Monday, March 2, 2015

March 1

Yesterday felt like it ought to be March 1. As Alexi prepared for work – occasional weekend work is just one of those things most physicians have to do – Nelly and I went for a walk in twilight that barely illuminated the light frost on rooftops; the magnolias and camellias and their petal snow. In the face of the seasonal juxtaposition I couldn’t shake the sense that I was still dreaming. The house was dark and quiet when we returned home. Nelly went back to bed. I made pea soup and oatmeal cookies.

Later, after our lunch of soup and cookies the boys settled in to play video games, and I finished Henry Kissinger's latest book, World Order. You won’t sleep any better after reading it, but I highly recommend it. It’s an important book, with plenty to debate and disagree with, and I hope it becomes influential.

At the end of the afternoon, we went to a nearby waterfront park that has both playground equipment and a beach. (I LOVE LIVING IN THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST.) As we left the parking lot I noticed a station wagon with a stiff, brown-limbed Christmas tree tied to its top. Had the tree been there since December; did the family never get around to bringing it inside and decorating it? Or were they just now, March 1, seeking to dispose of it? It was a fascinating spectacle. As we prepared to leave, I spotted that Christmas tree again. It had been moved to the beach and was partially dismembered, on the sand next to a bonfire. A family sat around the fire made from the tree, sort of like Easter in reverse.


PS - Did you see VICE’s Killing Cancer? The documentary investigates the most cutting-edge cancer treatments. It takes a look at how HIV, measles, and genetically engineered cold viruses are being used to strengthen immune systems and kill cancer cells without damaging people’s bodies the way chemo normally does. These experimental techniques are already saving lives. If you missed this inspiring program when it aired, you can watch it online here.

Pea Soup with Mint

I could eat soup every day; I never get tired of it. I don’t believe in soup season. The flavor combination of peas and mint is one of my favorites, which is why I am in love with this soup.

1 pound frozen green peas
2 shallots
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons crème fraiche
1 cup whole milk
Salt and pepper, to taste
Chopped mint, for garnish

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add the frozen peas and cook until just warmed through, about 2 minutes.

Dice the shallots, and then sauté them in the olive oil until soft, 3 to 4 minutes.

Put all the ingredients, except the milk, in a food processor or blender, and blend until smooth. Season to taste. Stir in the milk, and heat until warm. Garnish with chopped mint.

Yield: 4 large servings

Monday, February 23, 2015

the pitch of concentration

Wow. I’m not sure what to say. I’m honored and humbled, not to mention galvanized, by your cheering. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

In the final hours of our winter break yesterday I stared into an empty refrigerator, hoping to conjure something for boys who now eat two peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches for their mid-morning snack. I found a bunch of brown bananas mysteriously hidden at the back of the lowest shelf, so I did what any sensible person would have done: I made banana bread. In an hour, I’ll fry some eggs to eat with a slice of the leftover bread for our breakfast, then I'll take the boys to school. Alexi will head to work. Back at home, I expect I’ll feel kind of exhilarated by the pitch of concentration I haven’t had in a week due to the school break.

Months ago, Alexi helped me move one of the two desks in our office up to our bedroom. Our office is a busy, cluttered family space, and as I began working on my book I realized I needed to be able to close the door firmly behind me when I write. Close to half of our bedroom is empty space, and the room is quiet, two floors removed from the main level of the house. I pushed the desk against the back wall, where I can’t see out any of the windows. Above my desk, I hung a letter my grandfather wrote my grandmother on May 13, 1963. The envelope is tucked behind it, and on the back flap my grandmother wrote, “My dearest treasure. The only letter Bill ever wrote me.”

When I return home after the trip to school, I'll fill a glass with water to take upstairs with me, pausing at the kitchen window to take in the morning sun and the barnacle-encrusted rocks that weren't visible an hour ago. Then Nelly and I will head upstairs and I'll sit at my desk facing the wall. I’ll fight the urge to check the tide table to see if it will still be low when I’m finished writing for the day. I'll hear the UPS truck burble by and I’ll wonder if he delivered the ink for the printer I ordered a couple of days ago. Nelly will amble around the room until she decides on a spot. She’ll sigh her way to sleep, and the noise will begin to quiet. As I try to create a description of a biopsy I’ll realize I’m not entirely sure the surgeon’s device actually sounded like a nail gun, as I said it did. So I’ll search. “What does a nail gun sound like?” But even in that rabbit hole of nail gun sound effects, something will have started to happen. My surroundings and the memory I’m evoking will have switched places, and it will be the scene in my imagination that surrounds me; I’ll be sitting on an exam table covered in paper that is crinkling under my weight, instead of a desk chair. Hours later, I’ll blink like a mole as I walk back to the window, surprised by the light at that moment, the heron fishing on the beach.

Have a good week, everyone.

Banana Sour Cream Bread
Adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s Banana Cake Big and Small, as posted on Serious Eats.

If you halve the recipe, you can make it in one loaf pan, as Dorie has suggested in the original recipe. I like the elegance of a Bundt pan, and I usually have enough bananas to make this bigger version.

This banana bread is moister than any other I’ve tried, and because it is minus the nuts/fruit/chocolate that often make their way into banana bread recipes it is pretty much perfect in my boys’ opinion.

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup white whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 large eggs, at room temperature
4-5 large, very ripe bananas, mashed (about 2 cups)
1 cup sour cream (or whole milk yogurt; I prefer the flavor of sour cream)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and generously butter and flour a Bundt pan, or two loaf pans.

Whisk together the flours, baking soda, and salt, and set aside. In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter until creamy. Add the sugar and beat at medium speed until pale and fluffy. Add the vanilla and the egg, and beat for about 1 minute. Reduce the speed to low, and mix in the bananas. Mix in half of the flour mixture, then all of the sour cream, then the rest of the dry ingredients.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan, and bake for 65-70 minutes (55-60 minutes for a loaf pan), until a tester inserted into the center of the bread comes out clean. Cool in the pan for 10-15 minutes, then carefully turn out onto a cooling rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015


I started this blog six (!!!!) years ago, and in that time, friends, you have been very good to me. You keep stopping by, and you say the nicest things. I’ve taken great pleasure in sharing stories here. Somewhere along the way, I hatched the idea of writing a book containing the stories that have consumed a good portion of my adult life. I recently secured a deal with National Geographic to write that book, tentatively titled Inheritance.

top photo: my sister and me; lower photo, left to right: my sister, me, and my brother

Inheritance is a memoir. It’s the story of my diagnosis with a BRCA1 gene mutation, the two times I had breast cancer, the surgeries I’ve had to minimize my risks, and what I’ve learned along the way. It’s about family and genetics, and living with what can’t be fixed. It’s a love story: Alexi’s and mine, and a larger one that includes so many others I thank my lucky stars for. The book will be interwoven with cutting-edge science, demystified by interviews with renowned experts.

Thank you for your company here, your kindnesses over the years, and helping me believe I could do it. I can’t wait to share the process and, ultimately, the book, with you. xoxo

Monday, February 9, 2015

I'd pause to see

I made breakfast in barely discernible dawn that would have been darkness a week ago, a waning gibbous moon to the west. Camellia petal snow covers our deck - a haze of pink out the dining room windows.

Alexi and I started dating at this time of year. He’d recently moved to Seattle from Minnesota, and every time we stepped outside he would exclaim, or say in wonderment, often under his breath: “This would never happen in Rochester in February.” The reference might be to crocuses pushing their heads hopefully through the soil, or the warmth of the sun. I’d pause to see what he was noticing and nod in agreement. I did like flowers. Still, I didn’t care much about the weather in my twenties. I didn’t notice the length of the day. The one thing I observed was when the tree in front of my building began to bud, making my view less visible.

Fairly early in our relationship Alexi and I began to set aside Sunday evenings for having dinner at my apartment; we’d cook together, or I’d make something beforehand. The point was ending the weekend in a relaxed, pleasurable way. Alexi only had a desk chair and a bed – no table – and his pantry was nonexistent, so it only made sense to cook and eat at my place. I loved the apartment I lived in then. It had bay windows, crown molding, a clawfoot tub, and glass doorknobs. It was a studio, small but well-arranged, with a separate entryway where I set up my books and desk, a walk-in closet big enough to hold my bed, and another closet where I hung my clothes. No space was wasted. The Space Needle and Elliott Bay, beyond, were just visible through some of my windows; moreso in winter, when the tree out front was bare. I loved spending the end of my weekend at home. Sometimes, I devoted the whole afternoon to preparing the meal; other times I’d start something soaking or braising or simmering and keep an eye on it as I took care of laundry, made phone calls, and did whatever else needed doing before the weekend was over. I was also known for making a quick batch of spaghetti and calling it good. Two kids and many years later, my Sunday afternoons haven’t changed that much.

A beautiful new book just came out that reminds me of our Sundays. It’s called Date Night In, full of seasonal menus with accompanying cocktails (!). I’ve been cooking from the book since it came out (the chicken and pumpkin seed posole! The braised lentils!); yesterday I decided to make Ashley’s brownies with peanut butter frosting. You build layers of flavor by first browning the butter and then using a combination of chocolate and cocoa. I frosted the brownies as Alexi grilled steaks for our dinner. When I read Ashley’s stories of intentionality I step back and recognize how my relationship continues to be nourished around the table.

Bittersweet Brownies with Salted Peanut Butter Frosting

from Date Night In by Ashley Rodriguez

I have never tasted better brownies.


¾ cup (170 grams) unsalted butter, plus more for the pan

3 ounces (90 grams) unsweetened chocolate, chopped

1 ½ (300 grams) granulated sugar

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

3 eggs

¾ teaspoon kosher salt

½ cup (40 grams) cocoa powder

½ cup (70 grams) all-purpose flour


6 tablespoons (85 grams) butter, at room temperature

¾ cup (100 grams) smooth peanut butter

1/3 cup (40 grams) confectioners’ sugar

Preheat the oven to 325 F. Grease an 8-inch square pan. Line the pan with parchment paper so that a couple of inches hang over the edge, then grease the parchment.

Place the butter in a medium saucepan and melt it over medium-high heat. Allow the butter to cook until the milk solids bubble up and then settle into the pan and caramelize. Swirl the butter in the pan in order to see the color of the little bits on the bottom. As soon as the milk solids are golden and the butter smells nutty, about 3 to 5 minutes, remove the pan from the heat.

Pour the browned butter into a medium bowl and add the chopped chocolate. Let stand for 1 minute to melt, and then whisk together. Whisk in the sugar and vanilla while the butter mixture is still warm. Stir in the eggs and salt until well blended. Sift in the cocoa powder and flour. Fold the ingredients together until just combined using a spatula.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for about 30-35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the middle pulls out clean. Let cool to room temperature.

For the frosting: With an electric mixer, whip together the butter, peanut butter, and confectioners’ sugar in a large bowl. Continue to mix until everything is well combined and the frosting has lightened in color. Frost the cooled brownies, cut into squares and serve. Brownies can be made 1 to 3 days in advance. The frosting can be made up to 1 week in advance.

Yield: 12 brownies