:

I peeled the old turnip deeply, until the bit left was white. Then I sliced it thinly, and cross cut the slices until they were minced.

Did the same with the potato. This is an excellent thing to know: sprouting potatoes are fine as long as you cut away all the sprouts and green areas. What’s left is a great addition to soup.

Cut the brown bits off the celery heart and sliced what was left.

Chopped the baby carrots.

Sauteed them in olive oil. Added a little dried thyme and some salt. Wilted them.

Added the juice drained from the beet can. Added some spicy tomato juice.

Added a little juice from the pickled okra jar.

Cooked on low heat until…

All the veggies were tender.

Then I sliced the sliced beets again, and then cut up the slices.

Added them, and rinsed out the beet can with water, added that.

Tasted.

Added a little more spicy tomato juice.

Turned the soup off and waited till dinner…

 

Then the rain died down, and the water that was knocking at our back door gave up and sank back into the river that was running through our back yard.

To celebrate, we sat in front of the fire, he with a beer, me with a glass of wine.

We toasted the end in sight of the flood. We toasted luck to all those who had lost so much that day. We toasted each other being safe.

Then we sat down and ate our soup.

And the Dear Husband looked down at his empty bowl contemplatively, and said, “I’m glad you’re home. I was starting to get tired of cheese sandwiches and carrots after all.”

 

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A Medium-Sized Disaster and Calamari Steaks.

It took a medium-sized disaster to teach me how to really cook calamari.

So our kitchen flooded when we were away (don’t ask), and we’ve been living out of suitcases in various houses and motels, the dogs and me and the Beloved Husband, while the contractors and the insurance company put us back together (thank you, State Farm). And this is not a small disaster–like a fender bender–or a large disaster–like illness or injury–or, fortunately, a mega large disaster which we can all imagine and shiver at, and which I will hurry past. No, this is a garden variety medium-sized disaster, where you and/or loved ones are inconvenienced but not harmed. Which has its own repercussions at meal time, i.e.: meal times are a particularly good time to knit up any raveled sleeve of care, laugh away any frustrations, reaffirm that you are all whole and well and safe and relatively sane, and remember how lucky you are to be all that when so many people aren’t.

The lovely woman helping me with my insurance claim has been steadfastly amazed that we would rather live in cheaper digs and make our own meals, than in the (Insurance reimbursabal) local hotels with all our restaurant meals paid for. But, while we like to dine out very much, it is not the same as dining in. And it is definitely not the same as the healing power of dining in while you have the cuts and bruises and scrapes of a medium-sized disaster.

And, as always, I learn things from thinking about what we’re going to eat, and then preparing it, and then sitting down with the Beloved to dine.

Hence the calamari.

Now, why calamari, you are saying. Or perhaps you are even saying, what calamari? What IS calamari? So I’ll start with that. Better to be blunt and have it out immediately rather than trying to put one over on you. Calamari is squid. Yep. Those little things with tentacles. Except in this case, calamari is calamari steaks, which are, presumably, cut from the bodies of REALLY BIG SQUID. These steaks are white, and oval shaped, and scored for tenderness, and they’re usually fairly inexpensive as seafood goes; I know they’re sustainable…at least they are for the moment, who knows for how much longer with those industrial sized, computer driven nets dragging every inch of the deep sea floor these days?

But for now, we can enjoy calamari steaks unmolested by guilty thoughts of using up every fish in the sea. Which also adds to a pleasant dining experience.

We both love calamari. The Dear Husband especially relishes it when I cook it, as I used to do in the days before our kitchen was a construction site, dried and lightly floured, sauteed quickly in hot oil and butter, then taken out and kept warm while I deglaze the pan with a little white wine and some vinegar from the chopped up capers I add at the last minute with some paper thin lemon slices. A swirl of butter melted in the sauce as I take the pan off the heat and turn the steaks over in it, a sprinkling of chopped parsley, and he’s very happy. I usually serve this with a little steamed brown rice, and some sliced tomato, say, or corn on the cob, or, in the winter, a pile of buttered peas (frozen are perfectly fine, as a matter of fact).

Here’s the thing about living out of suitcases in a variety of vacation homes: the pot/pan/condiment situation is very sketchy at best. You’re dealing with an eccentric array of cooking equipment, and an odd choice of leftover gourmet flavorings left behind by previous guests. This means that I keep a box with us through every move that includes some olive oil, some vinegar, some honey, a bottle of soy sauce, two bottles of hot sauce, a packet of dried red pepper pods, a jar of garlic salt, and, of course, a pepper mill. Also a few packages of pasta and some cans of tomatoes. A jar of hot salsa, naturally. Then every time we go near a market, I buy a lemon, an onion, misc. veggies and fruit, and at least two heads of garlic.

This gives me enough choices for what to dine upon, as it interacts in my imagination with the too small pan to normally boil pasta, the cheap aluminum wok, and the scratched up, ancient teflon coated pans (in varying sizes) that you always find in these rentals.

Of course, though, there are always baking dishes. Lasagna pans. Every rental of any kind I’ve ever been in didn’t fail to have a pyrex lasagna pan.

So we had been living off the usual salads, and pasta dishes (arrabiata, meaning tomato sauce with garlic and red pepper, being always a favorite fallback position), and baked potatoes because there’s always a toaster oven and I can always go home and get butter out of my freezer, presently plugged into a wall in my living room. Tortillas with melted cheddar and salsa. That kind of thing.

I was getting a little tired of the old standbys., but we were exhausted after a day of more than usually tedious errand running, so I whipped through the market as our last errand. I was wistfully hoping for some seafood. Something for a change. But everything in the market–the EXPENSIVE market in town, too, so there was no excuse–had been packed, literally, days before, or, in the case of the halibut packed that day, cost an outrageous twenty five bucks a pound.

Forget that.

So on my way to the wine section–I really needed a bottle at this point–I had a look in the freezer section. And there were these calamari steaks at a more reasonable $7 a pound, so I threw those in the basket, grabbed two bottles of rose, and headed for the checkout. On the way there, I caught a whiff of freshly baked bread, and saw, to my delight, that Ken of New Sammy’s must have just delivered their sourdough bread; it was still warm. I grabbed a loaf of that (who wouldn’t have), and was out of there in record time.

Back at the rental, though, I realized I didn’t have my usual calamari cuisine accoutrements. No flour, first off. I scoured the cupboards, but all I could find were packets of gelatin (what could they have been doing, making jam?), and some microwave popcorn. And I was uneasy at the sight of those teflon pans. They were so old and scratched I had my doubts about being able to unstick the fish, let alone about what kind of coating chemicals might come with it when it did get unpanned.

Also, the fish was still frozen, and it’s just about impossible to get a nice brown crust on a calamari steak that’s still frozen. Too much liquid.

And THEN to top it all off I realized I didn’t have any rice. I did have some leftover cucumber/tomato/onion/lime juice salad. And I had bought some corn on the cob. So that was okay. But it seemed like we needed something more…

I got another whiff of that lovely bread as I prowled the kitchen. It smelled wonderful. And I thought, what a shame to have such fresh bread and not use it for something. And then I mentally hit myself on the forehead with the heel of my hand, and said, silently, “Idiot!”

Calamari sandwiches. Of course. And then it wouldn’t matter how brown the steaks were, just how they tasted. Then I thought, but those pans are NOT for high heat sauteeing. No, sirree. So I rooted around in the cupboards and found the aforementioned lasagna pan. Standing there contemplating it, a vague memory floated through my head, a memory of the SUNSET fish book (a very sensible and useful thing to have in any kitchen), where, among the many ways to prepare fish of all kinds, they recommend something I believe they call ‘ovenfrying’. I am not completely clear on their instructions, since that cookbook, like so much else, is packed in one of the many white boxes littering my living room at present, but what I seemed to recall was that it involved heating the oven to 500 degrees, putting a pan with oil in till the oil sizzled, then cooking the fish quickly.

Well, it was worth a try, I thought. Why not? So I tried it, with olive oil, and with a lot of chopped garlic thrown on the steaks when I turned them over, so the house smelled incredibly of Spain. And I served them as sandwiches, on slices of fresh sourdough bread, one side which was buttered, and the other spread with hot salsa.

Oh, and I almost forgot–I found the heart of some escarole lurking in the fridge, and I had sauteed that, and spread the cooked greens on the buttered side of the bread, put the calamari on top, enclosed the sandwich, and served with the cucumber/tomato/onions salad and some hot corn on the cob.

It was unutterably delicious. And browned. And garlicky. And messy as hell: the next day, I rooted around till I found a steel wool pad, thankfully, and set to work trying to return the lasagna pan to its former clarity. An impossible job, it’s still a little golden in spots from the high heat of the oil, but this is what happens to pots and pans in rental accomodations. Or should. I personally think it’s nicer to see evidence that a kitchen was in happy use before I get to it.

And this is how to make CALAMARI SANDWICHES WITH BRAISED ESCAROLE AND SALSA IN A VACATION RENTAL.

 

Ingredients for two:

Four slices sourdough bread

Two calamari steaks

A half head of escarole

As much fresh garlic as you please

A jar of hot salsa

Butter

Olive oil

 

Take pyrex baking dish, or similar, that will hold the calamari steaks flat. Add enough olive oil to cover the bottom. Put in oven.

Heat oven to 500 degrees.

On top of oven, heat a wide frying pan to medium high, and add a little olive oil. When oil is heated, add a crushed garlic clove and the escarole, washed and chopped (don’t dry it, it will cook in the liquid left on the leaves). Stir escarole around to coat, turn down the heat, put a lid on if you have one (or a cookie sheet, or something to help the veggies steam), take off the heat when tender. Salt.

If calamari steaks are unfrozen, dry on some paper towels, then add to the oil in the oven. If frozen, don’t bother drying, just put in–you’ll just cook them twice as long; it won’t hurt them at all.  If unfrozen, cook for three minutes, salt, then turn and scatter chopped garlic on top. Salt a little more. Cook for another two minutes–they should be done quickly, too long and they’ll turn rubbery. If frozen, just double time, five minutes on each side.

Butter two slices of bread. Spread salsa on the other two. Spread escarole on the buttered halves.

When the calamari is done, scoop it out and put one piece each on the escarole spread bread. Sprinkle whatever loose garlic cloves and olive oil from the baking pan still left. (Careful! That oil is HOT.) Cover each sandwich with its other half, cut in two, and serve with lots of paper napkins–this is messy.

Messy food is so delicious. And it’s worth trying to scrub that dish back to pristine shape. You won’t be able to manage it, but you can think as you do about how good all that garlicky oil and salsa and squid and greens tasted all squished together the night before.

And it almost makes it up to you for being kicked out of your own kitchen by fate. At least, it did for us.

 

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Potato and Kale Soup…or Caldo Verde…or Tuscan Potato Soup.

Anyone who knows me knows this bedrock fact of my personality: I love anything that makes something big out of something apparently small. I loathe those dishes that include every conceivable expensive ingredient; I would have been hell at a Victorian dinner party, turning my nose up at everything but a dish of sauteed spinach, probably.

And one of the classic dishes that makes something out of practically nothing, the whole being way way way greater than the sum of its parts, is the Portuguese national soup Caldo Verde.  Which boils, literally, down to this: Potatoes. Water. Cabbage.

Yep, that’s it.

I love it.  I loved it when we were in Portugal, where they serve it with every possible meal. They use a special kind of cabbage over there, and the basic concept is you boil hell out of the potatoes until they puree themselves, then you shred the cabbage as thinly as you can (they sell specially shredded cabbage just for this in Portuguese markets), then right before you serve, dump the shreds into the boiling potato soup, cook quickly till done, not more than a few minutes, salt, generously pepper, and serve.

That’s the basic dish.

I do fiddle with it, enriching it a bit at home, but it’s still the same comforting, healthy, sustaining, economical dish it is in its homeland.

My version amps up the taste a bit. And I use my favorite kind of kale in place of the unobtainable Portuguese cabbage (though you can use regular drumhead cabbage, or other greens, as long as you sliver them as thinly as you can). My favorite kind of kale, of course, is called by various names: dinosaur kale, lacinato kale, black kale, Tuscan kale. That last is the result of the first few names not really making it from a marketing perspective.

My dear friend Teri—my accountant—and I have a joke about this. When you can’t sell something, call it Tuscan. She once sent me a picture of a billboard advertising a Tuscan mobile home park. In Oregon.

So if I can’t get you to make this soup when it’s called Potato and Kale soup, how about when it’s called Caldo Verde? You don’t really need me to call it Tuscan potato soup,  do you? I will, though, if you want me to.

It doesn’t matter what you call it, as long as you enjoy it after all.

Here’s how.

Take about 4 to 6 russet potatoes. Peel, dice or slice anyway you want, add to water*, with two or more tablespoons of good olive oil, a minced onion, and a minced garlic clove or two. Boil hard to start with to combine the oil with the water, then turn down heat to medium. Cook to a fine mush, salting to taste. Feel free to mush the ingredients down to taste with a fork or big spoon or potato masher. Before serving, shred a bunch of Tuscan kale, destemmed, as thinly as you can manage. Add and boil for about three minutes till the kale is cooked. Add pepper to taste.

Delicious.

*about that water. It’s particularly good if it’s water that you’ve saved from cooking vegetables. (All those vitamins! Saved! Add flavor!) What I like to do is cook a vegetable hash for one dinner, parboiling the potatoes and greens for the sauteed hash in the same water, which, after they’re removed, I then leave on the stove overnight in its pot–don’t worry, it’s just veggie water; it won’t go bad–throwing the potatoes, onion and garlic for this soup in the next day for lunch. Only one pot! Two meals! You don’t even have to move it to the refrigerator! Save time, eat well! Another one of my many mottoes…

Happy eating.

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Dining with a Friend.

It was a snowy day, and the Dear Husband was off somewhere or other in another clime, and I was homesick for my hearth in Oregon, and the friend there who I liked to sit alone with on winter evenings, drinking wine and talking about things that really happened and thoughts we really have–a rare conversation, generally. How many times do you talk about what’s really going on with someone who will tell you what’s really going on with her?

I had almost given up hope of finding a friend of that kind in the new place we were living, although why I should want to find the same friend I’m sure I don’t know–friends being unique, irreplaceable. It was a lapse. But there I was feeling sad, although we had a new hearth in the new home in the new place (gas, of course, less fussy than wood, more…urban). And I was feeling sad. I had invited a woman I had met only twice before to come share my dinner, but she lived an hour away, and it was, as I’ve said, snowing. I was sure she wouldn’t want to come. And I wanted to let her off the hook. So I called her up.

“Don’t feel you have to come if you don’t want to. And you can wait till evening to decide.”

“Is it snowing? Really? I have a cold, and I’m in bed. I’ll  worry about it later, if that’s okay with you.”

“Of course it is. And here are your choices, if you do decide to come. I’ve just been shopping, so I can give you 1.) macaroni and cheese,  with a celery salad dressed with mustard, 2.) sauteed trout with brown rice and vegetables and wasabi butter, or 3.) roasted vegetables with thyme, and a beet salad.”

There was a considering silence for a moment. A perfect kind of silence, actually. She was weighing the options, she was taking them seriously in a way I thoroughly appreciated.

“Won’t the trout not keep?”

“Naw, don’t worry. I’ve put it in a teriyaki marinade; it’ll only get better. Alex and I can have it tomorrow.”

More thought.

“I think,” she said, and you could tell she was really thinking about it, and the thought was really giving her pleasure, “since I’m sick, I think not the macaroni and cheese. Too rich for a cold. I vote for the vegetables.”

“Veggies it is. If it’s not snowing too hard. And you still want to come.”  I was sure she wouldn’t want to. It was snowing harder and harder outside, and if it had been me…

An hour before dinner, the phone rang.

“I’m up. I’ve been in bed all day and I feel fantastic. Looking forward to those veggies.”

I was pleased. “Don’t bring anything, okay?” I said earnestly. “Anyone who has to drive an hour in the snow to dinner is exempt.”

Chopping the vegetables and strewing them with thyme, I remembered I didn’t have anything sweet in the house for dessert. I’d meant to buy a couple of chocolate bars, but forgot. I always think you should have a little bit of chocolate for dessert. Damn.

When she arrived, she was holding a bottle of wine, and a bar of chocolate. “You should have a little bit of chocolate for dessert,” she said earnestly. I smiled.

I offered her a Kir Framboise. “Oh yes,” she said. You know a Kir Framboise? It’s a Kir, which is a French aperitif made by dolloping a heart of liqueur into a glass of wine–but with raspberry liqueur, framboise, instead of the cassis usually called for. You put a small capful of the deep red purple stuff at the bottom of the glass, and fill to the top with white wine. Delicious. And beautiful, too.

I brought those out along with a few celery and carrot sticks, and a little bit of blue cheese smooshed into some Greek yoghurt for dip. And we curled up in the matching huge chairs Alex and I have by the fireplace with those rosy drinks, with the smell of the vegetables–fennel, carrot, celery, onion, garlic cloves, and sweet potato, all diced and mixed with olive oil and branches of thyme that I dug up out of the snow in the garden–filling the house.

And we talked about things that mattered, the things that mattered to her, and the things that mattered to me, and the things that mattered to us both. Love and art and solitude and companionship, and a few intellectual back roads I was delighted to find she enjoyed a meander on once in awhile. We meandered on them together and sipped our pink glowing wine.

When the vegetables had cooked so long that they were nice and browned and caramelized, we sat down to them and a little more of that rosy aperitif because it was so tasty, neither of us wanted to move on to red wine, and the snow came down outside, and everything was warm and kind and good.

Afterwards, we had a little piece of chocolate or two, because we both know you should have a little bit of chocolate after dinner, and then we said good night, and I sent her on her way (“That was a breeze getting here, even in the snow! We’ll have to do it again soon!”). And as she turned to walk off the deck down to her car, she paused and said, “Those vegetables were delicious. They kept me from regretting I didn’t ask for macaroni and cheese after all.”

“Next time,” I promised, with a laugh, and waved as she drove down the snowy street. And I went inside, quite pleased, because I knew there would be a next time, and I didn’t feel sad anymore. And I slept wonderfully well, all night long.

 

How to make Roasted Vegetables for a New Friend with a Cold:

Take whatever vegetables you have at hand, but always remembering to include onions and whole peeled garlic cloves. As many veggies as you think you’d like and can eat. That night I had a couple of sweet potatoes bursting out of their papery skins. I had an ivory and emerald bulb of fennel; I had celery stalks. I had carrots (of course, I always have carrots), and an onion, and garlic, and lots of parsley. And I had the beet greens that came with the beets I baked for our salad.

So this is what I did:

Chopped the onion.

Diced the fennel, the celery, the carrots, the sweet potatoes, all about the same size.

Chopped the beet greens. Chopped a handful of parsley.

Peeled about a dozen garlic cloves.

 

Mixed all of the above in a big ceramic casserole, anointed them with enough olive oil just to coat, not to drown, salted with coarse salt, and then threw in about five or six branches of fresh thyme. Swooshed the whole thing together with my hands, and put it in a 400 degree oven for about an hour and a half, which is just the right amount of time to prepare a couple of Kirs Framboise for a new friend, and sit with her by the fire and talk about the things that matter to you both. Wait till the veggies get nice and browned and caramelized. Serve with a salad, in this case, sliced beets baked in the same oven, dressed with a mustard viniagrette. A little piece of chocolate for dessert is always nice.

Talk, sip, serve, and sleep well, knowing you’ve dined with a friend.

 

 

 

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A Post Modern Feminist Pasta Salad.

Okay, you’re a woman, and you’re being driven mad by the news every day, is it not so? Is it not that you read about all these white guys blithely talking about what you can and can’t do with your own body, and you start feeling the burqua being lowered over your head, while everyone around you pretends to notice nothing, while they chant, “we are the most advanced and tolerant civilzation ever. We are free, we base our culture on freedom!” And meanwhile, you can feel those invisble fetters appearing and chasing you around, and you watch a lot of young women put on fetters thinking they’re just silly little ornaments to attract the boys. And you get very very frustrated and angry, and you want to rip someone’s throat out, but you feel, quite rightly, that not only is that counter productive, but a big waste of your time. But it’s so damn hot out, that doesn’t help things, yet you feel you want to do something constructive about the whole ghastly situation.

So what do you do?

Well, this is how I feel. And this is the question I put to myself: “So what do I do?” And I think about this time I was working on a film as the writer, a script that originally had a heroine who falls in love with the hero who has raped her. The men involved in this project (there were no women) vaguely understood that something was wrong, but for the life of them, they couldn’t figure out what. So they asked my then writing partner (who, three years later, became my life partner, and then, eight years after that, my husband), and he said that they needed a woman. He volunteered that he knew a woman. And so I came on board.

I was married to someone else at the time, one of the many undiscovered white guy geniuses that one finds all over (especially in certain metropolitan areas, where you can’t throw a bagel without hitting one of them), and so naturally, the Undiscovered Genius spent the days I was working watching television. In this particular case, at this particular time, the Anita Hill hearings. Anita Hill, you may remember (and you do remember if you have the kind of feelings I mention in paragraph one), had accused Clarence Thomas of harassing her at work. He memorably was supposed to have asked her if she noticed a pubic hair on a can of Coke

So I would be at work all day, with all these guys, who were well meaning but largely clueless about half of humanity. And let me tell you, there is nothing like being the only woman in a group of middle aged, clueless white guys for having to suck up offensive jokes at the rate of a cartload  a day. Pubic hair on the Coke can? Hah! Practically a nursery rhyme. I recall one producer who would hug me hello, and run his hand up my back to see if I was wearing a bra. Suck that one up, too.

I had not the slightest doubt that Mr. Thomas said all that to Ms. Hill, and a lot more.

But I’d get home from work on this film, and the Undiscovered Genius who was my first husband would make scornful remarks about Anita Hill, how she was probably lying, how impossible it was that anything like that could happen.

Yes. Well. That’s why he’s my first, not my present, husband. Thank goodness we didn’t live in a theocracy when I got my divorce. We may yet, though. If certain people get their way.

So what do I, we, do?

Here is my most recent solution, not the end of all solutions, but the one I have to work with today. I grit my teeth. I question ridiculous assumptions with as much courtesy as I can muster, never forgetting to question, and never forgetting to be courteous. I use my power when I can. And I get on with it.

In other words, what I think we can do best, aside from defending our own positions and voting and donating where it will most protect women everywhere, is to get on with understanding what being a woman really means, and acting accordingly.

First of all, it does not mean being an imitation man. Hell with that. Anymore than I think it right for a guy to be an imitation chick.

It means being a full person, and bringing to the party what we can to be that and act like that in the polity. Developing ourselves as women, and speaking up from that place.

It means taking pleasure in every day things, and supporting people in every day walks of life, and not dreaming of things and people ‘beyond our reach’…in other words, it means not being conned by the Big Con that says Rich and Famous people who don’t have to take out their own garbage are somehow different from us, and worthy of more respect than the people who do take out their garbage. Because who needs who the most, I ask you? And everyone deserves the same respect, everyone.

So, it means for me that I should concentrate on my work here, now, do the best I can, and keep going.

And to do that (especially in hot weather), I find cooking to be just about the perfect aid to this kind of meditation. I think about what I want to eat. I think about what I have. I think about what my Dear Husband would like to eat. And, these days, I think about how hot it is. Then I start meditatively chopping and slicing and dicing, and if, in my fantasies, as I think about more nation-wide matters, an image occurs of chopping, slicing, and dicing the organs of certain politicians, well, that’s my right to be amused as I get on with it, don’t you think?

Here is an idea for a chopping, slicing and dicing meal during the dog days of having to listen to idiot politicians, ignorant pundits, and malevolent churchmen:

A Calm and Nourishing Pasta Salad.

First off, what do you have in your larder? This is what you should have:

Some kind of onion (scallion, shallot, yellow, red, or white).
Some kind of  green fresh herb (parsley or basil or even cilantro if you like it).
At least two kinds of vegetables (celery, tomatoes, carrots, mushrooms, what do you have in the fridge? even frozen peas work well here).
Fixings for your favorite salad dressing.(Let me suggest a garlicky viniagrette.)
Some dried pasta, any shape, in the amount of your choice.

Cook the veggies that need it. (Although none of the ones I named above, with the exception of the frozen peas, do, come to think of it. It must be too hot for me to even contemplate that today.) Cool.

Make a salad dressing. Okay, I always seek to encourage personal autonomy, but I can still give you my suggestions here, right? I suggest a good strong viniagrette. For half a pound of pasta and a load of veggies, 1 1/2 tablespoons of a good wine vinegar, or 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar, followed by 3 tablespoons of olive oil (with the wine vinegar) or walnut oil (good with the sherry vinegar). Mash a garlic clove into it. Salt and pepper.

Marinate the chopped, diced, or sliced onion in the dressing while you make the rest of it.

Cook the pasta (anywhere from a handful, if you have lots and lots of veggies, to half a pound).

Chop the raw veggies. Or, in the case of the carrot, grate it. Mix all the raw veggies, with the exception of the diced tomato (hold that back for a bit) with the salad dressing. Leave to marinate while the rest of happens.

Let the pasta cool off. I just dump it in a colander, run some cold water on it, tossing it about with my fingers, and then leaving it to drain.

When drained, toss the pasta with the marinated veggies and the dressing. Now add the diced tomatoes. Then chop up as much fresh green herb as you like, and toss THAT. Taste. Need more oil? More vinegar? More salt or pepper? Add judiciously at will.

Then check your teeth. Ungritted? I hope so. Have a glass of wine. Contemplate a world where women don’t have to continually battle against idiocy to make their position clear.

And have a good evening. Turn off the news. Sit with your loved ones. And be happy. Because Living Well is not only the Best Revenge, it’s the Best Example, too.

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On Grief and Baked Potatoes.

There’s this thing about grief: you need to eat what you need to eat when it hits you. But you also need to feed others, if that’s the role you have, and this is a juggling act. In my case, I have a Beloved Vegetarian to feed, and I’m happy to do so–but when grief, or indeed, any other trauma, hits me, I really have to go with what nourishes me. Which is, in this order: blue cheese. unsalted butter, sourdough bread. red meat. And that last is the one that is usually most readily to hand.

So, when someone dies–and in the most recent case (though Goddess knows, we’ve seen a lot of death around here the last few years), the someone being my father, after a traumatic week of his being constantly, conscientiously, and painfully attended by the medical profession–I really really really need some red meat. And some wine. Together. Yes. In a vegetarian household.

You know the way I serve myself here. A big salad (in this case, tonight, a garlic/sherry vinegar/walnut oil  dressing mixed with diced avocado, diced tomato, one scallion, torn basil and marjoram, roasted pine nuts, and grated parmesan, tossed with greens), accompanied by a seared piece of rib steak topped, at the end, with a mashed garlic clove in a tablespoon of butter.Well, that was for me. The Bereaved. Also accompanied by a honking big portion–indeed, a half bottle portion–of beefy red wine.

But for the loved one. No matter how carried away I get by my own grief, or even my own worries, I still constantly consider the meals of my Beloved. And this was no exception. So this is what I did:

Stuffed Baked Potatoes to Be Served to One’s Vegetarian Loved One on the Eve of One’s Father’s Death:

Shove three potatoes into a toaster oven at 450 degrees, after they have been scrubbed and pricked with forks to keep them from exploding.

Make the salad dressing, add the greens on top of crossed salad implements to be tossed at the last minute.

Sit down for an hour or so while the taters cook and have a few glasses of red wine. Speak freely about the Loved Dead.

When the potatoes are done (and they are done and well done for more than an hour after they are actually done, so don’t fuss too much about timing here), take them out of the oven, split them, and scrape out the potato insides. Mash these with a mashed garlic clove, some sliced green onions of some kind (scallions, onion tops, chives…shallots…whatever you have), some chopped herbs (parsley? cilantro? whatever’s in the fridge), some butter, some milk or cream or both, whatever you have, salt & pepper…and the pile these mashed insides back into the potato shells.Sprinkle with paprika, or, better yet, smoked Spanish paprika. And ten minutes before dinner, put back in a 350 oven to reheat. Stick under a broiler if you want browning on the top.

In the meantime, if you are a worried carnivore, broil your steak.

Then serve your Vegetarian Beloved with salad and potato, and yourself with steak and salad.

Glasses of wine for both of you, at will.

Most important of all: TURN THE PHONES AND COMPUTERS OFF.

Eat in silence, appreciating the flavors, and each other, and the fact that you’re both alive.

And then sleep well before heading out for the funeral, and all that entails.

Bon appetit.

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Harissa, Spring Greens, and Me.

I like it when you spot a recipe you want to try and you just happen to have the ingredients on hand. But what I really love is when you have ingredients you want to use in a new way, and you spot a recipe that can be cut to fit what’s on hand.

So it was with me last week.

I’d been nosing around a local spice shop, and found a packet of their ready made Harissa spice mix. There are plenty of recipes around for this rather exotic (Ethiopian?) combination, but since I always like to get a baseline for what someone else thinks something new should taste like when I can, this seemed like an irresistible purchase. So I didn’t resist.

This was their mix. Roasted red japones pepper, cumin, coriander, two kinds of paprika, garlic salt and caraway, all ground together to a brick red dust that smelled heavenly and, I was to find, tasted even better.

Then there were these shrimp looking so good at the market…and these organic Roma tomatoes at a reasonable price for spring…and then, to top it off, the local Farmers Market started up, and everyone was selling the first crop of the year, which is always spring greens. So I got a huge bag of the spicy mix (arugula. mizuma. red kale. more arugula. can’t have too much arugula…).

And there I was. Shrimp. Spicy greens. Tomatoes. Harissa. All the signifiers for those ingredients dancing ’round in my head. How to use? Marinate the shrimp in oil and harissa, then barbeque, serve on a bed of spicy greens, save the tomatoes for another dish? Slice the tomatoes, layer on a pan, spread out the shrimp atop, scatter harissa and oil over the whole, bake and serve with a spicy green salad tossed with blue cheese viniagrette?

Naw. Not. Quite. Right.

There were all these other things I could have done with the shrimp and tomatoes and the greens, things I was used to doing. But I was dedicated to learning something about that harissa.

Then I was wasting a little time I should have been working reading some recipes on the NYTimes site before my free ten articles a month ran out.

And then there it was.

The perfect recipe.

Sure, it used a combination of spices I did not now and never planned to have in which to marinate the shrimp. Sure, it called for big handfuls of spinach, which I only had in frozen form for those emergencies that can only be solved by having frozen spinach on hand.

But there you go, it was so easy. So adaptable. So exactly what I felt like eating.

I wanted to jump up and high five someone. But there was no one there. No matter. There would be by the time I finished cooking.

Harissa marinated shrimp, sauteed with tomatoes and spicy spring greens, on brown rice.

Here’s how:

Take your shrimp (about a pound for two people if this is a main dish, for four if an appetizer–and very good it would be as the latter, too). Mix two teaspoons or more of harissa powder with a pounded clove or two of garlic and enough olive oil to make a nice bright red slooshy wondrously smelling slurp. Toss it with the shrimp. Leave to sit for at least a half an hour. An hour even better.

(And here’s where I want to make a plea for sanity. Why peel and devein them when the shells add so much flavor? Sure it’s messier to eat when you have to peel them at the table, but it’s so much more tasty. And more fun, too. And you can save the shells in the freezer to make a great stock for risotto or arroce later.)

Cook your rice. (You can skip this step if you decide, instead, to wrap the shrimp in heated whole wheat tortillas, another excellent decision to be made along the way.)

Dice your tomatoes, about four decent Romas, I think. Have on hand at least two big handfuls of the spring greens of your choice–more if you have and like them will never hurt.

When it’s just about dinner time, look around to make sure all your forces and all your ingredients are properly marshaled, since things will go fairly swiftly from here on in.

(If you’re using those tortillas, wrap them in foil now, stick them in a 350 oven for about ten minutes to heat…and as you get closer, continue with the shrimp…)

Just about ready for dinner? Heat a large skillet almost to smoking. Add some olive oil, just enough to slide around the bottom of the pan. Toss in the shrimp, continue to toss like mad so that the spices don’t burn, but they do sort of caramelize on the shrimp as they turn pink. (If you took my advice about leaving on the shells, this also helps to keep the succulence inside, another culinary advance.) When they’re half way there (pale rose, say), throw in the diced tomatoes, continuing to toss like mad. Cook for a few minutes till the shrimp are a nice bright sunset pink, and the tomatoes have given up some of their juice and are kind of lying around and melding together with their panmates.

Then add your handfuls of spring greens.

Stir once or twice, just enough to wilt them into the sauce. And…serve!

On rice, wrapped in tortillas, on pasta…whatever you feel like.

By this time, I guarantee, even if there was no one around to high five you at the start of the process, anyone within scenting distance will have wandered into the kitchen, saying something along the lines of, “What’s that wonderful smell? Are we having that for dinner?”

Sit down and enjoy. And I do hope you took my advice about the shells.

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Duck Soup

My idea of a triumph is finding something at the grocery store that is way priced cheap, because no one else really gets what a great deal it is. So you can imagine my delight, the day I went, awestruck, into the Pacific Ocean Market, the Asian market near me. It’s the size and variety of Chinatown inside, I swear, and I wandered the aisles in a kind of trance. Frozen dim sum. A real fish market with real fish (live crab! fish with heads on! fish I’d never heard of!). Seventy kinds of seaweed. Rice, rice, rice. Roast duck, real Chinese roast duck.

Duck wings. Yes. Duck wings. Packed together. 99 cents a pound. DUCK WINGS. NINETY NINE CENTS A POUND.

The Hallelujah Chorus played loud in my head as I tenderly ushered two pounds into my shopping cart. Did I mention they had duck wings? For ninety nine cents a pound? Yes, I thought I did.

Duck is my favorite meat. Duck broth is my favorite broth. And the bony bits of anything edible are my favorite bits of edibles.

So I chucked them in the freezer against the inevitable day when the Beloved Husband would fly off to a film festival, or drive off to a camping trip. And when that inevitable day arrived (yesterday), here is what I did:

Turned the oven on to 400 degrees. Peeled and quartered about five carrots (peels and ends into the dog stodge bag in the fridge to make said stodge later in the week). Peeled about a head of garlic (aside from duck, what I really love is garlic).

Pulled out a large pyrex baking dish. Tossed the duck wings, the carrots, and the garlic with a little salt and spread around the dish. No oil. Duck has enough fat even in the wings, bless it. And very tasty fat it is, too.

Then I shoved the whole lot into the preheated oven. Poured myself a big glass of red wine (aside from duck and garlic, what I really love is red wine), and settled down to watch a day old Stephen Colbert on the Internet. Got up whenever there was one of those stupid Internet commercials on, and stirred the whole wonderful smelling mess around. The house filled with the smell of duck and garlic. The wine glass levels dropped, and were replenished before dropping again.

Watched The Daily Show on the Internet. Continued my evasion of commercials by stirring duck wings and adding just a smidgen more red wine to the glass.

After about an hour, hour and a half of this (at some point, I also started reading a P.D. James novel), noticed the carrots were caramelizing, and the duck wings were nice and brown. I did think I was going to have some of this for lunch the next day, but it didn’t work out that way.

I piled half of the wonderful smelling pile on a plate, poured out a little more wine, and had at it with my fingers.

Gave a happy sigh. Got up, scraped the bones into a soup pot. Gazed at the remaining roasted duck wings and carrots and garlic. Shrugged, gave in to fate, and poured the rest on my plate.

When it was all over, dumped the rest of the bones in the soup pot. Added a couple of unpeeled garlic cloves, a scrubbed broken up carrot, a washed piece of celery, a couple of sprigs of parsley, and a bay leaf. Turned the heat on high underneath, and let it come to a boil while I did the dishes. Turned it down to low, turned it off before I went to bed, turned it back on when I got up. Cooked a couple of hours more, strained it and then….

Duck soup.

Now I did turn that duck soup into onion soup, because I had found a whole bunch of ninety nine cent a pound organic onions at the local market the other day.

But here’s another really good idea, just in case you have some duck broth in your freezer, and you just happen to have a bunch of mushrooms hanging out in the veggie drawer.

Mushroom Duck Soup.

Even better: CREAM of Mushroom Duck Soup.

Melt a little bit of butter in a soup pot. Whisk in the same amount of flour (I use Wondra, but plain is fine); cook for five minutes or so. Stir in a half cup or so of white wine. Then add about 3 cups of duck broth, and a little dried thyme. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, simmer for about ten minutes. Salt and pepper as desired.

Now–and this is the clever part–you’re going to add RAW mushrooms and onion and cook them just lightly. I got this idea from Michael Roberts’ PARISIAN HOME COOKING, and it’s a corker. He purees about a pound of mushrooms and a half an onion in the food processor, but I find if I just chop them fine (and don’t worry too much about the quantities, either, having done this with 1/2 a pound of mushrooms and a whole onion with great success) that not only works, but gives the soup a nice texture.

The lightly cooked mushrooms and onions give the whole soup a really lovely flavor. Add them raw to the simmering broth, add a little cream to taste, and simmer just till cooked through, about five minutes.

Serve hot, and feel happy. As I hope is always true for you and yours at the end of every meal.

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