Category Archives: Jam Today

The Night I (Almost) Poisoned One of My Best Friends.

If it’s true (and I do believe it) that you can only find out what your parameters really are by pushing the envelope, then it’s also all too true that while you’re pushing that envelope, you’re inevitably going to push it too far. Alas. I certainly do, in cooking and in everything else as well. How else am I going to learn if I don’t push it a little…a trifle…too far. I mean, I ask you.

I have to admit, I pushed it a little bit too far last night, making dinner for my dear friend Teri. Now, my dear friend Teri is just about the most wonderful dinner guest you can imagine. The most tolerant. The most non-judgmental. So when I called her this morning, and said, “Oh my god, to think I almost poisoned one of my dearest friends,” she just laughed and said, “I was just thinking about how we had such a good time—neither of us is EVER going to forget last night’s dinner.”

Now that is true. I don’t know how you can forget a dinner that you cough all the way through from the fumes of the dried habanero pepper that somehow got thoughtlessly pounded in with the garlic and cumin seeds and cilantro and black pepper and salt and lemon juice and olive oil, and then used to coat a couple of sirloin tips with the idea of making some gringoesque version of Carne Asada. No, really. You can’t forget it.

Sigh. I won’t forget it. Because that’s what I did. And let me tell you, those fumes from that pounded habanero dried pepper are intense. It was a good thing we had killed a bottle of rosé before dinner; that just made us laugh harder, and made my increasingly intense apologies (the more we coughed, the more I apologized) funny rather than as annoying as they would have been had we both been completely stone cold sober.

Although here’s the thing. I mean, here’s the important thing. It still would have been funny, and fun, and part of our history, even if Teri and I had the same dinner last spring, when she and I experimented with drinking soda water mixed with various flavored vinegars as an aperitif rather than wine—just for the change.

(And delightfully refreshing it is, too, as a drink—our prairie foremothers knew this, and used to serve vinegar shrubs on their front porches in the dog days of summer. Just put a little vinegar in a tall glass, fill with soda water, ice if you like it, stir and sip. The type of vinegar is your call, though my personal favorite is raspberry, closely followed by the alluringly exotic taste of Chinese black vinegar. The Dear Husband likes cider vinegar. Teri likes coconut. It’s all a matter of taste, as in everything else in life.)

That was a nice change, drinking those shrubs. This is what I believe about excess: sometimes you like excess. Sometimes you like moderation. Sometimes you like abstemiousness. It’s up to you to figure out when those times are and act accordingly.

Anyway, last night, we were both into excess, since a period of virtue had made that the most festive way forward. And it was great. Well, it was all great except for that little bêtise of mine involving the dried habanero pepper.

Now, you want to be careful with any kind of habaneros. These chilies rank so high on the scoville unit chile heat ratings that they are probably off the chart. The best way to use the whole, undried variety, in fact, is just to pierce a couple of holes in one, add it to the stew, and then take it out and throw it away before serving the food. Trust me, you’ll taste the spice, but you won’t get scoville’ed out of your seat that way.

So if I hadn’t been so thoughtless—which I think was a symptom of the general ‘let’s celebrate the end of summer’ abandon both Teri and I were feeling—I would never ever ever have pounded a dried habanero in my mortar along with the other marinade ingredients for my carne asada. Because when you heat that dried habanero, the fumes are near deadly. They engage all the senses, and make you cough like a consumptive fiend. No, this is what I would have done instead:

For Nondeadly Carne Asada:

Take some sirloin tips. Pound the following, in whatever proportion you like, or blend in a blender:

Some cumin seeds
Some chile powder
Some dried Mexican oregano
Some garlic cloves
Some green onion
Some fresh cilantro
Some salt
Some peppercorns

Squeeze in as much lemon as you like. Then add enough olive oil to make a nice slooshy marinade, add to the sirloin tips, massage the marinade into the beef, let sit for at least an hour, or overnight if you like.

Then barbeque, or do what I did (but WITHOUT the dried habanero) and sear on a really hot cast iron skillet. While that’s happening, slice a couple of onions and toss them with the remaining marinade. When the steak is done to your liking, take it out and let it rest a few moments while you toss the coated onions on high heat in the same skillet. Serve sliced, topped with the onions, and with the accouterments of your choice. Guacamole is nice. Or just sliced avocado with lime juice squeezed on top. A tomato/ cucumber/ onion/ cilantro salad is good, too. Heated tortillas are nice, and you can wrap the steak and salads in one and make a very satisfying taco.

Just skip the dried habanero. And—very important—no matter what you do, remember that who you do it with is the most important point to the meal. What you want is a friend, family member, or loved one, who will answer your apology for any culinary mistakes thusly:

“PS my memory of dinner is a happy one. We laughed so much while we were coughing, and it was still delicious!”

Thanks, Teri. I had a great time myself.




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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)
Shallots, minced
Wondra flour (or plain flour, but Wondra mixes better)
Salt & pepper


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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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.


*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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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.


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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Personal Autonomy and Potatoes Anna

As always (and it really doesn’t matter what I’m doing, this is what I’m constantly meditating on), I was thinking about how growing personal autonomy is the only possible response to a world out of whack; if we don’t know who we are, how can we know how to work with our world? And there I was getting ready to cook Christmas dinner, which was to be (if you’re as interested as I am in what other people eat) green salad with celery and aioli/lemon dressing, roast duck, scalloped oysters, Potatoes Anna, and See’s chocolates.

I scoured my cookbooks for a scalloped oyster recipe I remembered as being heavenly: all bread crumbs (no crackers), minced green onions, garlic, parsley, with cream on top. But I couldn’t find it. Not in Julia Child. Not in James Beard. Not in James Vilas. Not anywhere. There were recipes with just bread crumbs. There were recipes that used green onions. But none fit the bill precisely, and I knew for sure somewhere in that bookcase was a recipe that fit the bill precisely.

You probably know the end of that story. Yep. Finally I thought to look in my own cookbook, in JAM TODAY, and there it was, the best scalloped oyster recipe ever.

That made me laugh.

It also set me off on another train of thought, while I was throwing together my own version of Potatoes Anna. I thought about why I’d written JAM TODAY in the first place–not to write a cookbook, but to kind of join together sides of life that get artificially separated: as if what you eat every day doesn’t have to do with who you are and where you fit in your world. I really wrote it to support the idea that everyone should be looking at what they’re doing (not at what everyone else is doing), and use that as a tool to understand more fully who they are and who they want to be. Because I really think that’s the only way the individual can be effective in the world, in helping move the world out of its present dead end.

So I know you’re saying, what the hell does this have to do with Potatoes Anna? And of course you have a point. So I’ll try get to that, I swear.

The way I made those oysters tells me a lot about myself. It tells me I don’t particularly like to fuss, but I like to eat. It tells me I don’t have crackers in the house, normally, and I don’t like to buy ingredients just for one special dish. It tells me…oh, it tells me more stuff than that.

And my Potatoes Anna recipe, at least the one I slapped together for Christmas dinner, tells me pretty much the same thing.

Potatoes Anna, in case you missed hearing about her before, is this wonderful dish of a kind of potato cake, crusty on the outside, melting on the inside, cooked in the oven with so much butter you could have cardiac arrest just preparing it (although you pour most of the butter off later and use it again, which is the kind of thing I’m always attracted to).

Now, if you want the most perfect potato dish ever, I recommend you follow Julia Child’s recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Like every one of her recipes I’ve tried, if you follow ever step precisely, you’ll have a most wonderful tasting dish.

But me, I can usually only do that following the fiddly recipe precisely thing once. After that, it’s a free for all. And my basic plan is: make something that fits with the rest of my life (not yanking it in another direction through its complexity), and that is going to taste really good. It doesn’t have to taste haute. It just has to taste good. And like it was made with love.

So here is my Potatoes Anna recipe for two, which really did fit that bill.

Take two russet potatoes (which is the kind of potato I usually already have in the house). Clarify a stick of butter (which means heat at low heat, skim off the solids on top, pour the clear butter away from the curds left at the bottom…voila!)–although you can skip this step and just use a melted stick of butter if you want; the result won’t be as perfect, but so what?

Take a small cast iron pan (mine is about six inches across and just the right size for a two potato Potatoes Anna)…or a small heavy ovenproof/stovetop proof skillet or dish…

Peel the first potato. Slice it thinly (I just sliced these on the side of a box grater). Heat a little clarified butter, in low heat, in the pan on top of the stove. Arrange the slices in a layer on the butter. (You’re going to turn the cake over when it’s done, so this is what will show.) Sprinkle more butter, salt and pepper, arrange another layer. Repeat until the potato is used up. Then peel the other potato and slice, and add to the skillet in the same way. Finish by pouring what’s left of the butter on top, and press the whole thing down with a spatula to get it level. Shake the pan and run the spatula underneath to unstick any sticking taters. (It doesn’t matter if it does stick, it’ll still taste good. And I don’t fuss too much over how things look, as long as they work. I mean, you should see my car.)

Stick the pan in a 400 degree oven and bake for 30 to 45 minutes, till the bottom is all crusty and brown, and the interior potatoes all tender.

Take out of the oven, Pour the excess butter into another dish to use for something else (maybe another round of Potatoes Anna). Unmold the cake on a plate. Cut into wedges, or halves, and serve.


For more people, just use twice the amount of potatoes and butter, and use an 8 inch cast iron pan.

This combines two qualities I find I admire when they’re in close conjunction, in no matter what the arena: practicality and festivity. And if you can manage to be both practical and festive in your own arena, I’d have to say you’re doing about the best of anyone around.

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Mixed Marriages and the Sausage Sandwich.

By mixed marriages, of course I refer to the one joining two wildly diverse sides: the vegetarian and the carnivore.

The other day, I had a chat with my butcher–my butcher!–about this. He was depressed because he said his girlfriend was a vegetarian, and she never let him hear the end of it.

That is sad, I consoled him. But not inevitable. Really, if there’s going to be a fight about what you eat as a couple, there’s probably something else going on, other than self-righteous belief in the rights of the cow, or aggressive condemnation of airy fairy highfalutin’ food fads. These things tend to mask something much more creepy: a desire to dominate. I mean, if you can’t let your loved ones go their own way, when it’s not hurting you or themselves, you’ve got to ask yourself why. Why exactly is it so important to you that your loved one eat the same way you do?

Well, of course there’s one practical reason. It’s a bore to constantly cook two different sets of meals. And not only is it a bore, but it’s actively disunifying. Having a meal together is not really about the food, if you know what I mean. It’s about Having a Meal Together. This is why we teach children (or we should, anyway) that when they’re invited to other people’s tables, it is rude to make a point of their own likes and dislikes: just get on with liking what’s on offer, and avoid anything that brings on allergic reactions. But you don’t dictate to others what they’re going to feed you.

Conversely, it is an act of kindness not to dictate to those you feed. A certain flexibility, and partnership, here, is what’s called for. In this, of course, as in all else in life, come to think of it. And if you really love those you’re feeding, you’ll tend to be quite anxious that they get fed what they like, as well as what’s good for them.

What’s good for one person is not necessarily good for another, of course. So every once in awhile, I just have to make, not two separate meals, but two separate courses, followed by one unified set of foodstuffs. It’s the only way to deal with diversity.

Take myself and my Dear Husband. He thrives, and I mean absolutely supernaturally thrives, on a diet of not too much fat, many potatoes, and lots and lots of vegetables. Accompanied by pints of artisanal beer and lashings of ice cream to follow.

Beer makes me feel like I’m drinking liquid bread. I can take ice cream in moderation, but not in the boatloads he happily downs (and never shows, by the way, something that would be very annoying if I wasn’t so fond of him). I like potatoes, but they’re not the Ur Food of my people. I love fat, particularly full fat cheeses. I adore vegetables. But if I had to live on them, I would turn, in a short period of time, into an anemic wreck.

This is just the truth. When I’m stressed, I need to eat some meat. I find I don’t like to eat meat every night, but when I want it, I really have to have it.

Hence the conversation with the butcher. I had spotted a nice piece of hangar steak, which looked like, as I said to him, “A piece of meat just calling out to be eaten by the sole carnivore in the family while the vegetarian has a nice mashed potato/garlic/cream/cheddar cheese baked casserole.” (And on the side, a big romaine/walnut/blue cheese salad, and a bit of beet and dill salad, too.)

That was when my butcher got all sad on me and said the bit about his girlfriend. As I say, I consoled him as best I could, but as I walked away from that market, I couldn’t help think that relationship wasn’t going to go the distance. I could see some nice tolerant girl who appreciated that he has an actually useful job snapping him up, and that other girl going on to run off with her yoga instructor.

Something like that.

And maybe the nice tolerant girl is a vegetarian, too. And maybe they have a really good time together (I started fantasizing about this, about how they’d hang out together on his days off from butchering, maybe having a drink of something in the backyard while the barbeque heats up). And maybe she would make for supper one night, when neither of them felt much like cooking, something that we have here, once in awhile.

A barbequed sausage sandwich and a barbequed portabello mushroom sandwich. Both wrapped in pita bread that’s been slathered with dijon mustard and covered with fried onions. And on the side, some potato salad with dill, and a big green salad that includes chopped bits of whatever vegetables have been left in the refrigerator.

Like this:

Heat the barbeque.

Slice thinly as many onions as you like. At least three for the two of you. Put them in olive oil on low heat in a heavy pan and let them cook for as long as it takes to get them smelling great and turning a nice mahogany color. You can always turn off the heat when they get there, and then turn it back on and give them a quick stir to reheat before the actual sausage/mushroom event. (By the way, I like to add a little soy sauce before the final heat up.)

Now, to proceed to said event:

Take the sausage of your choice. Better take two just in case.
Put them on one side of the barbeque.
Take the Portabello mushrooms of your choice (definitely take two, at least, but more will never be harmful; they’re great cold later) and roll them in some olive oil.
Put them on the other side of the barbeque.

While they’re cooking, heat up as many pita breads as you think you’re going to need. I generally just do two. I wrap them in foil and stick in the toaster oven at 325 degrees for about fifteen minutes. Twenty five minutes if they were frozen to start with.

When the sausages and the mushrooms are just about done, add some sliced cheese to the tops of the mushrooms you’re going to eat that dinner. I like to crumble some blue cheese on top, since that’s what the Beloved Husband likes best. Well, that and/or pepper jack. Your choice.

Shut the barbeque lid to let the cheese melt. Spoon out the potato salad onto the plates. Toss the salad with chopped vegetables that have been marinating in the dressing (in this case, leftover asparagus, sliced). Put that on the plates. Put the pita breads out, slather with dijon mustard, heap with onions.

Then on the carnivore’s plate, plunk down the two sausages. Right on the onions on the pita bread. On the vegetarian’s, do the same with the mushrooms.

Meanwhile, have your other half pour out the drinks preferred. (Beer for the vegetarian, in our house, and a glass of red wine for the carnivore.)

Sit down and have at it.

Congratulate yourself silently on your tolerance, and try not to be too envious of the other person’s sandwich. Remember, you don’t need to be doctrinaire about this. If one of you wants a bite of the sandwich across the way, we trust that Love and Generosity will prevail. On both sides.

As, we hope, it will in other areas of life as well.

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A Pound of Green Beans and a Handful of Shallots

As far as I’m concerned, moving to a new place is a chance to invade a series of new markets. So far, I’ve checked out a large regular type supermarket (better than expected), two co-op style hybrid type markets (pretty good), one actual co-op in a small Rocky Mountain hippie town (lovely but predictably expensive), one branch of Whole Foods (very disappointing, miserable looking veggies, at the height of summer!), and a terrific Asian market hidden in a strip mall, where the Internet reviews said the owner was ‘rude’ and the products ‘scary’ (my kind of authentic Chinese market!).

Of course the high point of these market forays is always the local farmers’ market. I haven’t made it to the one in Boulder yet, being too terrified of the traffic of newly arrived students and their attendant families driving massive SUVs (or as one of the deans delicately expressed it: “Black Hawk Down parents on the rampage”). I’m thinking I should wait till all that cools down.

So instead we went to the nearby town of Louisville, VERY Norman Rockwell, if Norman Rockwell enjoyed iced green tea lattes, lovely place, lovely market. I especially liked the heap of what I thought was a bunch of tossed out beet greens, but which proved to be the beets themselves.

“How much for the beets?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Grab a bunch and we’ll call it two dollars.”

After I’d grabbed a bunch,

“You call that a bunch? Go back and get some more, for God’s sake!”

Excellent salesmanship in my opinion.

Then there was the stand that had heaps and heaps of green beans, including those purple ones that turn green when you cook them, alas, but which are such a pleasure to look at when you’re preparing dinner (and that’s important too, don’t let us forget). I got a pound of half and half, and then I saw they had a small pile of shallots besides, and I can’t really enjoy my green beans to the max without shallots, so they went in the bag too, along with mutual expressions of esteem for how well shallots go with green beans.

So here I am with the green beans and the shallots and a bunch of other stuff I’ve foraged from all the other markets, and I’m overwhelmed by choice.

What to do? There are so many things I CAN do, even in the ninety degree/we don’t want to eat anything but vegetables and maybe some anchovies weather.

All of them, though, start with the same step:

Top the green beans. Boil a BIG pot of water (green beans need a lot of water to bounce around in, no lid, that keeps them green for some reason, as long as you don’t overcook…), salt it, add the beans, cook till they still have a little crunch, then drain and rinse in cold water. Drain well.

Now they’re ready for all sorts of possible treatments.

If the weather was a little cooler, I might toss them and minced shallots with butter over medium heat, and sprinkle them with chopped chervil or parsley or dill.

I might mix them with a little bechamel sauce, sprinkle with grated Swiss cheese and sliced almonds, and heat under the broiler till they have a nice little crust on top.

Or I might stir fry them fast with some chopped fermented black beans and ginger and garlic and have them wrapped in a whole wheat tortilla spread with hoisin sauce.

But it’s too hot for that. So it’s green bean salad we’re talking about. Which offers an even wider selection, even when I start with those shallots, and even though, since this is a new kitchen for me, I only have one kind of vinegar–red–in residence:

Just to narrow it down a little, for all of these salads, I’ll mortar and pestle a clove of garlic with some salt and pepper, add a spoon of vinegar, and a sliced shallot or two, letting the shallot sit and sweeten for about fifteen minutes or so before I add three spoons of olive oil.

Then, it’s what do we feel like eating?

Toss the dressing, and the beans, with:

for veggies

Diced tomatoes?
Diced cucumber?
Diced avocado?

for protein

Hardboiled eggs?

for extra oomph

Chopped parsley?
Chopped green or red onion?

for a little carbo punch

Diced toasted croutons?
Diced baked/steamed/boiled potatoes?
Cooked pasta?


Then came dinner time. At that point, the algorithm by which I decide what goes into the meal had kind of stabilized. It’s always an equation of what I really feel like eating plus what I think the Beloved Husband feels like eating, divided by what we have on hand plus what time I have, plus how much time I feel like putting into the thing.

So this is what we ended up having for dinner: Green Bean and Potato Salad with Anchoiade/Basil/and Cherry Tomatoes.

Like so:

Put a big pot of water on to boil.

Dice as many potatoes as you are going to want to eat. I diced four large ones, since I wanted enough left for lunch. Steam them over or boil them in the water till just fork tender.

Meanwhile, make the anchoiade, which is just, really, a strong garlic vinaigrette with a can of anchovies, and maybe some capers, mashed into it. As usual, you don’t have to be too fussy about this (except for the fuss about what you like to eat, of course). In fact, I forgot all about the anchovies till after I’d made the vinaigrette (mashed garlic clove, pepper, salt, red wine vinegar and olive oil in a 1 to 3 ratio), so I just mashed them up with some more olive oil and a thread of vinegar, along with a bunch of capers and a little of their vinegar. I added that to the original dressing.

Mince a shallot or two and leave in the dressing in a big bowl while the potatoes cook.

Top a pound of green beans.

When the potatoes are done, dump them on top of the dressing, SAVING THE WATER IN THE POT. Sprinkle them with some white wine, or some lemon juice, or (since I had some open, hah!) some rose wine.

Put the beans into the water you cooked the potatoes in. Boil briskly for as long as it takes for them to be still crisp, but cooked to your liking. Drain them, sloosh them with cold water to set them and stop the cooking, drain well again.

At this point, I also added a handful of cherry tomatoes to the draining beans, rinsed them, and let them drain with the beans.

(You don’t want much added water in this salad, or any salad, come to think of it, it kills the dressing.)

When the beans and tomatoes are dried off, add them to the potatoes, and toss the whole thing. Have a taste, have a look. Is there enough dressing? If not, you can just add a little more oil, maybe squeeze on some lemon if you have it.

If you have some parsley, chop it up. I did. And I had a big basil plant, so I grabbed some leaves and tore them in, too.

Served it with some boiled corn. And a couple of glasses of rose.

And the Beloved Husband gave that sigh of sheer happiness that you like to hear if you’ve cooked the dinner on a Sunday night, and he’s going off to the second week of a completely new job the next day, and you’re hoping you’ve done enough to be a Good Wife and make sure he’s well fed while he does it too.

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