When I was young, much of my waking life revolved around the various forts I had stationed around my early childhood home in a small town in Pennsylvania. These included, but were not limited to, my mattress, which I partially flung off my bed every morning in a fit of rebellion, our enormous deck that my father had built, underneath which I could often be found climbing amongst the pylons and digging for worms (to force my brother to eat), and on the carpet under the baby grand piano in our living room.
If the weather was crap, or it was early in the day and I hadn’t yet mustered the gumption to venture into the backyard, I would nestle under the piano with our dog, Groucho, as dad plunked and tripped his way through Chopin while slurping his third cup of coffee. My brother Jon sometimes squirmed his way under and commenced prodding me in the leg with the tail of his Brontosaurus toy until I screamed and one of my parents dragged him out and sent him toddling off elsewhere.
It was under this piano, one day, after I had eaten my umpteenth banana for a snack, that I resolutely declared that bananas and I were finished. I stubbornly and uncharacteristically swore off a formerly beloved fruit and did not eat another plain banana for years. YEARS, people.
A decade or so later, at age sixteen, we lived in the suburbs of Washington, DC, and had just moved from our perfectly leafy and type-A power colonial to a townhouse with an elevator, so my mother, whose cancer had progressed to a point at which she was wheelchair-bound, could move about easily. Unfortunately, she never got to see the townhouse. By the time my father had signed, settled, and boxed up our exceedingly delicate existence, she had died, and the three of us + dog were suddenly faced with puzzling together a new reality with a very critical piece missing.
My dad, when he applies himself, is a very good cook, but when I was a kid, he handled three meals, and three meals only: Taco Night, Rib Night, and scrambled eggs on the occasional weekend, to which he would add soy sauce and torn-up squares of that staple of the 90’s suburban kitchen: American cheese. So, I started cooking. I was applying to college, trying to gracefully wrap up my tenure at an absurdly stressful high school, and I was motherless. Pasta figured heavily in my repertoire, as did couscous, sandwiches, and anything involving cream. Long absent from my life, I suddenly wanted bananas again…but instead of eating them raw, I fried them in butter and brown sugar until they caramelized. I ate this several times a week, ignoring the caloric ramifications as comfort food was the order of the day. One evening, as I headed upstairs to my room, my dad made a seemingly innocent, offhand comment that it looked like I had put on a few pounds. I love my father, but at the time, I hated him in that way only a teenage daughter can, and his incessant stiff-upper-lip commentary was precisely the opposite of sensitive. Likely what happened immediately after was that I howled and bitched, sprinted to my room on the 4th floor, and called my friend Alex to come over and hang out. “Hang out” was code for get stoned, which was a frequent occurence in the Atwood household between 1999-2001. I did not have a drop of alcohol in high school, but my friends and I smoked a good deal of pot, and my house became our band nerd clubhouse as we naively assumed that the smell couldn’t possibly escape my bedroom, and my father would be none the wiser. Thinking back on that now, I realize that I was a stunning idiot. Dad was in a fraternity at Cornell in the 60’s, and very clearly must have known about my giggling posse and our deviant behavior. Bless his heart, he never said a word, and in his own, weird, uncommunicative Atwood man sort of way, it was exactly the sort of sensitivity I needed. (Dad, if you’re reading this, and somehow you did NOT know…..hello! So sorry! Cheers!)
Nowadays, I only sometimes fry my bananas in butter (sometimes, occasion demands it! and, uh, it’s delicious). Last night, Chris and ransacked the kitchen at about 9 o’clock, in need of snacks. I dove into the peanut butter jar with a spoon, and he reached into the fruit basket for a banana, and stuffed it, whole, into a sprouted wheat wrap thing with a not small gob of the peanut butter. I eyed it, enviously, but like the good kind wife that I am, I didn’t steal any, but instead sprawled myself out over the entirety of the sofa in an act of jealous defiance. My companion for the evening was Nigel Slater’s book Thirst. I will not stop until I own every one of Nigel’s books. I love him so, and wish we could be best friends. Anyway. This book, as is obvious from the title, is all about things one can drink. I reached the chapter on bananas, and knew that this morning, Tuesday, on my new weekend (see personal note below….!!!!!), I would make a banana smoothie, just for me, and that it would be awesome, because Nigel said so. And I did, and it was. I highly recommend you make one, too. Thanks to the gentle and persistent tang of good greek yogurt, the sweetness of the ripe banana mellowed and smoothly rounded out a rush of floral from the bit of honey and vanilla chucked in. Also, it’s important to note that the the texture of this drink is akin to melted ice cream. If you are anything like me, and used to stir your bowls of ice cream until they melted into a soft sludge, and then drink them, you will enjoy this very much.
Banana, Honey, and Vanilla Smoothie
from Nigel Slater’s Thirst
2 large, ripe bananas
1 cup of plain yogurt (I used a good local greek-style yogurt)
Half of a vanilla bean
2 tablespoons honey
an ice cube
Peel the bananas, break them into chucks, and put them in the blender with the yogurt, honey, and an ice cube. Slice the vanilla bean piece in half lengthwise, and using the point of a small knife, scrape out all the sticky little black seeds and add them to the blender. Blend. Pour into a glass, and drink immediately.
Yields 1 large glass
***So, a lot has happened since the last time I wrote here. First of all, my laptop was stolen last fall, hence the lack of writing, and it only recently dawned on me that I could use my ipad! Duh, Sarah. Duh. Also, after a year and a half of working in a relatively corporate environment as a post-graduate school interior designer, I realized I was miserable (and that I had post-it notes littering my desk listing thoughts about food and recipes to try), so a few weeks ago, I quit. Now, thanks to the fabulousness and supportiveness that are my friends Molly and Brandon, I am cooking at Delancey, and my new, much-improved life revolves around the things that I love: really great food, strange hours, and a fantastic crew of insanely talented people. I am lucky, and so so happy, and plan to be around this place a lot more now. Hurrah for change!
I find the eggplant a somewhat amusing vegetable.
The bulbous, pastel simplicity of its shape charms me, as does its raw flesh: spongy, foam-dense, and generally unappealing to those of little patience and deftness with olive oil.
Being an infinitely impatient person myself, I have had, in my day, several highly unpleasant encounters with eggplants. Typically they involve a brief turn in a blazing hot oven, burnt garlic, and a sadly empty stomach. I think I probably would have given up on the eggplant altogether were it not for the allure of the baba ganoush at my neighborhood Lebanese restaurant back in DC. Smoky, tender, beguiling in its melty silkiness, it upstaged stalwart hummus with little effort, and rendered me quite unwilling to throw in the towel.
Fortunately, I learned that the key to an eggplant dish worthy of burrowing into is thus: time, and brazen lashings of oil. If you are willing to put forth even a modicum of effort, and a pan, you will likely forget about the underwhelming parmigianas of days past, and have quite a lovely meal.
I suppose you could call my impatience laziness, especially with regards to that glorious late-summer stew, ratatouille. While I love a bowl of soft, supple ratatouille, I rarely take the time to coax each vegetable into heady submission, as Julia Child would prefer. Fortunately, Nigel Slater shares my occasional sloth-like ways (I mean this, of course, with the utmost respect!), and one afternoon a couple of weeks ago, while marking up recipes to try in Tender, my gaze landed on a recipe for roast eggplant and chiles, that he noted was “a sort of lazy guy’s ratatouille this, but better”.
It’s really kind of brilliant. A brighter, sharper take on a traditional ratatouille-Slater banishes zucchini and instead welcomes chiles into the fold, which keep the flavors clean and add a bit of heat. Also, it is almost absurdly simple. While your oven is warming up, you basically chunk up the vegetables, toss everything with a good dose of oil, and into the oven they go. Then, pour yourself a glass of wine and watch an episode of Downton Abbey, and daydream that you, too, parade about in a vast English castle and frolic on moors. After an hour, give or take, open your oven, note how all of the vegetables have slumped and tangled together into a big mess, toast up a slice of hearty bread to sop up all the dribbly oily bits, and tuck in.
*I recognize that today’s date is October 2nd, but-quick! To the market! I think we still have a week or two with all of those lovely late summer vegetables. Get this on your table once, if you can.
Roast Eggplants, Chiles, and Thyme
Adapted from Tender: A cook and his vegetable patch, by Nigel Slater
2 medium eggplants
2 large handfuls cherry tomatoes
3 cloves garlic
2 bell peppers-red or orange, preferably
2 or more large, mild chiles
6-8 sprigs fresh thyme
2/3 cup olive oil (I might scale this back just a tad next time…but really, why mess with a good thing?)
toasted bread, for serving
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Give the eggplants a quick wipe down, and then cut the them into hefty chunks, and inch thick or so. If your tomatoes are on the large side, cut them in half, and then throw them into a roasting pan or baking dish, along with the eggplant.
Peel and crush the garlic and add it to the eggplants and tomatoes. Cut the peppers in half, scrape out all the seeds and white membrane innards, and cut the flesh into nice thick slices. Cut the chiles in half, remove the seeds, and slice the flesh thickly (too thinly and the chiles will burn-beware!). Add to the roasting pan along with the sprigs of thyme, olive oil, and a generous sprinkle of kosher salt and black pepper. Toss everything gently until it glistens with oil.
Bake forty to fifty minutes (or more, depending on your oven), tossing once or twice, until everything is tender and slumped and melding into one another. Some charring is wonderful. Serve, with bread if you wish, and make sure to scrape all of the sweet roasting juices out of the pan. I like to add a poached egg on top, for dinner.
enough for 4
Well, that’s that.
Somehow, inexplicably, it’s 2011, my thesis is as finished as it will ever be and out of my hands, and graduate school feels strangely, surreal-y, so very long ago. In approximately 5 weeks time, Chris and I will load up a truck, say goodbye to our friends and family, and zoom (nay, granny drive cautiously and slowly) across the country, bound for a funky old apartment with a claw foot tub in the Queen Anne neighborhood of Seattle. I should add-neither of us has a job yet, and we (he, especially) have gone through a lot of effort and expense to make this move happen.
I should also admit something. I have a nasty, scratchy, annoying-to-those-close-to-me habit of building things up in my head and gabbing incessantly about them until I crash down into despair and realize that perhaps said things weren’t as awesome as I thought. I didn’t want to admit it, but I feared that Seattle might have been destined for a similar fate. I was convinced it was where I wanted to live, yet-I had never been there. So it was with a small amount of trepidation that I boarded a plane on October 29th to meet Seattle for the first time.
I needn’t have worried.
We bonded immediately. I fell hard for the surprisingly steep and numerous hills, the still, gray-shrouded beach past Ballard, the fleecy blanket of clouds that somehow made the evergreens and water shimmer and sing. The houseboats, ferries, bridges, and sea planes (apparently I was born to live in a maritime city). That even in the middle of downtown, you’re very much aware of being enveloped by nature. The pickle plate at Boat Street Cafe. I’m going to stop myself before I gush too much about a city I have only spent 48 hours in, but I think it’s quite clear that I am vastly looking forward to February.
I’d also like to talk about New Year’s resolutions. I don’t really do them well. Regardless, 2011 is a big year for (new city! marriage!), and there are many things I’d like to accomplish. Writing them down will keep me more accountable, hopefully, and I plan on revisiting this list often.
1. Focus on my health
I am loathe to admit this in a public forum, but I’m an incredibly lazy person. The past three and half years of graduate school have basically been one giant excuse to overeat and nest on the couch with my laptop, and I am really beginning to feel it and notice it. I love being outdoors, and taking walks, but I don’t like regimented, repetitive physical activity because I get bored and distracted very easily. Moving to a new place, especially one as outdoors-oriented as Seattle, is the perfect nudge for me to get out of my apartment and explore both the city and the surrounding area. Chris is also selling his car, which means I can’t rely on rides anymore. It’s either walk, bike, or bus from now on. Oh, and I want to immerse myself in yoga again. Never felt better than when I was practicing regularly.
2. Start a meaningful career
It’s difficult graduating into an incredibly competitive field when jobs are scarce. I’ve launched a hard-core search but have to remind myself to be both patient and vigilant. Ideally, I would like to work in a medium-sized firm focusing on commercial, concept-based projects with a core of sustainability, humor, and creativity.
3. Start playing the clarinet again
I was a poster child for band nerds in high school. I first started playing the clarinet when I was 10, and after college continued playing in a excellent community group until I started graduate school and had to quit due to time constraints. I miss it terribly, to the point where I’ve had multiple band/clarinet related dreams. At no other time in my life is my mind so quiet and focused as when I am playing. I hope to join a group in Seattle once I have had a chance to get my chops back.
4. Focus on my loved ones
I have a wonderful group of family and friends that deserves more attention and selflessness on my part. This is even more important, now that I am moving thousands of miles away from most of them. Enough said on that.
5. Not be a slob
Because I really am, and Chris, and the small collection of nice things I’ve acquired don’t deserve this. I’m an interior designer, for crying out loud. Time to shape up and get my home in order. It’s also painfully obvious how much more organized, productive, happy, and healthy I am when my home is clean and happy.
6. Develop my personal style
Graduate school is a great excuse to revert to one’s undergraduate days involving hoodies and ponytails, and I am classic case of this. However, I’m not 18, I’m 27, and entering a professional and creative workforce in which I need to groom and dress myself appropriately, instead of going six months (ahem) without a haircut and keeping a bizarre assortment of not-quite-right separates in my closet. I also commit to not going on major shopping outings without someone who is better at dressing than I am. Mindy, I am looking at you. Ballard and Fremont boutiques once we are both employed?
7. Be more social
A dear friend recently called me an old soul. This is an incredibly true and revealing statement. I have loner tendencies and love my personal space and quiet, and would much rather stay in most nights. I want to explore Seattle and meet new friends and act a little bit more my age. There will be plenty of time for being an old soul when I am actually old.
8. Take more photos
I have 4 cameras and can’t remember the last time I documented life. This is ridiculous.
9. Take an art class
I miss creating purely for art’s sake, without having to worry about building codes and floor plans and egress and the like. Particularly interested in: watercolor, photography, ceramics, glass blowing, jewelry making. Anyone have a favorite source in Seattle?
10. Acquire SCUBA diving certification
For my 27th birthday, Chris took me on a SCUBA “discover” experience off the southern coast of Italy, since we were both over there at the time. We both fell in love with it and were IMMEDIATELY hooked, and promised ourselves that once we moved it was high on our list of priorities. In Seattle, you get certified in Puget Sound!
Happy, happy 2011, all.
ps: I don’t think I need to add that writing here, often, is also a goal.
The truth is long overdue, I’m afraid.
I haven’t been cooking much lately. In fact, I’ve become quite adept at rummaging. I sniff and sift through the tupperwares in our fridge and pile the dregs of lentils, cheese, and pickles on a plate, and Ba-DAH! Lunch. Or, if I’m feeling frisky, I sauté some mushrooms, toss them with pasta and parm, and lo and behold, dinner is served. See, the terrifying reality is that my thesis defense is in less than one month. All pretense of having a balanced life zoomed out the window sometime mid-September, along with summer’s carefree scent of ripe tomatoes, strawberries, and cocktail-swilling laziness. Autumn is my very favorite time of year, but unfortunately this season seems to be all about making it through til 2011 with my sanity and limbs intact.
I’m so wonky and wobbly and out of sorts, that I recently came home from a marathon, fist pumping, latte chugging study session quite late, decided it might be a good idea to throw together rosti (basically, potato pancakes fried with indelicate amounts of fat), and ended up grating some shards of my thumb in with the potatoes. Clearly, all is not right.
I’m pining for the good life again, one that consists of the following:
Cheers, all. I’ll see you in December. Wish me luck.
ps: we’re sneaking off to Seattle this weekend!! Quite frankly, I need to get out of Virginia, if even for a day or two, and frolic. We also need to think about where we might want to live when we move there this winter. Would love any and all suggestions/advice.
On a day like today, cooking is not necessary.
What is necessary is throwing open all the windows wide, and letting the sunlight blow in with the crackling fresh breeze. Noting that amongst all that green, a leaf or three has faded to gold.
Ready for a blaze of color, nubby worn sweaters, puffed down vests, and a good hearty braise. For firewood, a dark pungent stout, and brisk morning walks that flush my cheeks.
But for this perfect moment, today, I’m content with a rummage and rumple about in the kitchen, and breakfast of apple, bleu d’auvergne, and baguette.
The haze has finally lifted, I think. For some time, I’ve been feeling a bit out of sorts, not unlike this fellow:
The temperature in dc mercifully dropped from 100+, and I wrapped up some necessary, very time-consuming evils. In fact, not only do I now have an internship at a fairly wonderful design firm, I also started a second part-time job a week ago. Friends, I am a cheesemonger! Yes, a couple of days a week, I monger all things aged-milk related, at this fine establishment in Del Ray, which I plan to share more about in future posts. Isn’t monger just a swell word, too? I love that I now can refer to myself as someone who mongers, and, for the first time ever, gets to earn a (relatively wee) living doing the two things she loves the most: designing + eating. Hurrah to that.
I’ve also come to this realization: I would very much like to be a better contributor to this site. I’m going to attempt a different approach, because my problem is thus: I get flustered if I don’t have the perfect story, or recipe, or photo, and then I don’t write, and then I get more flustered because this space gets lonely, and it’s just a devilish, silly cycle all ’round. I’m not going to worry anymore about that. If I don’t have an epic tale to tell, I won’t, but that doesn’t mean we can’t chat, does it?
For instance: have you ever whacked into a fleshy watermelon, sliced it up, sprayed it in lime juice, and showered it in a nice sprinkle of salt? Well, you should definitely try that. The sour tang of the lime nudges the summer lovely flavor of the melon up just a notch or two, and makes it rather hard to stop eating. The same combination also works splendidly on melon, and most especially on mango (not too ripe, mind you), with the pleasantly stinging addition of a little chili powder. In fact, so powerful was my craving for this particular fruit salad, that I ended up slicing into a whole mango in the communal kitchen in my office, eliciting more than a few sideways glances from my coworkers. It makes for an ideal summer lunch, really. A little sweet, a little zippy, no need for a stove, and virtuous to boot.
Another favorite fruit salad, of sorts, also makes good use of a ripe watermelon. Find a nice heavy one, preferably from the farmer’s market. Next, procure the following: a tangy, creamy hunk of nicely aged feta, a few sprigs of fresh mint (from the army growing outside your back door), a lush fruity olive oil, and your pepper mill. Chunk up the watermelon and pry out the seeds. The minor annoyance of dealing with a seedy watermelon is worth it, in my book, as the seedless ones tend to not be as flavorful, and a wimpy, pallid watermelon just will not do here.
Anyway. Chuck the chunks into your favorite salad bowl, and follow suit with some nubs of the feta. You don’t want to drown the watermelon in feta, but the joy of this salad comes from the wonderful contrast between the sweet melon and the salty cheese, so don’t be shy. Next, drizzle a healthy stream of olive oil over the whole thing, along with a grating of black pepper. Toss and tumble it all together, and finally, chop (or rip) up a handful of mint over the deliciousness you have just created. Enjoy, preferably outside, with a bitingly hoppy IPA and hopefully not too many mosquitoes. Although autumn may be my favorite season, as long as this salad makes a regular appearance at my table, I’m happy to sweat through a couple more weeks.
Happy summer, all, and see you soon.
Oh, my. It’s rather quiet in here. If there is anyone still out there, well, you have the patience of a saint.
I certainly never intended to leave this place for the better part of 6 weeks. Italy danced with me and flirted with me and plied me with homemade gnocchi and the most pungent, herbal, fresh beans a girl could ever hope to slurp up. But oh, did she also exhaust me. Oh yes indeed. Thirty days of serious touring, pavement pounding, diptych-peering, dome-ogling, and cathedral-gawking is enough to wear down the soul of even the most hardy traveler. Fortunately, I was able to put my feet up for a bit after Chris met me in Rome; we then spent a couple days on an organic farm (which included a 4:30 am hike up a mountain to watch a shepherd make fresh ricotta and pecorino), and then Sorrento, for much limoncello and a birthday scuba dive (first time)!
And then, of course, there was the food.
Gelato. I ate gelato almost every day. How could you not? Pistachio was classic, marsala and a raspberry sage were, well, phenomenal.
Gnocchi. In all guises. Some fluffed into a ricotta pillow, some strewn with shards and wisps of tomato and basil.
I won’t forget the sparkling sweetness of the seafood. One of my most memorable meals was in Venice, at a little cafe on an out-of-the-way canal, that has no menu. You eat what they serve, and that’s that. To our great joy, we showed up on seafood night.
And they had mascarpone cream for a sweet. Laced with Marsala (I think), with wee crunchy biscuits for dipping. I keep thinking about this one.
Two-plate pizza in Tuscania. Mine: zucchini, squash blossoms, and anchovies. Skinny, cracky, huge, wonderful. I devoured the whole thing.
It was huge. I don’t care.
And here, this lovely worm-looking plate: pasta with truffles. All those black specks? TRUFFLES, people. There are no words…
I think with a bit of a pause and a deep breath, I’ll have more to say about this trip. I’m in an odd place now, and slightly out of sorts. I returned home to find my job had vanished, and for the second time in just over a year, I am laid-off. It’s ok, though. I have time to do some housecleaning, both mental and physical. There are two quarts of homemade pickles in the fridge, and this Saturday I’m venturing to Pennsylvania with some new friends from food52 to can sour cherries and peaches. Things could be worse. With cherry pie in my near future, I can’t complain too much.
Other things making me happy include:
Brian’s new summer mix, and, as usual, his photos.
A sure to be smashing project curated by a very talented lady. Pacific Northwesterners, take note.
Thunderstorms. The ones that really wallop and kick some ass. We had one yesterday.
Big bulbous blue hydrangeas in an orange vase, made by my aunt.
Sun gold cherry tomatoes.
I’ve missed this space, and I’m so happy to be back.
How are your summers going?
Cheers, all. I’ll return soon with some kitchen adventures. Enjoy your week.