Tuesday, July 22, 2014

synonymous with comfort

There is nothing more soothingly sweet, more synonymous with comfort, than leftover dessert for breakfast. We began our Monday with nectarine cobbler. We’ve been on a nectarine jag, and happened to have four extra pounds of them that needed using up over the weekend. Though peach cobbler is my first love – I still fantasize about the ones my grandmother made with the luscious fruit from her trees – I am lazy. Removing skins from peaches is too much work. You get to leave the skins on when you bake with nectarines.

The evening before this famous breakfast, a neighbor completely unraveled before our eyes. Alexi greeted him from the deck off our bedroom, and in response, he began shouting at us. We stared, open-mouthed; looked at each other wide-eyed. We’ve lived in this house seven years and have always had a cordial relationship with him and his family. I’ve never before been cursed at.

Earlier that afternoon, I'd texted him. “I’m concerned about (your daughter’s) v fast driving speed; worried someone is going to get hurt. (Another neighbor) expressed the same thing to me. When Abbott and Cal are her age I’m hoping you’ll pass on the same sorts of things to me!” The gist of the yelling seemed to be that my message had really upset his daughter.

Over breakfast, Abbott remarked that shouting had disrupted his bedtime reading the night before. It scared him, and so he'd closed his window.

During our meals and walks the past couple of days, we’ve had discussions about self-control, the importance of giving feedback despite a poor response, and how best to give and take. We’ve talked about the pros and cons of asynchronous communication (texting, email) and synchronous communication (phone conversations, in person communication). We’ve had conversations about neighbor relations, the tumbledown of stress, and mental illness. The world is a complex place, and Alexi and I only have a few more years to prepare our boys to navigate on their own.

After the neighbor stormed back inside I settled back in to read, appreciating the faint breeze that stirred, cooling the sweat running down my back. The latticework shadows began to fade as I continued re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird, getting so many things from it I didn’t the last time I read it, or the time before that. I paused at Atticus’ admonition to try to climb into another’s skin and walk around in it.

Nectarine Cobbler
Adapted from Bon Appetit, July 1995

This is the best cobbler I’ve ever had, anytime, anywhere, aside from my grandmother’s similar version with peaches. The roasting of the nectarines, first, makes all the difference.


4 pounds nectarines, cut into wedges
¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1/3 cup unbleached all purpose flour
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice


2 ¼ cups unbleached all purpose flour
6 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon baking power
¾ teaspoon salt
¼ cup (½ stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into pieces
¼ cup chilled solid vegetable shortening, cut into pieces
1 large egg, beaten to blend
¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons chilled buttermilk

For the filling:
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 400°F. Mix all of the filling ingredients in a 13x9x2-inch glass or ceramic baking dish. Bake for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare the topping:

Mix the flour, baking powder, salt, and 4 tablespoons of the sugar in a large bowl. Using your fingertips, rub in the butter and shortening until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add the egg and buttermilk, and stir until batter forms.
Remove the fruit from the oven. Spoon the batter over the hot filling in 12 mounds, spacing evenly. Sprinkle with the 2 tablespoons of remaining sugar. Bake until the juices thicken and the topping is golden, about 30 minutes. Cool on a rack for at least 15 minutes.
Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.

Yield: 8 servings

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

salad days

Parenting becomes more transparent these summer months, constant in its immediacy, variety, complexity, and beauty.

I wake from the nights of heavy heat with prickly skin, hair matted to my scalp. Conversations waft down to the kitchen as I make breakfast.

“Guess what we’re having for breakfast? It starts with a ‘P.’ And the ‘P’ is silent.”


“The P being silent was a decoy! We’re having pancakes.”

One of them heads off with a friend to play mini-golf, the other to a pool party. I drop one off for the night; bring another here. They pull away from me like the outgoing tide, and I am left standing alone on the beach.

We subsist on salads. The night after inhaling rich, caramelized carrots balanced with peppery arugula, I dreamed about meeting Melissa Clark, author of the cookbook from whence it came.

We end our days with something along the lines of Capture the Flag and rhubarb crisp, and then everyone generally gets to bed without fuss. As I make my nightly rounds, I'm surprised at how much older Abbott has started to look when he sleeps.

Honey-Roasted Carrot Salad
adapted slightly from Cook this Now by Melissa Clark

For the Salad:
1 pound carrots (about 5 medium), trimmed, peeled, and sliced into ½-inch rounds

1 ½ tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon plus 1 large pinch kosher salt
¼ teaspoon pepper

2 teaspoons honey

¼ cup sliced almonds
2 bunches arugula (about 8 cups)

For the vinaigrette:
1 ½ teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

Preheat the oven to 400F. Toss the carrots with the 1 ½ tablespoons olive oil, ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper, and then distribute them evenly on a baking sheet. Roast for about 25 minutes, or until the carrots are carmelized and tender, stirring occasionally.

While the carrots are roasting, whisk together the honey, remaining 2 teaspoons olive oil, 1 teaspoon water, and a large pinch of kosher salt. Toss the almonds with 1 ½ teaspoons of the honey mixture and spread them on a small baking sheet.

Transfer the almonds to the oven, and then pour the remaining honey mixture over the carrots. Roast until the nuts are dark golden, about 5 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool completely.

To make the vinaigrette, whisk together the lemon juice, salt, and pepper, and then whisk in the oil until incorporated.

Place the arugula in a large bowl with the carrots and almonds. Drizzle with the vinaigrette, toss, and serve.

Yield: 4 servings

Monday, July 7, 2014

forever and ever

We spent last week on Lopez Island, something that has become a summer tradition for us, thanks to our friends Henry and April. The boys and I took the first ferry of the morning a few days before everyone else arrived. As the ferry began to dock, we strained to see our first glimpse of the bucolic landscape. We watched for the farmstand on the drive to the house. The boys have reached the (milestone!) age and size such that they unloaded the groceries and bags from the car while I unpacked, Aleck Bay sparkling in the background. Then they inspected the house and surrounding woods, verifying that everything was just as they remembered it.

When I was a kid, we had our summer rituals, too, as everyone does; we fished, ate gooseberries and rhubarb from the yard, went to camp for a week. We'd go to Texas to visit my grandparents, and it always felt unchanged, even into my adulthood when I visited on my own and with my children, until the last few years of their lives when others helped care for them. They lived in dwindling, dry, windblown towns in the Texas panhandle and just across the border in Oklahoma. At my grandmother Louise’s house, first thing, I would look for my favorite of her salt and pepper shakers from her collection – a miniature toaster with a slice of white bread for salt, brown bread for pepper – and something about it would remind me of the little tabletop sombrero in my mother’s room, full of rattlers my granddad cut off snakes, so I’d check for that, and then I’d desperately need to spin a few times around in the midcentury chair in my grandparents’ bedroom.

We would catch horny toads in the flowerbeds and run through the sprinkler in the blistering heat; we'd swim in the river that ran through my granddad’s Oklahoma farm where the soil was red. I almost always saw a tarantula on the trip, fodder for nightmares until the next summer.

Our first morning on Lopez, as I stirred oatmeal, I watched a doe with her two spotted fawns step out of the woods and walk around the house, eventually disappearing from view.

Involuntarily, I slept like the dead whenever there was a pause in our activity at any time of day; I simply could not keep my eyes open. The boys’ energy was indomitable. They wrestled like puppies; dueled and built with driftwood. We dug for clams, and found five of the seven kinds native to the area. Sand infiltrated everything. We all went to bed and woke up gritty, despite our efforts to leave it out of doors. A couple of evenings, I hosed the boys down before allowing them inside.

Our last night, we sat on the beach in the gloaming for a long, long time, and in the placidity of that cove and the ending of that summer's day I felt a pure, undiluted joy. I struggle to find words to describe it; to convey the emotion it produced.

Summer is forever and ever.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

my summer salvation

At quarter to five or thereabouts, weekdays, I give in to the rising sun and its chirping chorus and take part in the new day. I throw a sweatshirt over the tank top and pyjama pants I slept in, and head out the door. Nelly and I walk the length of our isolated, winding, rural-in-the-city road. I carry her leash in one hand, coffee in the other, waving at the occasional neighbor passing us on their way to work or the gym or wherever. This alone time is my summer salvation.

Alexi always leaves something for the boys to discover when they wake up. The morning after we watched Captain Phillips, he left our globe on the table with a note: “Can you find Somalia?” Over our eggs and toast we talked about Somalian social and economic conditions in relation to piracy; the untenable disjunction between there and here.

The last time I was at the grocery store, the cashier laughed as she looked from my boys and the extra one with us to the popsicles and gin side-by-side in my cart; she asked if I was buying sleepover supplies. I grinned sheepishly.

Our days consist of working together in the yard and around the house, playing cards, taking long walks with Nelly. Cal found a feather with a blue edge the other day. We spend extra time with friends, miss those who are away, and look forward to our own upcoming travels.

Each evening, Alexi and I sit outside until its dark.

I'm glad for it all.

I almost always cook breakfast, and the rest of the day, these days, we mostly eat raw foods. Alexi grills everything else.

I love this breakfast just as much, with a salad, for dinner.

Portugese Baked Eggs
Adapted from Bon Appetit

¼ cup olive oil
3 bell peppers, any color, thinly sliced
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
2 tomatoes, cut into wedges
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
¼ cup fresh basil leaves
2 tablespoons fresh oregano leaves
1 ½ teaspoons chili powder
1 teaspoon paprika
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup ricotta
6 large eggs
1 cup grated sharp cheddar (about 4 oz.)
¼ cup grated Parmesan (about 1 oz.)
Toast, for serving

Heat the oil in a large heavy pot over medium heat. Add the bell peppers and onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and just beginning to brown, 10–12 minutes.

Add the tomatoes, garlic, basil, oregano, chili powder, and paprika to the pot. Reduce the heat to medium-low and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are very soft and the liquid is thickened, 20–30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Preheat the oven to 400F°. Transfer the bell pepper mixture to a 13x9” baking dish. Using the back of a spoon, make 6 evenly spaced divots in the mixture. Spoon a dollop of ricotta into each divot, then crack 1 egg into each. Top with the cheddar and Parmesan; season with salt and pepper. Bake, rotating halfway through, until the Parmesan is melted and the egg whites are set but the yolks are still runny, 15–18 minutes.

Serve with toast. The yolks will continue to cook as the dish sits, so serve right away if you prefer your eggs soft.

Yield: 4-6 servings

Bell pepper mixture can be cooked 1 day ahead. Let cool; cover and chill.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

a web between us all

There is a sense of hastening in the air. All day, a muggy breeze rustled through the overturned leaves. The sky darkened and lightened repetitively. It never did rain. An extra-low tide afforded a feast for the seabirds. I stepped over a multitude of shells on the beach as I walked Nelly, my thoughts interrupted by the intermittent sound of cockles, crabs, mussels hurled onto rocks: the clatter of death.

We kill time in the car with audiobooks. For the past few months, we’ve been hooked on a spy series about a 14-year-old boy working for MI6. In this morning’s installment, my spine tingled as the hero was presented with a bullet-proof snowsuit for a mission he was about to embark upon. Twice last week I had the hysterical notion that, if only I could send my kids to school in bulletproof clothing, all would be well. Last Thursday on our way home from school we stopped for dozens of police cars, fire trucks, undercover police with sirens slapped on top, later learning the cause: a gunman at a nearby university. The next day, I got a text from Abbott’s school alerting me that a man brandishing a gun was nearby, and the school was on lockdown. There are many facets to the problem, but to pretend that gun regulation isn't at the core is just ignoring the facts.

This week at an end-of-the-year event at Abbott’s school, we were divided into groups, and each of us was given a card with a global issue on it from among those the sixth graders have been studying, such as hunger, poverty, global warming, health care, biodiversity, sustainability. We sat in a circle with a skein of yarn, taking turns making a connection between the issue we were randomly assigned – say, hunger – and that of another in the circle – maybe sustainability – who tossed the skein to us. We held on to a stretch of the yarn before sending it on. It formed a web between us all, and we experimented with how far the effect could be felt when one of us tugged on it.

Today was the last day of school. This summer, just like the last one and the one before that, the house will be full of boys rotating in and out. I love that our house is That House, but making it happen doesn’t come easily for me. I follow them around putting pillows back on the couch, forgotten cups in the dishwasher, shoes and socks out of Nelly’s reach, books on the stairs to go up or down, depending. It may be post-traumatic stress from when they were babies and toddlers and I was trying to cope with chemotherapy and worrying about genetic issues and surgeries, and it was all just too much. I wish I’d had the prescience to know it would all be OK. We would be OK. Mothering them has gotten much easier since those days, but I still feel a bit of panic when I think about the noise and mess and chaos ahead of us. Somehow we always figure it out, together, and I hate when summer ends.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

something we have all along

We all seem to be on the verge of holding on and letting go.

As I prepared for bed last night, Alexi texted me a picture of paella cooking over a beach fire; he spoke of silly talk about imaginary bad words. He and Cal are away for the weekend with almost all of the dads and sons in the third grade. Since kindergarten, their camping trips have marked the beginning and end of the school year. I lay thinking about them as I drifted off to sleep until a random, overwhelming impulse to write a letter pulled me briefly back to the surface.

The next thing I knew, Abbott was rousing me to eat the eggs and toast he prepared. We went to the barbershop, and afterward, caught up on the neighborhood gossip walking to and from the farmer’s market. A small child told me Nelly looked like a roasted marshmallow.

Back at home, Abbott disappeared. I washed the bag full of Chelan cherries I’d come home with and arranged the apricots on a cake stand. Then I sat in the shade eating roman-style pasta made the night before last with the windows open and ABBA on repeat, Alexi and Abbott trimming and slicing artichokes as I peeled and sliced garlic, chopped parsley.

The urge that had awoken me last night resurfaced. I sat down with my laptop to write a letter to a man I met the summer of 1989, and the words left my fingertips of their own accord, re-creating that time in the cathedral of Prince William Sound. I wrote as the woman I am now, about the girl I was then and in gratitude for the shock of self-discovery that I experienced with him. The threads of memory unspooled. I was slain the instant I laid eyes on him; I literally stopped in my tracks as a figure in my peripheral vision caught my eye, his grey-blue lakes of eyes locking with mine. I learned he was a boat captain, in Valdez for the summer to work on the oil spill cleanup. Most of the time he was at sea, with brief, intermittent trips to town. It wasn’t until the last 48 hours of the summer that we became lovers. Every minute crackled with an intensity I didn’t experience again for another decade and two relationships, when I met Alexi. I wrote out everything I had to say as one long exhale, and then I sent it to the computer’s recycling bin. Some part of me had needed to see that time in my life with 25 years of distance; to hold it in my hand and examine it, turn it over carefully. I packed those Polaroid images of memory back into their shoebox for safe storage.

I bring the past forward, time and again, merging younger versions of me with my current self, wrapping past and present into one common skein of wholeness. I wonder if feeling grounded and whole is something to strive for, or if it’s something innate we only have to detect and claim in ourselves? Or maybe the seeking of wholeness is in itself the grounding that moves us forward.

About the pasta. The leftovers of a rustic Italian dish I had for lunch are as good as it gets. The flavors in it are very Roman. Some might call it food for the gods.

I trim the artichokes sort of like this.  He's much more thorough than I am - I don't cut off as much of the top or pull out the choke at this point. I also don't really worry about them oxidizing, although it's a good idea.

Spaghetti with Artichokes
adapted from Franny's by Andrew Feinberg, Francine Stephens, and Melissa Clark

8 small or 4 large artichokes, trimmed
3⁄4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
8 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1⁄2 teaspoon chili flakes
1⁄2 cup water
1 pound spaghetti
1⁄2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
3 tablespoons finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1⁄4 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
4 teaspoons finely grated Pecorino Romano, plus more if desired

Halve the trimmed artichokes lengthwise, then slice them lengthwise into 1⁄4-inch-thick slices. In a very large skillet or a Dutch oven, warm the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the artichokes, garlic, and salt, and cook until the artichokes are nicely browned and a little soft and the garlic is golden around the edges, 6 to 7 minutes. Add the chili flakes and cook for 1 minute. Add the water, just enough to not quite cover the artichokes, and let it simmer until the artichokes are very soft, about 2 minutes. There should still be some liquid remaining in the pan. Remove from the heat.

Meanwhile, in a large pot of well-salted boiling water, cook the pasta according to the package instructions until 2 minutes shy of al dente; drain.

Toss the spaghetti in the skillet or dutch oven with the artichokes, parsley, Parmigiano-Reggiano, butter, and pepper, and cook until the pasta is just al dente, 1 to 2 minutes, adding 2 tablespoons water if the sauce seems dry.

Divide the pasta among four individual serving plates or bowls and finish each with a drizzle of olive oil and a teaspoon or more of Pecorino Romano.

Yield: 4 servings