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Unreasonable amounts of everything, and pea soup

When one of your (half-)brothers is a restaurateur, paying him a visit means consuming quite a bit of good food. When one of your (half-)brothers is a restaurateur with many reasons to celebrate—a new house, a new restaurant in the works, and an upcoming wedding, for example—paying him a visit means consuming completely unreasonable amounts of fantastic and fantastically rich food all over the Washington, D. C. area, nonstop, for three and a half days. Add to this equation Easter, a holiday synonymous with sugar, and the whole mess is downright obscene. I’m still recovering. Though Veuve Clicquot is fine and Dom Perignon is dandy, at this point I’m very pro-water.

But, as I tripped down this path littered with smoked lobster, pineapple baked Alaska, and cilantro daiquiris, I collected three truths to bring home to you, dear reader, from our nation’s capitol:

1. To make a restaurant look sleek, sultry, and very L.A., cover it with yards and yards of white leather. Oya, a brand-new lounge on 9th Avenue, has mastered the concept. There’s white leather everywhere: the chairs, the banquettes, and—in a very questionable move—even the tables. One wall near the bar appears to be covered in crimson crocodile, and the bathroom stalls are a blinding, futuristic shade of orange-red, but otherwise, the place is nothing but searing-hot white. My fair skin was tailor-made camouflage; I blended in perfectly with the banquette. And the braised short ribs with vanilla-pear purée was nice too.

2. My friend Doron’s fashion sense is even better than his meatballs, which is saying a lot. On a chilly D.C. Saturday, he was a vision in charcoal gray wool. We nabbed a table by the window at Dupont Circle’s Teaism, and over pots of green tea, a salt-laced oat cookie, and a lemon bar, we quickly bridged the two thousand miles’ worth of distance that separates our daily lives. And then he was off, black hair gleaming and Burberry scarf flying, to counsel a good friend who was preparing a special six-year anniversary dinner for his girlfriend. I'm not the only one who needs an expert meatball maker every now and then.

3. And speaking of need, every family needs an Italian matriarch—even a Jewish-Catholic-Polish-Irish-English family. My (half-)brother David is doing his best to acquire one for us, and thank goodness. His fiancée Carée comes with a wealth of excellent attributes, not the least of which is her Italian-American mother Nancy. Months ago, when Nancy and her husband Frank hosted an engagement party for David and Carée, my mother called me on her cell phone from the dessert table. The spread was outrageous, she said, from homemade cannolis to cake and back again, not to mention the savories. This Easter Sunday, I got my chance to see Nancy in action, and her cooking, true to legend, was legendary. Not content to settle for the usual ham, she also baked a turkey, which she filled with a moist and rich bread stuffing, and alongside she served baked ziti, her rendition of Pennsylvania Dutch potatoes (creamy mashed potatoes with marjoram and thyme, baked until crispy on top and barely gold), candied yams, corn, cranberry sauce with lemon zest, pan gravy, cole slaw, four types of homemade bread, and asparagus with a light ginger-butter glaze.

Dessert brought not only chocolate brownies but also a fresh strawberry pie, a pecan pie, and anguished groans around the table. It was stunningly beautiful. It may have been Easter, but at our table, we said amen for Italian matriarchs.

As I said, I’m still recovering. And so, after a full day of cross-country flying, I came home to make myself a bowl of pea soup.

A green-tasting springtime cousin of the wintery split pea, this soup features little more than sweet frozen peas, broth, and a salty, nutty hunk of rind from a wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano. It’s a perfect restorative for Easter obscenity. I’d dare to venture that even a fancy-schmancy restaurateur might want to curl up with a bowl.

Very Easy Pea Soup
Adapted from Nigella Lawson in the New York Times; January 21, 2004

1 Tbs olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
2 scallions, finely sliced
4 cups (20 ounces) frozen peas
½ to 1 cube vegetable bouillon, or 3 cups hot vegetable broth
A piece of rind from a wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, about 1 by 2 inches

Place a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, and add oil and garlic. Sauté until garlic is fragrant but not browned; then add scallions. Stir until heated; then add frozen peas. Stir well. Add 3 cups hot water and bouillon to taste (or instead, add 3 cups hot broth), and the cheese rind. Cover, and simmer until peas are tender, about 5 to 10 minutes. Remove from the heat, and allow to cool until no longer steaming. Remove the cheese rind, and transfer the soup to a blender or food processor. Purée until the mixture is very smooth. Serve immediately, or, if desired, reheat to taste.

Serves two to four.


The sweet and the sour

“Will you bring dessert?”

Now that is one of my favorite questions to be asked. It’s right up there with “Can I kiss you?” and “You’re from Oklahoma?” But unlike the latter two, it can almost always be counted on to produce an outcome that’s angst-free, a result in which sweet conquers sour. Dessert doesn’t lead to sleepless nights of overanalyzing, or to nightmarish memories of afternoons at the Cowboy Hall of Fame. There will be no broken hearts and no teepees. Dessert is pleasure guaranteed, with no explanations needed. When delicious, dessert is its own best answer—especially when it’s as delicate as frilly lingerie and as rich as a Plains-state oil tycoon. Lemon soufflé tartlets are both.

Light and sweet and puckery with lemon and zest, these mini-soufflés are, quite simply, spring in a buttery shell. And they're a handy way to keep myself occupied until I get my kisses and my cowboy.

Lemon Soufflé Tartlets
Adapted from Jeffrey Steingarten’s brilliant It Must Have Been Something I Ate, which in turn adapted from Paula Oland of NYC’s Balthazar Bakery, and from Dorie Greenspan’s Paris Sweets

Steingarten’s original recipe suggests using a pastry crust he adapted from Maury Rubin of NYC’s City Bakery, but I was eager to try it with this easy, unusual, and delicious crust from Dorie Greenspan’s book Paris Sweets. I was very pleased with the result, although I might add more sugar to the crust next time. The lemon soufflé filling is quite tart, so a sweet and buttery crust is a necessary foil.

6 eggs
1 scant cup granulated sugar
3 Tbs unbleached all-purpose flour
2 Tbs heavy cream
1 cup fresh lemon juice (from about four large lemons)
Grated zest of 4 lemons
¼ tsp baking soda
¼ cup superfine sugar
6 to 8 4-inch tart shells, fully but lightly baked (see link above; one batch of Dorie’s dough should yield 6-7 shells)
Confectioner’s sugar, for serving

Separate the eggs, placing all 6 yolks in a large, metal mixing bowl and 3 whites in another medium bowl; reserve or discard the remaining 3 whites. In the metal bowl, beat the yolks at medium-high speed, gradually adding the granulated sugar and continuing to beat until the mixture is light yellow and thick. Lower the speed to medium, beat in the flour, and gradually beat in the cream, the lemon juice, and the zest.

Place the metal bowl directly over medium heat on the stovetop. Using a rubber spatula, continuously stir the mixture, scraping the bottom and sides. It will first become hot and steamy, and then, around 180 degrees Fahrenheit on a thermometer, it will thicken fairly suddenly and begin to bubble. It will look similar to lemon curd. Remove the bowl from the heat, stir in the baking soda, and watch the mixture foam. Stir well, and then let cool to room temperature.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
In the other bowl and with clean beaters, beat the 3 egg whites until foamy, sprinkle with the superfine sugar, and continue beating until soft peaks form. Stir about ¼ of the egg whites into the lemon mixture; then gently fold in the remaining whites. Fill each of 6-8 prebaked tart shells with 1/3 to ½ cup of the mixture (you may find, as I did, that you have excess filling; either make more tart shells, throw it away, or try making little soufflés in ramekins). Bake the tartlets for 18 to 20 minutes, or until set and lightly golden but still a bit wobbly. As they cool, the filling will deflate. Serve at room temperature, dusted lightly with powdered sugar.


Praise for the pig

Here in Seattle, something is going on. Sunlight is pouring in through my bedroom window at an obscenely early hour (sunrise: 6:05 am), daffodils are sprouting from every yard and florist, and my portly bus driver—the year-round optimist—is no longer the only one wearing shorts. This has nothing to do with the vernal equinox or that start-of-spring nonsense everyone is twittering about. No, dear reader, Seattle is aglow because it's Pork Week.

By most accounts, the first celebration of Pork Week occurred five years ago, when two transplanted Southerners decided to consecrate 1/52nd of their year to uninterrupted praise of the pig. Inspired by a pig roast held by some friends, Mark and Justin—sharing slightly twangy accents and, at the time, a house—declared the first full week after St. Patrick’s Day to be Pork Week. Forget the leftover corned beef in the fridge: among this small crowd, from the first Sunday after St. Patrick’s Day through the Saturday that follows, pork must be consumed at least once a day.* Communal dinners are held a couple times over the week—this year, it’s Tuesday and Thursday, with a “gala” finale on Saturday—and other days, the observant fend for themselves.

Transcending the bacon and pork chops of their homeland, these Southerners are doing the pig proud with a variety of marinades; hot, smoky peppers; fiery orange sauces; Cuban black beans and rice; and, as rumor has it, mojitos.

“This is a story of growing up,” Mark said, meat thermometer in hand.
“It’s a coming-of-age story,” Justin affirmed.

And because Mark is the boyfriend of my dear friend Keaton—and because I won his heart by singing “Nine to Five” and “The Gambler” over a pool table last summer—I was invited to join in Tuesday night’s festivities. Upon arrival, Keaton and I were enthusiastically greeted by Mark’s two pit bulls, Maynard and Elsa, and the evening began with glasses of Shiraz for the ladies and Rainier (the house beer) for the men. In the kitchen, Mark and Justin were hard at work on a Mexican-inspired spread, with plenty of lemons, limes, cilantro, and jalapenos in attendance. The rest of us set right to work in our own way, clustering around the tortilla chips and Justin’s improvised tomatillo-avocado salsa and pico de gallo.

Mark claims that chemistry—a graduate-school stopover before he landed in his current field, metalwork—taught him how to cook, and how certain flavors and techniques work together. Food scientists are all the rage these days, from Harold McGee to Shirley Corriher and Alton Brown, but frankly, they could take a few style tips from Mark, what with his canine sidekicks (begging fiercely but respectfully) and his Rainier t-shirt.

The man knows his way around a piece of meat. While Mark carved, we set the table and laid out the spread: sautéed spinach with onions; a mountain of roasted-corn mashed potatoes; warmed corn and flour tortillas; and small bowls of red onion, diced tomato, mashed avocado, lemon and lime wedges, minced jalapenos, chopped cilantro, and sour cream.

And then Mark emerged from the kitchen with the centerpiece and the reason we’d come: two beautiful roasted pork tenderloins, wallowing happily in a sauce of sautéed and pureed poblano-ish peppers. The sauce was a deep olive green, thin but complexly flavored with a variety of ingredients Mark would not reveal, though he did concede that my guess of cinnamon was correct. I blushed with pride. We tucked the meat into warm tortillas slathered with salsa and avocado, squeezing lime juice over the top and reaching impatiently for more cilantro and jalapeno. I downed two drippy, overflowing tacos with ease and went back for another slice of pork. And next to me, Keaton, who only recently had a nightmare involving a pig slaughter and lots of squealing, stifled her tentative plans for a return to vegetarianism with two tacos of her own. You’d better believe Seattle was aglow.

By that point, dessert was almost an afterthought, but we managed to find room for a modest and messy rhubarb crumble, my nod to spring.

Even Mark—whose sweet tooth is, as Keaton explains it, the size of a pea—cleaned his plate. Evidently, Pork Week brings out the best in all of us. Thank goodness it's only Wednesday.

*Mark and Justin welcome sponsorship. National Pork Producers Council, this is your chance.

Rhubarb Crumble

1 ¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
¾ cup muscovado (or light brown, if you prefer) sugar
½ cup rolled oats
6-7 Tbs canola oil
1 lb rhubarb, cut into ¾-inch pieces
Scant ¾ cup granulated sugar
Zest of half an orange
½ tsp ground cinnamon

In a medium bowl, combine 1 cup flour, muscovado sugar, oats, and oil, mixing well with a spoon or your hands until the mixture holds together in clumps and all the flour is incorporated. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

In another bowl, combine the rhubarb with the granulated sugar, the remaining ¼ cup flour, orange zest, and cinnamon. Transfer the rhubarb mixture to an ovenproof baking dish, and distribute the oat topping evenly over the rhubarb. Bake for 35 minutes, or until golden and bubbly. Serve warm, with good-quality vanilla ice cream.

Serves 4-6, or 7, if you’ve eaten lots of pork.


9 am Sunday: sugar and shortbread

When my former employer Rebecca and her gay husband Jimmy promised another buttery breakfast, they meant business.

As I learned in the Dutch babies episode, Jimmy fears no fat. He is a firm believer in butter, cream, and all things buttercreamy, and his waffles are no exception. Not content to settle for a normal version, he makes a shortbread waffle that is, as one might expect, heavy on the butter. In fact, the batter is rich and thick enough to be dolloped onto the waffle iron with an ice cream scoop, awe-inspiring in a way that’s both very beautiful and completely terrifying.

Rebecca’s straight husband—and comic straight man—John nearly hyperventilated at the sight. Jimmy closed the lid of the iron with cool confidence. Rebecca sipped her orange juice nonchalantly and toyed with a plate of bacon. The whole spectacle sent me into a cold sweat, some sort of strange and dreadful anticipation.

“Jimmy, what kind of syrup do you use on your waffles?” I asked by way of distraction.

“Oh, you know—just the regular pancake syrup. That’s what Rebecca likes,” he replied.

“I’m surprised you’re not a 100%-maple guy,” I said.

“That’s not nearly enough sugar, Little Bird!”* Rebecca interjected; “I need more! I’ve got to have my sugar!”

“Rebecca, maple syrup is sugar,” I reminded her, but it was a wasted effort. She's very serious about these things. When Jimmy makes waffles, Rebecca gets an entire pitcher of syrup all to herself. There’s already a cup of sugar in the batter, but that’s far from sufficient. We’re dealing here with a very unconventional woman, and her sugar needs are only appropriate—wildly immoderate, fantastically indecent, and very, very serious.

Behold, as meager illustration, her plate of waffles, and please keep in mind that this was only the first syrup pour. There would be others to follow, as well as another swipe or two of butter. In the background is her (sizable) syrup pitcher, which of course had to be emptied. If you look closely, you’ll note that each well of the waffle—itself a matrix of sugar and sugar—was swollen with syrup, barely able to hold itself together. I believe that what I witnessed was a sort of violence. A very tasty violence.

Meanwhile, over on my plate, there was less syrup—truth be told, I’m a maple snob—but a similar enthusiasm. The waffles were rich and sweet, with the tight, buttery crumb and snap of a shortbread cookie. In fact, though I’m not usually one to delay gratification, I’d be tempted to save them for dessert, with warm maple syrup and a creamy, melting scoop of good vanilla ice cream.

But then again, saving sugar for dessert would be so conventional.

*Rebecca began calling me “Little Bird” at some point during my period of employment as her Queen of Customer Service. Though I first found the nickname a bit odd and irritating, I’ve developed quite a fondness for it. And anyway, if you compare my syrup consumption with Rebecca’s, it starts to sound rather fitting.

Jimmy’s Shortbread Waffles
Adapted from the recipe book that came with his Salton waffle iron

Jimmy tells me that these waffles freeze well and reheat beautifully in the toaster—a sophisticated Eggo, if you will.

1 ¾ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
4 large eggs
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
A good squeeze of fresh lemon juice

Sift the flour and sugar together into a large bowl. In a separate medium bowl, beat the eggs with an electric beater until fluffy. Add the eggs to the flour-sugar mixture, and beat together until just combined. Add the butter and lemon juice, and mix until smooth. Do not overmix. The batter will be very thick. Use an ice cream scoop—or a 1/3 cup measuring scoop—to dollop the batter onto a heated waffle iron. Cook until golden.

Yield: 12 smallish (Eggo-size, say) waffles.


My mother and eggs, à la française

My mother loves Paris. This should not surprise you; after all, I’ve already made it clear that she is a genius.

She speaks nary a word of French, but she swathes herself in head-to-toe black (which is, after all, her daily uniform), laces up one of her many pairs of tiny (size 5 ½), aerodynamic, Euro-style Pumas, and hits the streets with the air of one who knows. She is unafraid. She can decipher menus; she can tackle the Métro; she can go into Monoprix with a grocery list and come out victorious. She plays the part so beautifully that Parisians have even been known to stop her on the street to ask for directions—and then stare in open-mouthed surprise when they find that she speaks no French. Now that’s satisfying.

And anyway, language barriers were made for overcoming. She can eek out the essentials when the circumstances require, such as a cheerful “Merci, au revoir” when leaving a store, and she’ll use improvised sign language if necessary. For a while, she was determined to learn how to order her preferred coffee—not a simple café express, but a double espresso with a small pitcher of warm milk on the side—and though she braved my rigorous drills and tests with only minimal giggling, it was soon clear that I’d continue to order for both of us. She may be a genius, but un double café avec un petit pot de lait chaud” was a bit much to ask. However, once the coffee is securely in her hands, she café-sits like a true Parisienne, and her people-watching skills are unrivaled.

One of my mother’s favorite spots for sitting and staring is Café Beaubourg, a stylish corner overlooking the Centre Pompidou and boasting a sleek ultra-modern look, beautiful people, and sexy cave-like bathroom. I tend to prefer less overtly showy spots* for my café-sitting, but Café Beaubourg is something of a sentimental favorite—if sentimental favorites can have lots of metal, hard edges, and surly waiters—because it was there, one early afternoon a few years ago, that my mother and I had our first French-style scrambled eggs.

The French like their scrambled eggs (oeufs brouillés, or "agitated eggs") creamy, with a texture resembling loose oatmeal. Cookbook author Michael Roberts describes them as “small tender clumps of eggs suspended in an almost sauce-like base,” which makes them sound delicious, slightly mysterious, and wildly complicated. Luckily, there’s no mystery or fancy technique involved. Though I may have first tasted them in a setting better known for chic than comfort, French-style scrambled eggs are the simplest and easiest of pleasures. In fact, they’re perhaps best suited for a “picnic” dinner on the floor, with a blanket around your shoulders and a wine glass at your knee.

When you find yourself stranded nine time zones from Paris and two from your mother, it's good to know about these things.

*For example, Le Petit Fer à Cheval (30, rue Vieille du Temple; Métro: St. Paul), Café de l’Industrie (16, rue Saint-Sabin; Métro: Bastille), or Le Pause Café (41, rue de Charonne; Métro: Bastille).

Tartine Poireaux-Oeufs Brouillés, or French-Style Open-Faced Sandwich with Leeks and Soft-Scrambled Eggs
Adapted from le hamburger et le croissant and Michael Roberts’s Parisian Home Cooking: Conversations, Recipes, and Tips from the Cooks and Food Merchants of Paris

This is perfect early-spring picnic-on-the-floor fare. It's so delicious that I nearly cried—or maybe it was that oddly touching scene in Sex and the City when Steve calls Miranda to tell her to look out her window at the moon. [Sigh.] As I said, delicious.

For the leeks:
3 small leeks
A nub of butter
1 tsp sugar (I used unrefined cane sugar, which I like to call “hippie sugar”)
A pinch of salt
½ Tbs crème fraîche

For the eggs:
2 large eggs
2 tsp water
1/8 tsp salt
A small nub of butter, melted

For serving:
Two or three bias-cut slices of baguette, or a large slice of country-style crusty bread, toasted
Freshly ground pepper

Begin by preparing the leeks: trim the root end off each leek, and slice them across their width into roughly ¼-inch-thick coins. Place the cut-up leeks in the basket insert of a salad spinner, place the basket in the bowl of the spinner, and fill the bowl with cold water. Let the leeks sit for a few minutes in the water; then use your hand to swish them around, loosening and removing any dirt that may be hidden in their layers. Remove the basket from the bowl, dump the water out of the bowl, return the basket to the bowl, and spin the leeks dry. [Alternately, if you don’t have a salad spinner, simply soak and wash the leeks in a bowl of water, and dry them with paper towels.]

In a large skillet, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Add the leeks, the sugar, and the salt, and stir to mix. Cover the skillet to allow the leeks to begin to sweat a bit, and, stirring occasionally and adjusting the heat as necessary if they begin to cook too quickly, allow the leeks to cook for about 15 minutes, until they are fragrant, soft, and almost melting. Add the crème fraîche, and cook the leeks a minute or two more, stirring in the crème fraîche as it melts. Set the skillet aside.

In a small bowl, whisk together the eggs, water, salt, and melted butter. Pour this mixture into a small saucepan, and place it over low heat, whisking constantly. When the mixture begins to coagulate ever so slightly and form tiny oatmeal-like lumps, begin a little dance of removing the pot from the heat and replacing it so that the eggs don’t cook too quickly, and reach all over the corners and bottom of the pot with your whisk. The eggs are ready when they resemble loose oatmeal; the process should take between 5 and 9 minutes.

Place the slices of toasted bread on a plate, and spoon the scrambled eggs on top of them. Top the eggs with a layer of leeks. Serve immediately, with salt and pepper as needed.

Serves one, with leftover leeks.


She cooks, she tells

Dear reader, exciting things are afoot, and it's not just that I've baked two loaves of bread, a deadly chocolate cake, a buttermilk banana cake, and a batch of granola in the past 72 hours. No, this is even better, if you can imagine such a thing.

About a month ago, I was contacted by Jessa Crispin, illustrious editor of Bookslut, a whip-smart webzine of book reviews, author interviews, and the like. [“Bookslut,” by the way, is also my new favorite word. I say it as often as possible—three times fast, for extra pleasure.] Jessa has been putting together a new webzine—this time focused on food—and she asked if I might like to contribute. Quicker than you can say “bookslut,” I agreed.

And today, I’m very proud to announce that Saucy is officially up and running, and you can find the first installment of my column “Cook and Tell” here. I’ve had a wickedly good time putting together the concept: each month I’ll offer a dish to add to your “wooing repertoire,” along with titillating—or at least entertaining (stilettos and sugar guaranteed!)—tales involving the dish in question.

I’m cooking; I’m telling; and I hope you’ll come visit me and the rest of the gang at Saucy.


On social theory, theses, and drastic measures involving cookies

It’s that time again. Behold a reprise of geekiness.

I’m a sucker for social theory. Really, there's nothing sexier than the name “Michel Foucault,” and that's a non-debatable point. A close second goes to a man I once knew who, between sips of beer, spoke the words “Baudrillard” and “simulacra” so suggestively that I blushed, broke a sweat, and nearly passed out. He didn’t stick around for long, but by god, social theory did. In fact, the two of us have just begun the arduous process of writing a Master’s thesis.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure we’ll make it through.
Despite its smart, sexy, and enticingly knotty qualities, social theory is a fickle partner. At best, we together produce only somewhat incoherent jargon, such as this cloudy gem from a recent session at the keyboard: “The concept of solidarity operates today to cloak the market—and market-based policy—in a familiar, collectivizing discourse, even as French society is atomized and its citizens are increasingly individualized and responsibilized.” [Oof. I'm so sorry, dear reader.]

And at worst, social theory abuses me with page upon page of impossible, heart-shriveling nonsense, such as the following (courtesy of a misguided soul named Timothy W. Luke, not me): “Multitorialities are incipient polyarchical fields, contragovernmentalizing spaces giving free rein to the post-jurisdictive.” [Even sorrier, dear reader.]

As I said, I’m not sure we’ll make it, social theory and me. The highs are high, and the lows are excruciating. It’s enough to drive a girl to bake. Such times call for drastic measures, and pistachio-apricot oatmeal cookies.

I made these lovelies last week for the final meeting of my neoliberal governmentality seminar, and we washed them down with an enormous bottle of cheap red—a better combination than you’d think—while sitting around the conference table at three in the afternoon. Through my sleepy sugar-and-wine-haze, social theory actually started to look sexy again. I think it even winked at me.

We’re giving it another go. I’m a total pushover, at least until the thesis is done.

Pistachio-Apricot Oatmeal Cookies
From Gourmet

This recipe yields a cookie that’s thinner, chewier, and more crisp than I’d ordinarily choose, but it’s absolutely delicious. The high ratio of brown sugar to white results in a deep caramelly flavor, which goes wonderfully with the pistachios and dried apricots.

1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature
¾ cup packed light brown sugar
¼ cup granulated sugar
¼ tsp pure vanilla extract
1 large egg
¾ cup all-purpose flour
½ tsp baking soda
¼ tsp salt
1/8 tsp ground cinnamon
1 ½ cups old-fashioned rolled oats (not quick-cooking)
1/3 cup dried apricots (2 oz), cut into ¼-inch dice
1/3 cup shelled unsalted pistachios (not dyed red), coarsely chopped

Put oven racks in upper and lower thirds of oven, and preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Spray two baking sheets with cooking spray, or line them with silicone baking mats, if you have them.

In a large bowl, beat together butter and sugars with an electric mixer until fluffy. Add vanilla, and beat to incorporate. Add egg, beating to combine well. In a separate bowl, stir together flour, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon, and then add these dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, mixing at low speed until just combined. Using a rubber spatula, fold in the oats, apricots, and pistachios.

Spoon rounded tablespoons of dough (I used a small ice-cream scoop) about two inches apart onto the baking sheets. Bake cookies, switching position of sheets halfway through baking, until golden brown, about 15 to 18 minutes. Transfer cookies carefully with a spatula onto racks. The cookies will crisp as they cool.

Yield: About 18 cookies


On heresy and bouchons au thon

My French host mother was tall, trim, and proper, with a sing-song voice and a name that skipped and chimed and rang off the tongue. She moved through the house as though on pointe—softly but decisively—and she wore silver bracelets that clicked delicately against each other when she lifted her hand to secure the barrettes in her long brown hair. She was also very Catholic, with four children, ages 9 to 17; a Labrador puppy; and a husband who’d gone—or rather, all but moved—to Canada to find work. It was complicated and exhausting. She did an admirable job, and she often fell asleep in the bathtub after dinner. But most importantly, dear reader, my host mother was the French equivalent of a Tupperware saleswoman. She tested, cooked in, and sold Flexipan and Silpat products, those fantastic (and fantastically expensive) silicone baking pans, molds, and sheets. I was lucky enough to live under her roof—and within close proximity to her kitchen—for six months. You can well imagine the glory that might have been, had I not taken down the crucifix she’d hung on my bedroom wall.

I arrived that fall, barely twenty-one, deep in my smoky-black eye makeup phase—an era that hasn’t yet ended, actually—and with the short, spiky hair I wore throughout college. I was also a pseudo vegetarian, which threw more than a few grains of sand into the gears of her well-oiled kitchen routine. But she sensed that I was only slightly heretical and very eager to please—still my greatest weakness, I’ll freely admit—and so she took me on, gently correcting my French, delivering clean sheets to my door with admirable regularity, and teaching me how to eat. I arrived a somewhat calculating eater, well-schooled in nutrition and suspecting that butterfat was the devil’s work, and I left smuggling aged chèvres and mimolette in my suitcase.

Each weeknight at eight I’d climb the stairs to the second-floor kitchen and join my squealing pre-teen host brothers (Ta gueule! Casse-toi! (Shut up! Get the hell out of here!)) and catty teenage host sisters (Ta jupe est moche, tu sais? (Your skirt is ugly, you know?)) at the table. We’d begin with a simple grated carrot or beet salad, or half a grapefruit. The boys might argue over the warm steamed leeks with vinaigrette, each wanting the sweet white part closest to the root. Then, depending on the season, we’d move on to a gruyère soufflé; pasta with a sauce of tuna, chopped tomatoes, and sautéed onions; or tartiflette, a wintery baked casserole of potatoes, lardons (absent from my half of the dish, merci), and rich Reblochon cheese from Savoie. It was at that table that I first ate sauerkraut and learned of the nightly cheese plate, stinky and irresistible, with hunks of baguette from the boulangerie next door. And of course there was always dessert: homemade applesauce, a grandmother-style apple or pear cake, or in January, a galette des rois.

At least one night each week we’d have a “Flexipan dinner,” a meal centered on a recipe that my host mother was testing in her silicone molds. Her individual tartlets of caramelized endive with goat cheese were staggeringly good, as was the almost-flourless chocolate cake, which quickly became a staple. But my favorite were the squatty, ugly, and completely delicious bouchons au thon (literally, tuna corks), a mixture of canned tuna, tomato paste, crème fraîche, gruyère, and eggs, baked in muffin molds.

With a texture somewhere between the filling of a quiche and freshly-made country paté, the bouchons tamed the flat, fishy pungency of canned tuna with the smooth richness of dairy and the sweetness of tomato. I gave thanks daily for all that Flexipan brought to my life, but mainly for bouchons au thon.

And as luck would have it, that spring, when my host mother went to visit her husband in Canada, she left me and my youngest host sister alone with a freezer blessedly full of bouchons. Seizing the opportunity, I invited my brand-new French boyfriend over for a dinner of the little tuna corks, roasted vegetables, carefully selected cheeses, crispy-crusted baguettes, and oatmeal chocolate-chip cookies. It was a pure, starry-eyed triumph all around, right through to the next morning, and frankly, I credit the bouchons. I also credit them with earning me, upon my host mother’s return, my first and only “Molly, ce n’est pas un hôtel!” (Molly, this is not a hotel!) speech. I was almost as horrified as she was; apparently I was more heretical than even I’d known.

And it was only the beginning, in so many ways.
When I flew back to the States one painful month later, I tucked the recipe for bouchons au thon in with the contraband cheese.

Bouchons au Thon
Adapted from Demarle, Inc., and my host mother

These bouchons—a crustless tuna quiche of sorts, I suppose—are delicious warm or at room temperature, with a green salad and a good baguette.

180 grams canned tuna in water (preferably chunk light), drained
3 Tbs tomato paste
5 Tbs crème fraîche
3 large eggs
1 cup finely grated gruyère cheese
2 Tbs finely chopped Italian (flat-leaf) parsley
¼ cup minced onion

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit, and spray 8 wells of a muffin tin with cooking spray (unless, of course, you have a silicone muffin mold, in which case no greasing is necessary). [I've also baked the batter in a single 7-inch silicone cake mold, which essentially negates the name "bouchon" but makes for a nice variation.]

In a medium bowl, break up the tuna with a fork, smashing it to a rough paste. Add the tomato paste, crème fraîche, eggs, gruyère, a good pinch of salt, Italian parsley, and onion, and mix well. The batter should be relatively smooth.

Spoon the batter evenly into 8 wells of the muffin tin, and bake for 20-25 minutes, until set and golden around the edges. [If you choose to use a 7-inch mold as mentioned above, the baking time will be longer; bake until the batter looks set and does not jiggle.]

Serves 4 as a light meal with side dishes.


“No better life than the good life”

It was a birthday celebration Nicho-style, with a rousing hike among towering trees, plenty of guffawing, an afternoon rest in a sunny hammock with a chainsaw roaring sweetly nearby, homegrown lamb grilled over an open flame, and apple cake with cream-cheese frosting. Happy birthday to a man who truly knows how it’s done.

The celebration began early. I arrived at Kate’s at 9:30 Saturday morning in the finest in hiking grungery wear, with an apple cake, a parka, and a car. Kate and her old friend Mike (visiting from Maine) piled in, and by 10:15 we were far from the city, already among the sheep, llamas, and yelping dogs of Nicho’s family farm in Sultan. The birthday boy was (appropriately) muddy and fresh from the barn, ready to hit the trails of nearby Mount Baring. After a brief sampling of his mother’s leftover pie (“the gold standard,” he claims, although we all agreed that the Crisco crust could be improved with butter), we four squeezed ourselves and our many water bottles into Nicho’s Volvo and headed for the mountain, passing the drive with such amusements as a sign for “Cozy Cracker Day Care” and a newspaper photo of the Jackson family leaving court last week, which prompted Kate to remark that Michael Jackson’s current look (what with little glasses, white shirt, and very proper tie) is “goth Harry Potter.”

Thankfully, Nicho kept his eyes on the road, and we soon arrived at the trailhead. It was crisp—cold, even—with snow in the ditches along the road, everything brown and gray with patches of verdant, mossy green. Led by Nicho’s trusty mountain dog Index, we climbed and laughed and played our way up the trail to Barkley Lake, still, quiet, and half-frozen on this first weekend in March.

After a bit of scampering on the chilly beach, Mike did an excellent impersonation of a man being shot out of a (tree-)canon, and then, climbing over snow-covered logs and splashing across a stream on wobbly rocks, we found a small grove where we unfolded a picnic of cheese, apples, and man-sized slices of honey gold oatmeal bread (courtesy of Kate). Then, with frozen fingers and full stomachs, we returned to the car and to Sultan, to begin the slow preparations for dinner—but not without a requisite near-nap in the hammock for me and Kate, a wood-chopping workout for Mike, and a bit of chainsaw action for Nicho.

As night came on, and with the help of Nicho’s new girlfriend Nicole (who is absolutely lovely and, unlike myself or Kate, fills one of Nicho’s most important criteria for women: “she’s strong enough to drag me to safety, if need be!” he told me proudly), we grilled lamb and vegetables and reddened our cheeks over the fire. And then we sat down around the big wooden table to toast the birthday boy, friendship, and our fantastic, giddy luck for days like these. We scraped our plates; we licked our fingers; and we sliced apple cake and spooned on extra frosting.

Nicho’s family has a saying that there’s “no better life than the good life.” Some days, I know what they mean.
Happy birthday, m'dear.

Nicho’s Birthday Apple Bundt Cake
Adapted from Saveur

This recipe makes a dense-crumbed, lightly sweet cake that is full of walnuts and chunks of fresh apple. It would be delicious on its own with coffee or tea, but for a more celebratory occasion, it’s downright luscious when sliced horizontally and slathered with a filling of cream-cheese frosting. If you want to go Nicho-style, pass a bowl of extra frosting upon serving.

Butter for greasing the pan
2 cups plus 1 tsp all-purpose flour
1 ½ cups sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
½ cup canola oil
½ cup applesauce
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 gala apples, peeled, cored, and chopped into rough ½ dice
2 cups chopped walnuts

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease a standard-sized Bundt pan with butter, taking care to reach into all the nooks and grooves, and then dust the pan with 1 tsp of the flour, tapping out the excess. Set the pan aside.

Sift together into a large bowl the remaining 2 cups flour, sugar, cinnamon, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Add the oil, applesauce, and eggs, stirring until just combined. Fold in the chopped apples and walnuts. The batter will be quite thick.

Spoon the batter evenly into the prepared pan, and bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about one hour. Set cake aside to cool for 15-20 minutes, and then invert it onto a rack to cool completely.