Sunday, March 23, 2014

the usual

It’s been the usual March wild ride. Back-to-back birthday parties yesterday. The end of hockey season – an out-of-town tournament – last weekend; Abbott’s first ultimate Frisbee game a couple of days ago. We cheered in the frigid, sparkling sunlight, memorizing him as he is right this minute. At least once this week I’ve gotten out of bed to a starry sky that clouded over by the time the sun rose. This morning, storm clouds visible in first light’s deep blue gave way to clear skies by the time we ate breakfast.

For last week's homework, Cal brought home a writing checklist that included 'alliteration,' a term I’d forgotten about long ago. So I’ve been practicing with my captions on Instagram – “Sunday sky at sunrise,” “Monday morning moonset,” “stuck seastars.” After reading about Theodor Seuss Geisel – “Dr. Seuss” – for the writing project and learning that he drew on his bedroom walls as a kid, Cal convinced me to allow him to draw, in pencil, on his walls.

When our friends Molly and June come over, June and I have a routine. She greets me with a “hi!” or a kiss or, if I’m lucky, both, and then she lets me know she wants to eat. That she is eager for my cooking is always the best thing I’ve heard all day. This past week, they came over on what happened to be the first day of spring. It secretly felt celebratory to me to have dinner guests, though the occasion took a back seat to the necessities and mundanity of a school night. I wish I had made a cake. After June helped Cal with his piano practice, we ventured forth to the beach. June wanted her coat on and off, on and off, the way Abbott used to fill and empty, empty and fill containers. While she played with fistfuls of pebbles, Nelly swam and chased gulls.

To end our weekend, like nearly every other day, we walked the beach, sidestepping the squirting of geoducks, stopping to look at the sea stars always adhered to the same huge barnacle-and-mussel encrusted rock, only visible at a very low tide. Nelly kept us together as we meandered, herding us if we strayed apart.

Custard Filled Cornbread with Blueberries

One cloudy night this past week I felt like baking, and so we had breakfast for dinner. My friend Megan recently wrote a book that's full of inspired ideas – Whole Grain Mornings! – and it includes a new version of an old favorite of ours. I’ve been making custard-filled cornbread for years; since I first read about it in Molly’s book. It's been on our Christmas breakfast table at least once. I worried about changing a tried and true recipe, but Megan's adaptations were a huge – huge! – hit with us all.

Custard-Filled Cornbread with Blueberries
adapted from A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg and Whole Grain Mornings by Megan Gordon

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the pan
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 cup medium grind yellow cornmeal
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 large eggs
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups whole milk (not low fat or nonfat)
1 1/2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups (300ml) blueberries
1 cup heavy cream
pure maple syrup, for serving

Preheat the oven to 350F. Butter an 8-inch square or 9-inch round pan, and put it in the oven while you make the batter.

Place the butter in a large microwaveable bowl, and melt it the microwave with short bursts of heat to avoid splattering. Let it cool slightly. Meanwhile, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and baking soda in a small bowl. Set aside.

Lightly beat the eggs, and then whisk them into the melted butter. Add the sugar, salt, milk, vinegar, lemon zest and vanilla, and whisk well again. While continuing to whisk, add the flour mixture. Mix until the batter is quite smooth.

Remove the heated pan from the oven and place on a baking sheet for easy transport. Spoon the blueberries into the bottom of the pan in an even layer, and then pour the batter over them. Slowly pour the cream into the center of the batter. Do not stir. Carefully place the pan into the oven, and bake until golden brown, 50 minutes to 1 hour. Let it rest for 10-15 minutes so the custard has time to set. Serve warm, with a generous glug of maple syrup on top. Will keep for 3 days covered in the refrigerator.

Yield: 6-8 servings

Thursday, March 13, 2014

like distant guitar chords

Daylight savings time and I’m back to stargazing when I take Nelly outside to do her morning business. Predawn hammering has commenced on a neighbor’s metal chimney, and I have to think serious thoughts to suppress my un-neighborly grin. (Maybe too much Woody Woodpecker when I was a kid?) Last spring they turned on their fireplace to stop the flicker's efforts, but warm feet weren’t a deterrent. Soon enough, I’m sure, he’ll find a wife, and go on his way. Camellia petals and cherry blossoms carpet everything. I never get used to petal snow, spring's opiate. I saw my first camellia when I went to college. We called spring “break up” in Alaska; everything was blanketed in slushy, melting snow.

A year ago, Alexi and I were in New York for my sister’s surprise 40th birthday party. My brother-in-law went all out, booking the private room at Per Se, and the night was everything you’d expect it to be. Well after midnight, sated and woozy, we were sent out into the night with party favors: tins of cookies and chocolate confections; a cookbook by Thomas Keller, owner of the restaurant.

I made last Easter’s meal entirely with recipes from the gifted book, Ad Hoc at Home. After cooking my way through it I bought Bouchon Bakery, another of Keller’s books; I knew it would also be full of good ideas. It is. Like this cake I baked in honor of my sister's 41st birthday. It tastes like the Caribbean; like warm sand underfoot, clear green water, the sound of distant guitar chords.

Rum Cake

Adapted from Bouchon Bakery by Thomas Keller and Sebastien Rouxel

468 grams (16.5 ounces) unsalted butter at room temperature, plus additional for the pan
562 grams (2 ¾ cups + 1 tablespoon) granulated sugar, plus additional for the pan
468 grams (4 cups + 3 tablespoons) almond flour/meal
150 grams (1 cup + 1 tablespoon) all-purpose flour
10 eggs
75 grams (1/3 cup) plus 50 grams (3 tablespoons) Myer’s dark rum
50 grams (3 tablespoons) Simple Syrup
Rum Icing (recipe follows)

Brush a 15 cup (10 ½ inch) Bundt pan with room temperature butter. Put the pan in the refrigerator or freezer to harden the butter, so that it can be coated with an even layer of sugar.

Preheat the oven to 325F convection, or 350F standard. (Convection works best for this recipe, if you have it.)

Place the almond flour into a large bowl and run your fingers through it to ensure there are no lumps. Add the all-purpose flour, and whisk to combine.

Place the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. On medium-low speed, cream the butter until it has the consistency of mayonnaise and holds a peak when the paddle is lifted. Add the sugar and mix for 7 minutes, stopping to scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl as needed.

Turn the mixer on low and add three of the eggs, mixing until just combined, about 30 seconds. Scrape down the sides, add three more eggs, and then mix to combine. Scrape down the sides, add the four remaining eggs, and mix for another 10 seconds.

On low speed, add the flour mixture one-third at a time, mixing for about 15 seconds after each addition. Remove the bowl from the mixer stand and scrape the bottom of the bowl to incorporate any dry ingredients that may have settled there.

Transfer 1 cup of the batter to a small bowl and stir in the 75 grams (1/3 cup) rum until combined. Fold this into the remaining batter, combining it thoroughly.

Take the Bundt pan out of the refrigerator and add a large spoonful of sugar to the pan, rotating and tapping it to cover the surface evenly. Invert the pan and tap lightly to remove any excess sugar.

With a spatula, gently scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Tap the bottom of the pan against the work surface and rotate it back and forth to distribute the batter evenly. Bake for 55-65 minutes in a convection oven, 65-70 minutes in a standard oven, until the cake is golden brown and a tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Set the pan on a cooling rack and cool for 10 minutes.

Mix the remaining 50 grams (3 tablespoons) rum with the simple syrup. Set a cooling rack over a baking sheet and unmold the cake onto it. Cool for about 10 minutes, then brush the cake evenly with the rum mixture. Let cool completely.

Drizzle the rum icing (recipe below) over the top of the cake with a spoon, letting it run down the sides.

IMPORTANT: The cake is best when made a day ahead (store in a covered container at room temperature). It will keep well for about three days.

Rum Icing

180 grams (1 ½ cups + 1 tablespoon) powdered sugar
15 grams (1 tablespoon) Myer’s dark rum
15 grams (1 tablespoon) water

Sift the powdered sugar into a small bowl. Stir in the rum and water until smooth, adding more water as necessary. The icing should be used immediately.

Yield: 10 to 12 servings

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Last night I dreamt of San Pedro

Most years we’ve been lucky enough to escape the dog days of winter for just long enough to remember what heat feels like. A week ago we returned from Ambergris Caye, Belize. It was the best vacation we’ve ever had.

Oh, the warm, hibiscus-and-ocean air! The shocking green of the water; herons always, endlessly overhead; the lilting flow of Belizean conversation slipping seamlessly between Kriol, English, Spanish, and Mayan.

Every morning we did some activity, returning to our hotel to watch the Olympics in the heat of the day: figure skating, hockey, or whatever else was on.

We fished with the pelicans, catching as fast as we could cast; red snapper, mackerel, strawberry grouper. Our guide filleted for us as much as we could eat, and the restaurant at our hotel cooked them for our lunch.

We snorkeled among sea fans, brain coral, varieties of turtles and fish and a Moray eel. When our guide took us to Shark Ray Alley, Cal and I stayed out of the water.

We had breakfasts of eggs with peppers and onions, rice and beans with tortillas, and sugary fry bread. We ate our first Salvadorean food on the island, our first fried conch.

One evening we ate pulled pork sandwiches at a beachside café while the boys played bocce ball.

I saw my first orange grove and learned that allspice is a tree. I regret not keeping a piece of its fragrant bark.

Following the lead of our guide, walking through rain forest, Alexi ate a few termites. According to the two of them, they have a lingering flavor of mint.

We took a short ride on a hand-cranked ferry, operated by Mennonites, to get to the Mayan ruins at Xunantunich. Abbott and Cal helped crank it. At the ruins, we watched howler and spider monkeys until we were too hot to watch anymore. Afterward, we went cave tubing.

I could still taste the Johnny cakes we ate on the plane when we got home.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

happily so

Right about now six years ago, we unlocked the door to our house for the first time, plastic bags of takeout in hand. Though it was too dark to see, we could hear the ocean’s waves as we let ourselves in; inhaled the unfamiliar briny air. Dazed and exhausted from our moving efforts and unable to figure out how to turn on the dining room lights, finally, resignedly, we plopped onto the floor in the dark. By the light that shone in from the streetlight outside, we dug in to the foil wrappers and plastic containers containing gyros, falafel, hummus and tzatziki with pita, spanakopita, dolmades, a salad of romaine, red onion, feta, olives, and cucumber. Our cats skulked around warily while we ate the meal we’d picked up from a nearby Greek restaurant. We devoured everything, feeling a part of the neighborhood already as we ate the food from a local establishment. Our old house across town was on its way to becoming a memory. We put the remains of dinner in the empty refrigerator, explored our empty house, then set about getting to sleep. Things hadn’t gone according to plan; we didn’t get access to the house until the end of the day, and the movers were only able to deliver one small load of our belongings, and the kids’ beds. Everything else would be delivered the next day. But we were here, and happily so. Grinning like idiots, Alexi and I zipped our sleeping bags together and slept like logs.

Amidst a sea of boxes, days later, we watched the Super Bowl. I made a seven-layer dip like my mom always does for the occasion. The boys mostly stuffed themselves with tortilla chips. Every year when the Super Bowl rolls around again I think about those first days here, though I couldn’t tell you who played that year, or any of them since. Except for number 48. Last weekend, our home team won it. Afterward, the roads were a raucous band of honks; the streets were pure, unfettered joy. The polite ignoring of strangers that is city dwellers’ way of preserving privacy went by the wayside. I exchanged honks, waves and thumbs up with those in surrounding vehicles and on the sidewalks, blinking back tears. The moment was bigger than football.

Now, by the light of headlamps, every night after dinner, the boys play football with a special Super Bowl nerf edition given to Cal at a party we attended. I hear the occasional call of “Omaha!” and Nelly starts to bark and howl. She can’t join them, because her herding instinct takes over when we run around.

We had snow over the weekend. It began Saturday night, and when we woke up Sunday, it was still snowing. Abbott brought us coffee in bed. He had already taken Nelly out for a walk, laying the groundwork for a snowball fight as soon as possible. Alexi, Nelly and the boys went out to play; I made pancakes and listened to Blue Train in its entirety for the 200th time. As I melted butter and cracked eggs, I thought ahead to what I’d make for our next meal, and the one after that, as I always do; just as I did when we moved in six years ago. I thought back to when Abbott was in kindergarten, the year we moved in; now he’s in middle school. Cal was a preschooler then. I hope I have a better sense now, than I did then, of what matters in the long run. I’ve become a little less anxious about small things; I’m learning to care less about what other people think, and more about what I think. And I’m harder on myself as I age. It feels like the number of chances to get it “right” is shrinking.

We’ve been watching Olympics non-stop. At breakfast, Abbott sets the DVR to record what he’s going to miss and will want to watch after school. It’s hard to believe four years have passed since the last Olympics, which we were thrillingly able to attend.

As I finished a bowl of chili left over from our snow day for lunch, I thought about the pasta I’m planning to make for dinner tonight. I wonder if people everywhere do this, or if it’s just me.

Vegetarian Chili

This vegetarian chili came about when Alexi brought home a colleague’s chili recipe. She had shared some with him at work, and he loved it. I was dubious; I’m generally not a fan of deviating from a solid meat chili. But I, too, loved it, and have made my own modifications over time such that I can safely call it my own.

Vegetarian Chili
Inspired by MaryAnn

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 medium red bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 medium green bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 to 2 jalapenos, seeded and finely chopped, to taste
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 ½ teaspoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2/3 cup uncooked barley
½ cup water
1 medium butternut squash, peeled and diced
30 ounce can black beans, rinsed and drained
30 ounce can kidney beans, rinsed and drained
28 ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 quart no chicken stock, or vegetable stock
1 bunch kale
3 tablespoons chopped cilantro
lime wedges
sour cream
tortilla chips
chopped avocado

Heat the oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the onion, bell peppers, jalapeno and garlic, and cook until the vegetables have softened, 8-10 minutes. Add the chili powder, cumin, coriander, and salt, and cook for another 2-3 minutes. Stir in the barley, butternut squash, beans, tomatoes with juice, water, and kale. Bring to a boil. Cover the pot, reduce the heat, and simmer for 30-40 minutes, until the barley and squash are tender. Stir in the cilantro. Serve with sour cream, lime wedges, chips, and avocado.

Yield: 6 servings

Saturday, January 25, 2014

for all it was

For the first time in days, I ate lunch. Specifically, I ate a “Mediterranean sandwich” – fragrant, thick slices of focaccia containing brightly seasoned roasted vegetables, feta cheese, briny and sharp, thinly sliced red onion. Olive oil, sweet and fruity, oozed onto my hands with each bite. I ate every last crumb of that sandwich provided in a boxed lunch at a meeting I attended, and then sneakily licked a finger or two. The boys and I have spent most of the week in the clutches of a virulent stomach flu; for me, on top of a cough I’ve had for weeks. It felt great to have an appetite again.

On my way home from the meeting it became clear that I should not have eaten so much; I’ve barely recovered. Small waves of nausea came and went as I drove, tricking my body into thinking I was in the midst of chemotherapy once again, as nausea always does, even though it's been years. Everything kind of clenches inside, clamps down, resisting nausea and frailty and all of it with all my might and feeling just, well, bad. The body remembers. Just as every time I step into the hospital where Alexi works, I taste and smell the metallic residue of an IV.

When I got home, sidestepping a disagreement between Alexi and Cal, I lay down on the couch and started coughing, trying not to cough so hard I’d pee my pants. When Nelly indicated she needed to be let outside and I opened the door to the deck for her, I left it open. Crisp air streamed in and swept over me as I rested on the sun-warmed couch. The occasional seagull gave a mournful cry. I relaxed into the moment for all it was, letting go of my resentment of Cal in his uncooperative state. Eventually, he went to his room and began making bracelets on his rainbow loom. Alexi went to work with Abbott at something on the computer.

After a spell I opened my eyes to watch the light flooding in intensify and deepen in color, then wane and fade into nonexistence. The boys, then Alexi, wandered down to find me. I made snacks for the boys – nobody was up for eating dinner – and Alexi wasn’t hungry. We piled under blankets and leaned into each other as we watched a few old episodes of Modern Family. There wasn’t enough energy for a movie. As we prepared to put the boys to bed, Alexi abruptly excused himself, suddenly sick.

Tomorrow the boys and I will undoubtedly be a bit more on the mend. Alexi will almost certainly stay in bed while we walk Nelly and amuse ourselves around the house. You never know what’s around the corner.

Monday, January 20, 2014

I Don't See the Handwriting

In these days of raw winter, I find myself on the losing side of battles with hedonism and lethargy. I blame my shortcomings on the mostly-absent, anemic light. I haven’t read much of anything since before Thanksgiving. I go out of my way to avoid small talk; by and large I ignore email. The only thing redeeming about my January is the annual, maniacal clearing out and organizing of our living space I’m driven to do, refreshing everything.

Over the weekend, in an overstuffed plastic container on a chokingly dust-covered, precariously high closet shelf, still swaddled in the movers’ duct tape, I found a treasure trove from my high school days. Photos; birthday, Christmas and general occasion greeting cards with humorous and scenic covers; now-deceased grandmothers’ wobbly cursive on stationary; correspondence from friends. At the sight of the handwriting on one envelope after another the shock of recognition made my throat constrict. The first thing I opened was written on a ragged-edged piece of spiral notebook paper. As I read the first paragraph – a description of an event that occurred on the Valdez fuel dock – and examined the accompanying sketch, I could hear Fred’s voice. I was suddenly seventeen, hanging out with him in the engine room of a tour boat as he finished his work for the day, chatting and cracking jokes, listening to Bruce Springsteen on repeat.

In the days those cards and letters were received I used to check the mailbox with anticipation. There was almost always something good. I corresponded into adulthood with several friends I made at summer camp as a kid. Within a week of sending my grandmothers a letter, I could count on hearing back from them. Sporadically, at the end of high school and through college, I received word from friends I made the previous summer working on a tour boat.

A handful of years after the postmarks on those envelopes, we all got computers and internet connections and email accounts. The mail dried up. I’ve recently re-connected with a number of friends from my younger days via social media; a bird's eye view, without any direct intimacy, voyeuristically. I don’t see the handwriting.

My friend Aran is visiting her home in the Basque country right now. This morning on Instagram she posted an image of Fernando, her family’s butcher her whole life for as long as she can remember. I wish my life had that kind of constancy, but it doesn’t. My family doesn’t live in Alaska anymore, and I haven’t returned in about a decade. The scraps of the past in dusty plastic containers remain; people and experiences that are still part of me, however removed by time and distance.

Today the boys had the day off from school in celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr's life. All day, as it always does on this day, my mind wandered to my parents’ stories of life in the Jim Crow south. When they were high school students, a few years before I was born, their school became integrated. They grew up in the presence of segregated drinking fountains and restrooms. I wonder if Abbott and Cal and their peers will take for granted the civil rights advances of our time or if they’ll remember hearing about the struggles, will pass on their memories of the fight for marriage equality. In their children’s day, I know there will be aspects of life as it is now they won’t be able to imagine except as a distant nightmare. Light prevails.

The days are subtly but perceptibly becoming longer. Alexi and I scaffold each other as best we can. He hurriedly texts me throughout the day; we exchange shorthand, emoticon conversations in between his interpreting radiological images and performing biopsies. I light the candles, welcome friends, keep the embers going as best I can.

Jen’s Party Mix

My friend Jen is a terrific host and guest, and an even better friend. Yesterday she and her family came over to watch a football game, and she brought her famous party mix. We ate it, still warm from the oven, as we watched our home team work their way to a victory that will send them to the Super Bowl. I haven’t felt this excited about football since I was a little girl and the Dallas Cowboys – the family favorites – were in it.

5 cups Crispix cereal
1½ cups mixed nuts, such as peanuts, cashews, pistachios and pecans
2 cups pretzels
5 tablespoons butter, melted
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 teaspoons lemon juice
½ teaspoon onion powder
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt
Large pinch cayenne

Turn on the oven to 250 degrees. Combine the cereal, nuts and pretzels in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, stir together the remaining ingredients. Drizzle the butter-spice mixture evenly over the cereal mixture and then mix with your hands, distributing everything evenly.

Transfer the mixture to a 9x13 baking pan and bake for about 45 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes, until crisp and lightly toasted. Spread out on a paper towel-lined baking sheet to cool. Serve while warm, or store in an airtight container for up to 4 days.

Yield: about 8 servings