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Even on a good day

My mother has been in town since early this month. We don’t often get this kind of extended time in the same place, and I’d forgotten what a good cooking collaborator she is. She makes sure our wine glasses are never empty. She cleans up as she goes. She doesn’t mind deveining shrimp! I could go on and on. I bow down.

At my reading in Madison last week, someone asked me to talk about a few of my favorite cookbooks. The ones I mentioned were The Zuni Cafe CookbookAll About Braising, various Nigel Slater titles, and Every Grain of Rice, and because I am long-winded, my answer wrapped up, blah dee blah blah, about twenty-five minutes later, on the topic of everyday cooking, which I usually do without consulting a book. In truth, I pointed out, I only cook two or three "real" dishes a week - and by "real," which is a very arbitrary word, I mean things that involve more than 10 minutes in the kitchen. I only very, very rarely make more than one "real" dish at a time - say, this favorite Sichuanese beef-and-celery recipe plus a side of braised bok choy.  Usually, even on a good day, it’s just the beef and celery, with some rice from the electric rice cooker. I can’t remember the last time I made a meal that involved three different, recipe-based dishes on a plate.  Most of the time, my home cooking is very simple and quick: scrambled eggs and a salad dressed in the vinaigrette I always keep in the fridge, a bowl of soup with some cheese and bread or crackers, or rice topped with whatever’s in the crisper drawer and a fried egg and hot sauce.

Later, when I was sitting at a table, signing books, someone expressed surprise that I "cook" so little - that, for someone who professes to love cooking, that I don’t actually do a lot of it. I sort of bumbled through an answer, and a week later, in the wake of much online discussion about domesticity, feminism, and the joys and headaches of home cooking, I’m still thinking about how to explain my thinking.  But I think what it comes down to is this: maybe we’re setting our standards too high for what it means to cook at home, to do home cooking? I mean, I love to cook, but I also believe it is totally okay - even good, even great, even elegant - to serve scrambled eggs for dinner. I have no qualms about feeding myself, my child, and my husband (and even company) a pot of vegetable soup that I made earlier this week, with some cheddar and purchased bread. I love to cook, but like everybody, my life is full. I’m tired at night. I hate deveining shrimp. I love to cook, but I love to cook two or three times a week, and not much more than that. The rest of the time, we eat leftovers, or we eat something that I (or we) can make in a few minutes. It’s still home cooking, and we’re still eating good food, and there’s real pleasure in that. That’s what I care about.

This soup is one that I’ve made probably a half-dozen times, adapted from a recipe that I found last year in Bon Appetit. You’ve got to peel and chop the bag of carrots, but after that, the soup coasts to the finish line by itself, and a single batch will cover a week’s worth of lunches or a couple of dinners for a small family. The photos I took of it were sort of lackluster, but you can picture it. The soup is anything but. It’s pumpkin-orange and velvety, laced with a creeping heat that leaves your mouth tingling. I like it with sharp cheddar and a pile of Triscuits.

Happy weekend.

Carrot-Coconut Soup with Chile and Lime
Adapted from Bon Appetit and the Clayburn Village Store & Tea Shop in Abbotsford, BC

½ stick (57 grams) unsalted butter
2 lb. (910 grams) carrots, peeled and chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
Kosher salt
4 cups (950 ml) chicken broth
1 ½ to 2 (13.5-ounce) cans unsweetened coconut milk
About 2 Tbsp. sriracha, or to taste
Lime wedges, for serving
Fresh cilantro leaves, chopped, for serving, if you feel like it

Melt the butter in a large (5-quart) pot over medium-high heat. Add the carrots and onion, season with a couple good pinches of salt, and cook, stirring often, until the carrots are softened, 15-20 minutes. Stir in the broth, 1 ½ cans of the coconut milk, and 1 tablespoon of the sriracha. Bring to a simmer, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are very soft and the liquid is slightly reduced, about 45 minutes. Puree in small batches (remember: hot liquids expand!) in a blender. (Or, my preference: puree right in the pot, with an immersion blender.) Check for seasoning, and add more salt and/or sriracha, if you like. (I usually add 1 more tablespoon sriracha.) If you’d like more richness, stir in the rest of the coconut milk, and then reheat as needed.

Serve with a generous squeeze of lime in each bowl, and top with cilantro, if you have it.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings


Looking forward

I picked up a roll of film that I shot at Sam and Megan’s wedding last month, and maybe my friend at the lab did some wizardry with the negative scanner, but the whole roll has this glowy, ethereal light shining through it. It’s a decidedly end-of-summer light. I like the way it makes me feel.

The past few mornings, our neighborhood has been white with fog, this dense fog that blows up the street in visible gusts, and it feels so familiar and so welcome, but it is a decidedly not-summer thing.

I’m writing this from an airplane to Chicago. Brandon is with me (!), and having had a lot of long days lately (hosting a dinner at Delancey in honor of Francis Mallmann (!), hosting a dinner at Delancey in honor of our friend Renee Erickson (!), being so fired up afterward that we planned another special dinner for mid-November, completing eight months of testing to finally finally finally put a wood-fired burger (!), Brandon’s new pet, on the Sunday night menu at Essex), we are giddy to get out of town. We bought Ranch-flavored Corn Nuts for the plane ride, and we intend to land with no teeth left. We’re going to sleep a little, and then probably eat a lot, and then we’ll drive to Madison on Thursday for my talk at the Wisconsin Book Festival. Madison, I heard a rumor that you’re great. I’m looking forward to meeting you.

In the meantime, there are many things to read.

I inhaled Lena Dunham’s brand new book, Not That Kind of Girl, in just over a week, which might be the fastest I’ve read anything that I wasn’t being tested on. There’s a lot of talk about her book, good and bad and indifferent, and I think that’s great. I loved it, and I loved that she was willing to do it – to write about bad decisions, condoms, body stuff, the messy stuff you do when you’re twenty, the stuff we’re not supposed to talk about.

The theme of last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine was feeding kids, and the entire country is now tearing its hair out. But I loved Mark Bittman’s piece about parenting as a food writer – not because I think his example is in any way the norm, food writer parents or no, but because he gave smart, sensible advice about eating.

On a related note, this article is so funny and so good. Thank you, Luisa.

And: career tips from smart women! SHINE THE WAY, LADIES.

See you very shortly.

P.S. Renee will be at Maiden Lane in New York City next Monday, and I hope you’ll go eat Messy Shrimp with her in my stead. (Tickets over this way.) She’s so good.


The satisfaction

In early September, a kind reader in north-central Idaho left me a comment. Her name was Michele, and her Italian prune plum tree was promising a bumper crop: did I want some? This kind of thing does not happen all the time, or ever, so I said (yelled) yes. That is how it came to pass that last week, a box showed up on our stoop, containing almost ten pounds of plums cushioned in bubble wrap. I hauled it to the table and let it sit there for a couple of days, admiring it like an expensive flower arrangement, patting it softly like June’s head, before getting down to work over the weekend, freezing a pound of halved plums for cakes later on and turning the approximately eight pounds that remained into my favorite, and simplest, jam.

I’m not crazy about most jams/jellies/preserves that you can buy at the supermarket. Either they’re too sweet, too far removed from the fruit they once were, or they’re the type that markets itself as low-sugar, which usually means that the flavor is flat, vaguely brown-tasting. Bah. If I happen to be in a market that has high-end, small-batch jam, like June Taylor, that’s a whole other story. That stuff is incredible: clean-tasting, softly set, full of bright fruit. (Santa Rosa Plum and Tayberry Conserve!!!) But it’s also so expensive, so so so expensive, that I can’t bring myself to use it in my, or my child’s, peanut butter sandwich. I feel more inclined to use it as currency than to actually eat it. That’s why, whenever I can, I try to make jam. I can make it exactly the way I want it. And the satisfaction! THE SATISFACTION!

I am not a jam expert. I am also not a canning expert. But almost ten years ago, my friends Kate and Margot taught me their favorite jam formula, which Margot learned from an older family friend in Italy, and between it, a few other recipes I’ve tried, a few cookbooks I’ve read, and trial and error, here’s what I’ve figured out.

1. I like jams that use a 2:1 fruit-to-sugar ratio. When you’re measuring it out, it looks like a terrifying amount of sugar, but stay strong, hold firm, because most of the time, it will yield a jam that’s just right. The sugar not only preserves the fruit, of course, but it plays a big role in drawing out its flavor. Use too little sugar, and the flavor and color will be dull. Jam is not a place to go on a no-sugar diet.

2. This is a personal thing, but: the best jams are the simplest. You can fancy them up with tea leaves, hibiscus flowers, spices, blah dee blah, but my goal in making jam is to taste the fullest flavor of the fruit itself. The only things I put in my jam are fruit, sugar, and fresh lemon juice. God, I’m a cranky old lady. I annoy even myself.

3. To check my jam for doneness, I like the saucer test, which I describe in the recipe instructions. Read on. (I should also mention that the jam below looks more liquidy than it actually is. It was sort of sinking into the yogurt. Anyway, the photo above is a better representation of the consistency of the jam, if you want a visual aid.)

In short, THANK YOU, MICHELE AND GARY! Kindness like yours is a too-rare thing. We’re going to be eating your plums, in this jam, which is really your jam, all winter long.

Italian Plum Jam

Note that you’ll want to pit the plums before weighing them. You’re doing this recipe by weight, and you don’t want the pits to mess up your 2:1 plum-to-sugar ratio.

Also, listen: I know the instructions that follow are long. I wanted to go into as much detail as possible, because I understand that jam-making can seem mysterious. But once you’ve tried it, I doubt you’ll need to read the instructions again. Jam-making is a very tactile thing, all about watching and listening and prodding, and I get better at it, more instinctual, every time I do it.

Oh, and: My current breakfast of choice is a spoonful of this jam stirred into a bowl of plain whole-milk yogurt.

1 kilogram (2 pounds 3 ounces) pitted and quartered Italian prune plums
500 grams (1 pound 1 ounce) granulated sugar
Juice of ½ lemon

A Dutch oven, or similar
6 (8-ounce) canning jars, with lids and rings
A rimmed sheet pan
A couple of clean kitchen towels
A few saucers
A large pot for boiling the filled jars
A rack that fits inside the large pot
Tongs, or a jar lifter

Combine the plums, sugar, and lemon juice in a Dutch oven (or other wide, deep pot of similar volume), and let it sit at room temperature for 2 hours, until very juicy. (If your schedule makes this tricky, don’t worry: you can let the mixture sit longer, if needed. I’ve let it hang out for up to 4 or 5 hours.)

While the fruit is hanging out, wash the jars, lids, and rings in hot, soapy water, so that they’re perfectly clean, and then put the jars (upright) on a rimmed sheet pan. Lay the lids and rings on a clean towel to dry completely. Put a few saucers in the freezer; you’ll need these later, for testing the jam.

Shortly before you begin cooking the jam, preheat the oven to 225°F, and slide the sheet pan of jars into the preheated oven. It will need to stay there for 30 minutes to sterilize the jars. (I find this oven method easier than boiling the empty jars, because I used to always splash boiling water everywhere when I was lifting them out to fill them. But do whatever you prefer. Or, you can entirely skip this sterilizing-before-filling step, because, as it turns out, safety experts no longer consider it necessary. When in doubt, this is a great resource.)

After you put the jars in the oven, take out a large pot, place a rack inside of it, fill it with water, and set it over high heat. (I use a round cooling rack; Marisa uses a silicone trivet; and you can also use a folded dish towel, though it tends to float until you put jars on top of it.) The pot must be large enough to hold 4 or 5 jars in a single layer, and the water should be deep enough to cover the jars by 1 or 2 inches. You’ll want it to be simmering by the time the jam has finished cooking, because you’ll use it for processing the filled jam jars.

When you’re ready to cook the jam, place the pot of fruit over medium-high heat, and bring the mixture to a rolling boil. Soon, you’ll notice a pale-colored foam rise to the surface. Use a spoon or a skimmer to remove as much of the foam as possible. Keep the jam rolling along at a boil, stirring frequently to prevent scorching, and keep an eye on it: first it will be very juicy, and then it will start to cook down ever so slightly, the texture unifying, the color darkening, the surface glossy. Around this point, maybe 20 minutes into cooking, it will probably also start sputtering like lava when you stir it: be careful! That scary sputtering is how I know to start testing the jam for doneness. It probably won’t be ready on the first try, but it’s good to get a feel for it.

How to test for doneness: In general, the setting point for jam is 220°F, so you can test by taking its temperature as it boils: when it hits 220°F, it’s generally ready. However, that said, pectin-rich fruits set at a slightly lower temperature, so if you always just sit back and let your jam go to 220°F, you could wind up with a too-stiff jam. I prefer to use a more tactile test for doneness: the saucer test. Here’s how to do it:

Take the pot off the heat while you test it. Take 1 saucer out of the freezer, and dribble a little jam on it, maybe a silver dollar-sized puddle. Return the saucer to the freezer for 15 seconds or so, so that the puddle of jam is neither warm nor cold. Then remove the saucer from the freezer, and sweep a fingertip through the jam: does it feel like it’s developing a certain solidity, as Marisa explains, so that your finger leaves a trail? Or, on the other hand, is the jam still runny, so that it quickly runs to fill in the trail? If it’s the latter, the jam isn’t quite ready, so return the pot to the heat, stirring, and test again in a few minutes. The jam is ready when your finger just begins to leave a clean trail. Another indication is that when you tilt the saucer, the jam slides very slowly, not quickly. It won’t look like jam, per se, quite yet - it’ll be softer, gloppier than that - but it will continue to thicken as it cools. (When in doubt, err on the side of undercooking, I’d say. You can always use it as a syrup on pancakes! You’ll nail it next time!)

When the jam is ready, remove the sheet pan from the oven. Working carefully – the jars and the jam are very hot! – use a ladle to divide the jam among the jars, leaving ¼ inch of room at the top. (A batch of jam will probably fill 4 jars, and maybe 5, but I like to sterilize 6 jars, just to be safe.) Wipe the rims of the jars with a clean, damp cloth to remove any drips. Put the lids and rings on, taking care to screw them just until they are snug (not crazy-tight). Use tongs or a jar lifter to carefully place the jars, standing upright, on the rack in the pot of simmering water. Bring it up to a boil, and boil for 10 minutes. Remove the jars (carefully!) with tongs or a jar lifter, set them on a rack, and leave them alone to cool completely. As the jars cool, you may hear little pops: that’s the lids sealing. When they’re cool, press each lid lightly to make sure it has sealed: it should curve downward very slightly in the middle. Properly sealed jam is safe to store at room temperature, but refrigerate after opening.

Yield: 4 or 5 (8-ounce) jars


Every Tuesday

Whoa. I got sucked into a black hole for a bit there, a (very pleasant, very festive) black hole of weddings and out-of-town visitors. Somehow it’s now September 26, and I’m glad to be alone tonight, in a quiet house, with a so-so brownie that I’ll probably eat anyway, rain falling outside and all the lamps lit. Hello! Or, OH-LO!, as June puts it.

In the weeks since I was last here, Megan and Sam got married, and Gemma and Christophe came to help us celebrate, and after that, my in-laws arrived, and now we’ve got a cousin from New York and her boyfriend in the guest-room-slash-dungeon downstairs. And because there is no one who doesn’t like tacos, for the past three Tuesdays, we’ve taken whoever is in town, including Sam’s entire family, to Essex for taco-and-tiki night.

Brandon started daydreaming last winter about doing something fun at Essex on Tuesdays, a night when Delancey is closed and Essex, at that point, was too. He played around with a few ideas - maybe a barbecue-only menu, or spaghetti and meatballs, something like that. We were both big fans of Alvaro Candela-Najera’s Monday night tacos at Sitka and Spruce (which you can now find every night at The Saint), so that got us thinking, and then Niah mentioned that he wanted to try doing a tiki night at Essex, and as it happens, tiki-style cocktails go well with the flavors and heat of Mexican food, and boom boom boom, one thing led to another, and that’s how we decided to do a special taco-and-tiki menu every Tuesday - with meats cooked in our wood-fired ovens (!) and tortillas made on-site from fresh masa (!!) and a free chips-and-salsa bar (!!!) and housemade hot sauce (!!!!).

Of course, Brandon and I know a lot more about eating tacos than we do about making them, so we turned for help to a couple of cooks at Delancey and Essex, Ricardo Valdes and Pedro Perez-Zamudio, whose families are from Mexico. To be fair, Tuesdays are now much more theirs than ours. After a couple of months of testing and re-testing, the menu was ready around mid-May, and that’s when I added the words "Taco-&-Tiki Tuesdays, 5 to 10 pm" to the hours sign in the Essex window, and we were up and running.

I’ve wanted to write about taco-and-tiki night here for a while now. But I wanted to share a recipe when I did, and it was hard to choose one that fit. Some of the best parts of the menu - the al pastor tacos, for instance, or the lamb barbacoa, or the lengua - involve a lot of steps, a wood-burning oven, a kind lady named Juana with a bowl of masa and very skilled hands, and spices that can be hard to find if you don’t have access to the kind of vendors that supply restaurants. Happily, though, Ricardo’s famous guacamole is not nearly that complicated, and he agreed to teach me how to make it.

Ricardo’s recipe was inspired by the guacamole his grandmother Guadalupe made when he was growing up in Oxnard, California. Originally from Jalisco, Guadalupe - not sure if I am permitted to call her by her first name? Maybe not? If I’m struck by lightning tomorrow, you know why - had an avocado tree in her backyard, and she grew her own cilantro, jalapenos, and serranos, all of which she used in her guacamole, along with red onion, garlic, tomato, and a generous amount of lime. Ricardo remembers watching her make it, methodically cutting each avocado in half, removing the pit, and scoring the flesh with a small knife before scooping it out of its shell and mashing it up with two forks. (I felt wistful just typing that, possibly because the only cooking I actually witnessed my grandmother do involved a packet of Lipton soup mix, a kettle of boiling water, and a mug.)

Years later, when he was hired as the chef de cuisine of a new Mexican restaurant, Ricardo was tasked with working up a great guacamole, and he started from Guadalupe’s formula. He left out the tomato, added some olive oil, and over a number of reworkings, he pinned down the quantities. The result is, and I don’t know how else to say it, really special. I mean, we’ve all made guacamole: you chuck some avocados in a bowl with stuff, and it’s good. Right? It can’t be bad. Still, this one is special. It’s bright with lime, spiked with just the right amount of herbs and heat, chunky enough to stand up on a chip but silky from a scant addition of olive oil. It’s the result of a lot of repetition, of familial memory coupled to muscle memory - Guadalupe’s taste and technique, honed and refined in restaurant kitchens.

And if you have someone smart around - someone like Ricardo, an actual professional who has the foresight to save some whole cilantro leaves for a garnish - your guacamole might even look attractive in a photograph! I had no idea that was possible.

It occurs to me that I should also share a (life-changing, guacamole-changing) tip that Ricardo gave me about avocados and ripeness. TAKE NOTE. When you’re making guacamole, of course you’ll ideally use firm-ripe avocados, but if only some of your avocados are ripe, weep not. Take the unripe ones, scoop the flesh into a food processor, add a dribble of olive oil, and blend them until they’re creamy, like soft, beaten butter. Somehow, blending them like this with oil deepens their flavor and makes them taste richer, riper, not sweet and starchy like normal unripe avocados. You can then take this blended avocado and fold it together with cubes of nicely ripened avocado, and make your guacamole from that.

P.S. I’m excited, and somewhat terrified, to be leading a discussion with one of my mentors, Renee Erickson, at Book Larder this Wednesday night, October 1, at 6:30 pm. Renee’s first book, A Boat, A Whale, and A Walrus, comes out on Tuesday, and it’s every bit as good as you would expect. (Someday I will get a tattoo of my life motto: WWRD, or What Would Renee Do.) Come see us!

P.P.S. On a related note, Brandon and Co. are cooking a four-course dinner at Delancey on Monday, October 6 to celebrate Renee.  There are still a half-dozen tickets left, I believe, and you can purchase them through Book Larder.

P.P.P.S. While we’re talking about restaurant stuff, this talk by Mark Canlis, of Canlis, is so good, so smart, and so humane. If you’re interested in the industry, or even just an avid diner, it’s worth listening - particularly to the first 27 minutes. Turn it on while you’re cooking one night.

Ricardo’s Famous Guacamole
Adapted from Ricardo Valdes

If you don’t mind the expense, it’s a good idea to buy a couple more avocados than you actually need for this recipe. Inevitably, one will have some gnarly spots of rot inside, and you’ll want to throw it out. Also, don’t cut open your avocados until you’ve prepped the rest of the ingredients, because the flesh browns quickly when exposed to air.

Last, note that this recipe scales up nicely. At Essex, our batches are ten times this size, and we mix them in a bowl big enough to sit in. (That’s last week’s batch, at right.)

2 teaspoons lime zest (about 1 lime’s worth)
¼ cup (60 ml) lime juice (about 2 limes’ worth)
3 tablespoons finely chopped red onion (about 1/8 of an onion)
A handful of chopped cilantro (about ¼ of a bunch)
½ of a jalapeno, seeded and finely chopped
½ of a serrano, seeded and finely chopped
½ of a garlic clove, pressed
4 teaspoons olive oil
A couple of generous pinches of kosher salt
A couple of grinds of black pepper
3 firm-ripe avocados

Prepare all of the ingredients, and keep them close at hand. Then, and only then, cut the avocados in half, remove and discard the pits, and (very carefully, with the avocado skin still on) cube the flesh of the avocados with a small knife. Use a spoon to scoop the cubed flesh into a medium bowl. Dump the rest of the ingredients on top of the avocados, and then go after the mixture with two forks or a potato masher, stirring and smashing until you like the texture. Taste, and adjust seasoning. It will likely need more salt, and you may also want more black pepper. If you’d like your guacamole to be spicier, add more chopped jalapeno or serrano. If you’d like more garlic flavor, add another half a clove. Note that the freshly made guacamole will be quite lime-y, but don’t worry, because the lime flavor will mellow with time. (That said, if you still think the lime is too dominant, feel free to add a dribble of olive oil.)

When the flavor is to your liking, press plastic wrap directly against the surface to keep air away, and chill for at least 1 hour before serving. Guacamole will keep this way without browning for at least a day, and it’ll still taste good after a few days, though it will probably discolor at the surface.

Yield: depends on how guacamole-crazed you are, but probably enough for 4 to 8 adults


September 6

From the summer of 2006 until the early spring of 2011, we lived in a nondescript duplex on 8th Avenue that shared the block with some other nondescript duplexes and one notably terrifying exception that we referred to as Boo Radley’s house. I didn’t love the neighborhood, but it was mostly fine, and after we adopted Jack, I got to know it well, because Jack, being a terrier, needed a lot of walking. We found our habits. If the sun was out, we’d walk up to the P-Patch at 60th and 3rd and ogle people’s tomatoes and dahlias; if it was raining, I’d drag him for a quick loop around the block; and if it was evening, dark already but not too cold, we’d walk a big rectangle through east Ballard so that I could look through the lit-up windows of the bungalows we passed as families cooked and sat down to dinner. I often dreaded walking the dog, especially in the fall and winter, when it gets dark so early, but once we were out and in a rhythm, the glowing squares of those windows would keep me going - we’ll turn for home after we pass the next house, or, wait, the next one - and so would the smells that filtered out to the street. I remember one night when I caught what was surely the scent of banana bread baking, another when someone was clearly burning garlic, and another when a whole block of 7th Avenue smelled like ripe apples. Or maybe it was applesauce cooking? Maybe I’d passed under an apple tree? It was too dark to tell.

We live closer to the water now, about a quarter mile from Puget Sound, and if the air smells like anything, it smells like saltwater. I imagine that will always feel novel to me, having grown up in a city where the nearest beach was, I don’t know, 500 miles away. I don’t walk much after dark now, because Brandon is working and June is asleep in her crib and Jack is an old man. I’m usually doing something like I’m doing tonight: sitting on the sofa with Alice, avoiding the dirty laundry by drinking a Negroni and reading, listening to Jack snore down the hall.

But late this afternoon, June and I took a sunny bike ride around the neighborhood, and somewhere between an impromptu stop at Uncle Sam’s house and a quick trip into the grocery store, June started screeching that she couldn’t get into her Tupperware of crackers, so I pulled over, reached into the bike trailer to help her, and that’s when I noticed it: the air smelled exactly like summer in Colorado, like the camp I went to for two summers 25 years ago, like dry pine needles in the heat. It’s something we almost never smell here, living as we do in what is essentially a rainforest, where everything is damp and green green green, always. But there it was. My memory of the scent was immediate, below language, just boom, Colorado summer. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. A couple of blocks later, blissed out in the grocery store parking lot, I misjudged a turn and fell off my bike into a trash can. But that smell! I’m so glad I found it again.

I was going through my hard drive last night and came upon some photos I took on my old digital camera six years ago, the summer that we got Jack, in that janky duplex. I was surprised by how nostalgic I felt for those windows and that white table, which we still have somewhere but don’t have a proper place for. All of these photos were in a folder called "Lunches." Lunches! I’ve let my lunch game slip. Oh well.

There’s a lot of good stuff going on out there lately:

How to be polite.

What Writers Can Learn from Goodnight Moon. (Goodnight nobody!!!!)

Chaz Ebert on Life Without Roger, from Anna Sale’s very, very smart Death, Sex & Money.

Ashley English’s newest, Quench, won't be out until late October, but I got an early peek. Rose and Cardamom Soda! Homemade Throat Soother Tea! Hard Cider! I'm in.

I picked up a copy of Rookie Yearbook Two last weekend, and the essay "Eating: A Manifesto" had me doing the Arsenio Hall woot woot woot arm thing. I love Rookie.

Betsy Andrews, executive editor of Saveur, is teaching a master class on food memoir and poetry at Hedgebrook.

My friend David Huffman has just launched a Kickstarter for his film Fork, and I’m backing it.

Last but not least, it’s pledge drive time at Spilled Milk. Right. I know. Nobody likes pledge drives. But I speak for both myself and Matthew when I say that making Spilled Milk is our favorite job. And we give it away for free. Your contribution helps us pay for ingredients, equipment, audio hosting, and production assistance, so that we can bring you regrettable jokes every week. (Thank you!)

I hope you’re having a great weekend.



I have a child who is about to be two years old. I have a lot of thoughts on the subject, but one thing I do not have a lot of thoughts about is a second birthday party. I could take it or leave it. For one thing, June doesn’t understand birthdays yet, so it doesn’t matter to her either way. Also, I am lazier than I let on. When your kid turns one, a party feels mandatory, because you kept a small human alive for an entire year and you survived it and bells must be energetically rung. Cake must be baked! BEERS MUST BE DRUNK! I am here to report, however, that a second birthday party feels much less urgent.

Still, it seems sad to not mark the occasion. My friend Natalie and I were talking about that sometime in July, because her Eero was born in early August and my June was born in early September and we were both feeling lukewarm on party planning. Then Natalie hatched an idea: we could throw a joint party. And: FUDGESICLES.

We split the difference in birthdates and threw the party in mid-August, inviting a bunch of friends to the park for a Sunday potluck lunch and popsicles. (I highly recommend, by the way, throwing kids’ parties in public parks, preferably ones that include playgrounds. That way, the kids can lose their minds on the slides and teeter-totters while the adults toss around frisbees, lie in the grass, whathaveyou. And: it’s FREE.) This particular park has a sloping lawn that points toward Puget Sound, and that morning, there was a dense fog hanging over the hill. We claimed a couple of picnic tables, hauled the coolers across the lawn, and hoped for sun. Natalie and Michael brought two big balloons, and I brought two strings of paper flags that Natalie made for Eero’s first birthday party last year and then bequeathed to me for June’s first birthday party a month later, after which my father-in-law carefully folded them into a Ziplock for safekeeping and I stashed them away in the kitchen closet, and now that I have typed all of this, I guess it could seem like a real bummer to reuse somebody else’s old party decorations?  I assure you, these are some really nice flags. We intend to use them until they fall apart.

Brandon and I bought a chickpea salad, a platter of tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, and a pile of blankets, and Natalie and Michael brought guacamole, Natalie’s famous cucumber dip, chips, water, and a croquet set. As our friends arrived, some with their own children and some without, they brought cheese and fresh fruit, lemon bars, noodle salad, Greek salad, so much food.

At at some point, I noticed that the fog had lifted and my child was running after a crow (GETTA BUHD! GETTA BUHD!) with a croquet mallet in her hand. Then somebody opened the coolers, and popsicles were happening.

We’d agreed that Natalie would make a batch of popsicles with stone fruit, and what she came up with was much more than that: peach with honey and chamomile. I made my usual raspberry yogurt pops (I cut the sugar back to ½ cup / 100 grams, though; not sure why I ever thought you’d need more than that) and, at Natalie’s suggestion, I made fudgesicles, too. She’d never had luck making them, she told me, and I’d never tried. But I like a challenge, or I sometimes like a challenge. I occasionally like a challenge. Anyway, I decided to work on a fudgesicle recipe.

There are a lot of them out there, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. It’s even fair to say that there’s a fudgesicle mini-craze going on right now: Food52, for instance, just ran a recipe for them. My goal was a chocolate popsicle that resembled, at least somewhat, the Jello pudding pops of my childhood. I wanted it to be silky, creamy, dense, and rich, and not even remotely icy, and I wanted the flavor to lean more toward chocolate than cocoa. What I wound up with posed almost no challenge at all, because it’s only a small tweak on Alton Brown’s recipe. (Thank you, Alton Brown.) It uses only five ingredients: chocolate, cream, milk, a small amount of cocoa, and vanilla extract. It also comes together in maybe 20 minutes.  As my aunt Tina, one of June’s namesakes, would have said, What’s not to like? June smelled like chocolate for the rest of the day, and secretly, I hoped she always would.

P.S. I am thrilled to announce that in late October, I will be teaching a four-day workshop on storytelling and personal narrative at the Oklahoma Fall Arts Institute. I was a writing student at the Oklahoma Summer Arts Institute as a teenager, so I am beyond, beyond all number of emotions, to be teaching at Quartz Mountain myself. (!!!) The fee is $605 for in-state participants and $1,005 for out-of-state participants, including meals and lodging. Scholarships and discounts are available for Oklahoma educators and members of arts organizations.

Adapted from Alton Brown

You will note that there’s no sugar in this recipe, which means that you need to be thoughtful about the chocolate you use, because that’s what will bring sweetness. Brown calls only for "bittersweet chocolate," but when I tried using 70% cacao chocolate, which I think of as a pretty standard percentage for bittersweet, it made for a very bittersweet popsicle. More bitter than sweet. Brandon loved it, and June ate it, but it wasn’t really my thing. I like to combine two types of chocolate for this recipe: Valrhona “Jivara” 40% milk chocolate, and Valrhona “Manjari” 64% dark chocolate. I use four ounces, or 113 grams, of each. (Yes, they are wildly expensive! I know. We buy them in 3-kg bags at the restaurant, and I regularly steal some for my home use. I am a lucky bastard.) If you don’t want to shell out like that, Scharffen Berger also has a good 41% milk chocolate, and my guess is that it would blend nicely here with either the 62% semisweet or the 70% bittersweet. Whatever chocolate you choose, I wouldn’t recommend going above 64%, at the highest.

And as for popsicle molds, I use these.

8 ounces (225 grams) chocolate, ideally between 45% and 65% cacao
1 ½ cups (355 ml) heavy cream
1 cup (240 ml) whole milk
2 tablespoons (about 11 grams) unsweetened cocoa
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Finely chop the chocolate, and put it in a medium bowl. (If you have a bowl with a pour spout, use that! Perfect.)

In a medium (2- to 3-quart) saucepan, combine the cream, milk, and cocoa. Whisk well to dissolve the cocoa, and bring just to a simmer, whisking frequently. Remove from the heat, let sit for a few seconds, and then pour it over the chocolate. Let stand undisturbed for 2 or 3 minutes; then whisk to combine well. Whisk in the vanilla extract. Divide between popsicle molds, and freeze until hard.

Yield: 8 to 10 popsicles, depending on the size of your molds.


August 18

A couple of weekends ago, we packed up the better part of the restaurant kitchen, crammed it in the back of a pick-up, and drove two and a half hours east to cook an all-day anniversary party for a pair of longtime Delancey regulars.

We rented a big house along the Wenatchee River, about ten minutes from the property where the party was held, and we brought as many people as we could fit inside, including a set of 8-month-old twins and one almost-two-year-old June.

If you’ve ever been to Leavenworth in the summertime, you will remember how hot it gets. It hit 100 that weekend, and no one had air conditioning. The flies were out and biting. But the party guests were somehow still cheerful, playing lawn games, hula hooping, napping in the grass, clambering down the hill to cool off in the river.

Brandon and Co. got up at 6:30 to start smoking a billion pounds of brisket, ribs, and pork shoulder. Ricardo manned the smokers; Brandon and Ben and June ran errands; Amy drove to Idlewild Pizza to borrow their ice cream machine (thanks, Eric!) and churn twenty quarts of vanilla custard. At some point, Cody showed up, and Katie and Kyle and Michelle, and some Campari shandies. I got to sleep in(!) and read a decent chunk of a YA novel (that I, for the record, refuse to feel embarrassed about), and then June and I crashed the party and at least one of us ran around waving a half-eaten hot dog bun like a lunatic.

Actually, I shouldn’t call it crashing. The couple who threw the party had invited our staff to be a part of it, to sit down like everyone else and enjoy it. Of course, it’s hard to actually do that, and between running platters of food and bussing empty plates, we wound up perched on ice chests or leaning against the folding tables of our makeshift kitchen rather than sitting at the table they had set for us. But to have been included was something in itself, because that’s not standard protocol. When you work in a restaurant (or at a grocery store, or as a bank teller, etc. etc. etc.), if you do your job well, your work makes you invisible. Most often, we as customers only notice service when it’s really, really bad, because when it’s good, it feels effortless, natural, so subtle that you can’t really point to it. As customers, it can be easy to forget that someone is working hard to make us feel that way. So it means a tremendous amount to me, and to Brandon, and to all of us, I think, who have ever cooked and served, when we can get to know the people we are working for, and when we are included not only to work, but also to play. And now I am getting sappy.

In this case, they even called us over for a round of applause. WE HAVE LIVED THE DREAM.

Because it was so hot that weekend, the river was only cold enough to take your breath away for a minute (as opposed to permanently), and when I managed to ease myself in, I was rewarded with watching an otter swim by. We are having a summer. Hope you are, too.