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Oklahoma: the twins and their shad roe

My entrance was less grand than I’d hoped, but the birthday cake and I made it home intact. It is virtually impossible to fly directly to Oklahoma from any West or East Coast city, and I had the grave misfortune of passing through Dallas-Fort Worth on Tuesday afternoon and finding my one-hour layover stretched out into seven as a riot of nasty weather cavorted around the Great Plains. But I passed the time with a very chatty 83-year-old Manhattanite named Edith who sat down next to me and, among other things, told me where to find the best steaks and the wealthiest men in the Big Apple. Edith had beautiful deep-set blue eyes, red lipsticked lips, and shiny crimson nails, and I nearly squeezed her when she told me, "I’m a walker. For a short girl, I’ve got a long stride." Oh Edith, me too. I want to be Edith when I grow up.

Speaking of growing up, there are few things more awe-inspiring than a pair of adult identical twins—specifically, a vivacious pair of 58-year-old identical twins named Tina and Toni, the latter being my mother. I was lucky enough to have dinner with this pair last night, along with their vivacious mother, my grandmother. Together we were (of course) vivacious, three generations of Mack women. What better cause for a toast?

It was a belated birthday celebration for the twins, a feast of shad roe. The American shad is a member of the herring family and one of the boniest fish around, but we don’t waste time with the flesh: we go straight for the roe. Shad are usually caught in the springtime, when they are migrating from the sea to freshwater to spawn. Their roe is highly prized in the Chesapeake Bay region, where spring is essentially synonymous with shad roe. When the twins were growing up in Maryland, my grandmother (whom I call Nan, Nanny, or Nanzer) would occasionally treat her family of nine to this sautéed delicacy during the brief months of its annual season. They’ve been hooked from early on.

This spring, an "inside source" of Mom’s had a hefty package of shad roe shipped to her, direct from the fishermen in Maryland, as a surprise. She generously shared some with this inside source, and then she tucked the rest away in the freezer for safekeeping. So last night, with a pan of bacon snapping and popping in the background, Tina, Nanny, and I watched eagerly as Mom carefully washed and dried the slender, slightly wrinkled, and horrifyingly ugly egg sacs. "It’s like caviar in spring," Tina told me. "Like saltwater," Mom chimed in. She cooked the roe in bacon fat and foamy butter, then served it with a hearty squeeze of lemon and a strip of crisp bacon. We ate it with roasted asparagus and warmish Yukon Gold potatoes, boiled and tossed with apple cider vinegar, olive oil, salt, and fresh dill. Alongside, we guzzled a very tasty Chehalem Chardonnay from Oregon. The twins moaned. And then, after candles and song, we dug into the far-from-disaster cake, imported from Seattle and only slightly misshapen. There was more moaning all around, punctuated by the high-pitched scream of forks scraping ceramic plates. Even Nanny, whose appetite has waned over the years, managed to finish her slice. For the occasion, I wore dirty hair and an oversized Act Up "SILENCE=DEATH" sweatshirt I found in a drawer in my old bedroom, a remnant of my early teens grunge-and-politics wardrobe.

Happy birthday, twins.


To a cherry-pit spitter on her 58th

Dear readers, today we celebrate the strongest woman I know, a truly swanky dancer, the epitome of poise and slightly goofy sophistication.

Happy 58th birthday, Mommy dear.

It couldn’t have been easy all those years, fending off my pre-teen pleas for Vienna sausages (in a can, pale and slippery), Cheetos, Bubblicious bubble gum, and Hawaiian Punch. While pining away for these forbidden “junk food” items, I was deathly picky: no condiments on anything, no lumps in the Campbell’s Tomato Soup, no bananas, nothing spicy, nothing jiggly, nothing remotely gristly, no mushrooms, no nuts in the cookie, no asparagus, no jam on the PB & J. But with patience and a steady diet of bologna roll-ups,* she brought me around. What a woman.

Throughout my childhood, I spent every afternoon in late November and December watching Mom and family friend Barbara Fretwell make dozens and dozens of Christmas cookies, from linzers dusted in powdered sugar to chocolate-dipped pecan bars, Aunt Bill’s burnt-sugar candy, and coffee-walnut toffee. Though the cookie tradition petered out a few years ago, Mom and I quickly picked up the slack, tag-teaming on Martha Stewart’s pâte brisée and rich cranberry tartes with fragile shells and eating the last crumbs of fresh ginger cake with caramelized pears at midnight, after the last guest went home. I was happily doomed to be a baker, cheeks red from puffs of the oven’s hot, perfumed air.

Together we’ve eaten much fallafel, chocolate, cheese, and salami, and there have been a few riverside sandwiches with green beans on the side. There’s been wine on the grass in the Place des Vosges, and on road trips, there are hard-boiled eggs and Sportea. Many cherry pits have been spit out the window.

And of course, this story isn't entirely about food:

It is from this woman that I got my talent for listening, crying at the drop of a hat, and finding parking spaces; my love of a long walk; my happy independence; my ability to pretend I know where I'm going; my taste for well-made (and unfortunately expensive) items; my tendency to intimidate without intending to; and my love for playing hostess. Oh Mommy Mommy.

Here’s to many more. I’ll see you tomorrow, with cake. I love you.

*For the uninitiated, a bologna roll-up is a round flabby sheet of Oscar Meyer beef bologna smeared with mayonnaise and rolled. I’m unsure of how this escaped “junk food” categorization, but it did. Mom?


Self-sufficient and not too sour

Dear reader, I am a true pioneer woman.

Round three of the sourdough experiment—the second go-round with Jack Lang’s method—was pretty damn fine. Poilâne has nothing to fear from me, but then again, I’m just looking to keep the breadbox full on long, windy trips in the covered wagon. Somewhere, my sweaty man is grunting with pleasure.


The good, the very good, and the wonderful

Inspired by Kate—who was inspired by someone else I can’t remember—I present the good, the very good, and the wonderful of the past week, all lumped together and in no particular order, which sort of defeats the purpose:

1. Veteran’s Day afternoon with Kate: being unstylish, unshowered, and happy on a sunny day and walking arm in arm along the piers and down to Myrtle Edwards Park, after which we split a spectacularly buttery brioche (her very first!) from Le Panier, bought some deep green crinkly dinosaur kale from flirtatious vendors at the market, and talked chamois creme.

2. Meeting a real, live (ex-)break dancer. Bonus points for recent thumb injuries incurred while break dancing at parties. Yeow.

3. A twenty-dollar seven-course “Chef’s Experience” menu at Mistral, thank you very much. Armed with a fortuitous inside connection, four of us enjoyed a très haute-cuisine dinner free of charge—save for the tip, which, after all, is only civilized.

Tucked away next to an alley in Seattle’s Belltown district, Mistral is unassuming to the eye: a long, narrow, simply decorated space with pale walls and a tall ceiling. The restaurant was opened in January 2000 by chef William Belickis, who turns out decadent, largely French-influenced fare with an emphasis on local ingredients.

We began with a Champagne whose name I—falling down on the job—neglected to note, and then the feast proceeded as follows:

- Kusshi oyster with grapefruit slices and celery foam for the other three—and for oyster-fearing me, a square filet of Arctic char on shaved white asparagus with some sort of green-colored and green-tasting purée splattered around, crunchy salt and crispy skin on top

- An enormous diver sea scallop (beautifully seared to a burnished brown, again with crunchy nuggets of salt; very meaty and sweet) in a smooth brown-butter and parsnip soup with drizzle of basil oil and spoonful of carrot foam (minerally, earthy, but I’m indifferent to this foam thing)
2002 Mason Sauvignon Blanc

- Wild Atlantic skate (a bit too salty, unfortunately) on a bed of silky cubed eggplant, thinly sliced turnips, and pearl onions, with a translucent green lettuce-and-Madras-curry sauce, drizzle of basil oil
2003 Forman Napa Valley Chardonnay

- Seared Sonoma artisanal foie gras* (crowned with ubiquitous crunchy salt; the whole melting instantly on the tongue) on a comice pear purée with a passionfruit and Tahitian vanilla bean reduction, with Granny Smith apple chips.
1988 Tokaji (from Hungary, amber brown, sweet but clean, not cloying, raisin-y)

- Moulard duck or Oregon lamb chop (two of each for the table, both beautifully rare) on fingerling potato purée (too sweet; very odd) with Swiss chard, “Thumbelina” carrots, chive oil, red wine reduction, and zatar-infused olive oil
2000 Arcadian Monterey Pinot Noir

- Slivers of five cheeses: Pavé de Jadis (creamy, mild goat), semi-soft Pecorino, Agour (Spanish sheep’s milk), Persil de Beaujolais (cow’s milk blue), Brillat Savarin (triple-crème cow)
Red wine I neglected to write down, being in mid-story (Cabernet?)

- Two of each for the table: a round of genoise-ish cake topped with a quenelle of crème fraîche ice cream, with tapioca and pomegranate seeds scattered all around; and a small pot of ice cream (vanilla and something unidentifiable), a shot of hot chocolate, and two vanilla sugar cookies

Very inventive and absolutely exemplary all around, minus the few quibbles as noted. Thank you, L.L., for a very glamorous and delicious evening. I’m a more than willing partner anytime. Another scallop, please!

But I have to admit (and not without some shame) that I don't think I'm cut out for "fine dining." I put my elbows on the table; I feel silly swirling my wine glass; and I'm worthless if you're looking to suss out the herbs and spices in a dish. This does not bode well for a career in food writing. I need more educating, or maybe more audacity. Then again, while there is much to be said for the expert balancing of flavors that a four-star chef can achieve, satisfaction is a fine roasted chicken and a slab of ridiculously rich chocolate cake, honey.

*Although I hesitated when the head waiter asked if we were all willing to eat foie gras, I decided to nod my agreement, choosing on this occasion to overlook my ethical concerns for the sake of my palate’s education. Forgive me; it was delicious, so smooth and so warm.


On self-sufficiency and sourdough

Forget the Ann Demeulemeester sex bag and all that snooty France stuff; give me a bull-scrotum bag and the open prairie, land of my birth. Forget the joys of a shower with excellent water pressure; all I need is the Red River and some pumice. Cast off the lacy lingerie and other things requiring delicate hand-washing; give me leather, rags, and a splintery washboard. And down with Mr. Pete, my trusty four-wheeled steed; I want Cinnabar, that wild-maned, dead-legged beast we fought over at summer camp.

Dear reader, I’m trying my hand at being a self-sufficient pioneer woman, able to sustain herself, sweaty man, and grubby kids on nothing more than flour, salt, and water. How convenient that some flours are fortified with vitamin C; that way, we won’t get scurvy. Modern pioneer life is something indeed.

This tale begins October 29, 2004 with Margot’s sourdough starter, which for weeks I’d been lovingly stirring, feeding, sniffing, and stroking. Being of the “anything with wheat must be tastier and is of course infinitely more nutritious” school, I chose as my first project a simple whole wheat bread from Sourdough Jack’s Cookery. For brevity’s sake, I summarize: all went well until I moved the three loaves from their nice warm rising spot into the oven, whereupon they collapsed and withered. I'd asked my sourdough to work harder than it was prepared to. The resulting loaves, while a lovely shade of gold, were rather diminutive, measuring between two and three inches tall. This disappointing fact, however, did not stop me from consuming a third of one loaf immediately. The rest was quite passable when toasted, especially when lacquered with a bit of this summer’s strawberry jam. I made do. After years on the frontier, I’m used to disappointment.

Undaunted by the previous weekend’s mediocre showing, I set out on November 6 with Jack Lang’s excellent tutorial on sourdough. Starter is nothing short of magic: it bubbles and fizzes, weaving elastic strands of gluten that look not unlike Halloween’s leftover decorative cobwebs. I was uncertain of how much flour to add during the final shaping stages, and the dough was sticky and stretchy and belligerent. But my banneton (a fortuitous purchase at BHV) coddled it gently through the night, and aside from a bit of sticking upon transfer from “peel” (a.k.a. cookie sheet) to “baking stone” (a.k.a. aluminum half-sheet), the process went reasonably well.

Being an exacting sort of pioneer woman, I was of course expecting Poilâne quality on the first try. Opening the oven, however, I was met with a fairly flat, amoeba-shaped loaf. I dismissively chucked it onto a cooling rack and slunk off to the river for a good cleansing. But, dear, patient reader, when it was thoroughly cooled, I cut off a good chunk and found it shot through with beautiful little air holes and pockets, off-white, giving off a slight sheen under the light.

The crust was thin but crispy, the crumb delicate, chewy, and almost sweet. It might not be perfect, but it will make a quite satisfactory lunchtime vehicle for a swipe of peanut butter. It takes little to please a pioneer woman.

This tale of self-sufficiency has only just begun. The starter lives on, and plans are in the works for another go with Mr. Lang’s method next weekend. Perhaps the holidays will bring Nancy Silverton’s Breads from the La Brea Bakery. That, and a KitchenAid mixer with a dough hook. I’m desperate for a dough hook; it’s so rough-and-tumble, so pointy and untamed. This guy is much funnier than I am, and he’s got pretty bread; I attribute it to the dough hook and gobs of large Tupperware. All that stands between me and a KitchenAid mixer is my mother, who keeps hers—a second-hand find of my father’s that she’s never used; oh, the waste!—on the pantry floor, surrounded by mouse traps, old dog bowls, and rolls of paper towels. Look out, Oklahoma: come Thanksgiving, your mixer is mine. If it's from Oklahoma, it must be authentically pioneer-esque, like me.


Gloom, doom, and biscuits

It has been a very dark week in this land. Much doom, much to be gloomy about. Times like these make me wish my father had kept his Canadian citizenship. But then I remind myself of the thirteen holy reasons to love America despite its shady leaders, twisted foreign and domestic policy, and general unholiness.

1. History
2. The idiosyncrasies of American English
3. Blue states (and Oklahoma, because of a few shreds of irrational hometown loyalty)
4. The Star-Spangled Banner (okay, okay, it’s pretty)
5. Bruce Springsteen
6. Thanksgiving
7. S'mores
8. Peanut butter
9. Filibusters
10. Dischord Records
11. McSweeneys
12. American mice, which are bold yet mind-blowingly stupid and thus make for a great story. For purposes of comparison, French mice are bold, but they have the sophistication to know when to make themselves scarce. They thus make for stories that are only very good, not great. To illustrate, dear reader, we have an uplifting tale of the great American mouse, lovingly contributed by Doron, today's guest writer:

“P. and I have been having a mouse problem recently. One night we saw one run across our apartment into the coat closet. Naturally, I flipped out, screaming and already packing up my stuff in preparation for the move. I will not live with rodents.

...The next day we discovered two small holes at the base of the wall in the kitchen—aha, we were at the source! The management company came by and "closed them up." ...[But] lo and behold, one of the holes that was "closed up" was soon penetrated. See, unlike the meek French mice that run away and never return once you've had a confrontation, American mice have balls. They have the audacity and the tenacity to dig through your walls, eat your food, and shit all over your kitchen. No fear, I tell you.

...Late last night, I'm sending a couple of emails from the living room. P. is already sleeping, and the apartment is almost totally dark. All of a sudden, I hear some noises coming from the kitchen. The little mouse was apparently trying to get back "home." I quietly walk to the kitchen, squat, and observe in silence: looks like he has nowhere to go. This is my chance. I grab a plastic bag and put it over my hand. I grab a dustpan in the other hand. I pray that I don't scream and wake up my entire building. I'm sitting there, outside the kitchen, waiting quietly. I see him peek his little head and then proceed to come out of the kitchen and run in my direction. My speedy reflexes reacted, and I snatched the little fucker with the plastic-bagged hand. I'm holding a live mouse in my hand. I immediately invert the bag and tie it. Victory!

I took the bag downstairs at one in the morning and released him into the D.C. jungle. He's on his own now, and whether he makes it is not my concern. Retribution in all its glory. And a successful, more humane way of trapping a mouse.”

Amen. Long live Doron and American mice.

And last but not least,

13. Soft Southern flour, which makes for the very best buttermilk biscuits

There simply are not enough superlatives in this world to adequately describe these biscuits. They delicately straddle a line between flaky and creamy, and they're rich enough to make the addition of butter laughable. Most moan-inducing while piping hot, they are also miraculous when eaten cold with leftover roasted chicken while standing over the kitchen counter and watching the wind blow outside. As my friend Keaton exclaimed through her anti-tooth-grinding mouthguard one sleepy night in college: “I love bizzzzcuiths!”

Blessed be the biscuitmakers. America, you will be redeemed someday, and these biscuits may well have something to do with it.

Touch-of-Grace Biscuits
Adapted from Cookwise, by Super Food Scientist Shirley Corriher

Nonstick cooking spray
2 c Southern self-rising flour, such as White Lily
½ tsp salt
¼ c sugar
4 Tbs shortening, preferably the no-trans-fats Spectrum brand
2/3 c heavy cream
1 c buttermilk
1 c all-purpose flour, for shaping biscuits (do not use self-rising for this)
2 Tbs unsalted butter, melted

Preheat oven to 475 and spray an 8” round cake pan with cooking spray.

Combine self-rising flour, salt, and sugar in a medium bowl. With your fingers, work the shortening into the flour mixture until there are no lumps bigger than a large pea.

Stir in the heavy cream and buttermilk, taking care not to overmix. Let stand for 2-3 minutes. The dough will be alarmingly wet, resembling large-curd cottage cheese. Have no fear.

Pour the cup of all-purpose flour onto a plate or pie tin. Flour hands well. Using a ¼-cup measuring scoop, spoon a biscuit-sized lump of dough into the flour and sprinkle flour gently over it. Pick up biscuit and shape it roughly into a soft round, cradling it in the cupped palm of one hand and gently shaking off excess flour. It will feel not unlike a water balloon. Place biscuit in pan and repeat, pushing biscuits tightly against one another so that they will rise up and not spread out.

Brush biscuits with melted butter and bake until lightly browned, 15-20 minutes. Cool for a minute or two, then dump out and break apart into individual biscuits. Serve immediately.

Oh yes, America, you will be redeemed.


On being hungry and (un)adventurous

I do not take well to being hungry, especially when the source of my next meal is unknown. Consider yourself warned. And woe betide those, such as Nicho, who choose to test me.

This story takes place on a crisp, sunny Halloween morning. The evening before had been spent at the home of lovely Kate, whooping it up at her second annual “catastrophic success” cocktail party. I’d gone over early to provide costume consultation and get a head start on the (yes, post-season) gin and tonic. Kate, eager to wear a 1970s getup she’d found at a thrift shop, successfully morphed into a
(half-)Chinese cowgirl with the addition of a hat and boots.

I transformed into my alter ego, a poofy-skirted French maid, and got to work with my feather duster.

Together we set a very festive table with cheese, grapes, and bloody rubber hands, and Kate hung her traditional “mistletoe” (a plastic severed foot with holly branches and red ribbon) over the bedroom doorway. The guests arrived in full regalia, among them a few nuns, a priest with lipstick marks on his cheeks, a hideously fake-sunburned tourist, a one-night stand, a stockpile of weapons of mass destruction, a meat market, and even Uncle Sam. Todd came as lean, mean boxing champ “T-Bone,” and Margot played his manager, complete with cigar, driving cap, and hairy chest. Nicho stayed closer to home as an arborist, lugging a very heavy chainsaw and smelling of pine. I dusted; I drank; I fortified myself with cheese. We schmoozed; we reveled.

All this to say that the next morning I was rather hungry, as is only fitting. We decided to grab a bite to eat and then go for a walk in Discovery Park to soak up the picture-perfect fall day. I steered Nicho toward Fremont and the Longshoreman’s Daughter, home of dark and nutty blueberry-buckwheat pancakes. But there were massive crowds outside, and Nicho suggested that we “just drive around and find someplace” to eat. He pointed the car haphazardly in the direction of Ballard and told me to "be adventurous." We quickly sped away from Fremont and into industrial no man's land. I was ravenous, and I quietly fumed as we drove by more brunch spots with hordes outside. I tried to protest, grew hungrier, and fumed more aggressively, but he wouldn't take any of my suggestions. Now, I know what I'm talking about when I make a dining proposal; one should not, under any circumstances, drive around aimlessly and wave off advice while my stomach loudly grumbles from the passenger seat.

I finally succeeded in steering him to Café Besalu, but he didn't want to wait in line and, by this point, was feeling lunch-ish. We wound up crossing the street to QFC for picnic supplies. Admittedly, a picnic should have sounded like fun, but I was far beyond feeling easygoing and adventurous and instead moped silently next to the refrigerator case of deli salads. Bravely taking charge of the situation, Nicho chose an Essential Baking Company seeded baguette and picked out some highly questionable day-glo orange smoked cheese. Armed with these and some fruit (including the first of winter’s citruses, a box of Satsuma mandarins), we headed out to Discovery Park.

It was absolutely gorgeous, and we picnicked under a cloudless blue sky. I stealthily avoided the calamity cheese, but he didn't seem to notice, and anyway, there’s no need for loud mean-spiritedness, especially given that I'd been too grumpy at QFC to be of any cheese-choosing help. The air was cold and smelled like fall, a delicious contrast to the warm sun on my face, and we walked down to the beach and let Index romp illegally on the sand. I calmed down and even felt cheerful and appreciative. I was secretly proud of myself. But Nicho learned his lesson: no one—but no one—escapes the wrath of my hunger.

Halloween drew to a close with a very satisfying reconciliation dinner of lamb sausages and cold beer. [Oh lamb sausage, I'd eat sleep breathe nothing but you, but I'm afraid I'd ooze grease and outgrow my fishnets. Maybe this blog should have been called "Sausagette"?] By way of accompaniment, we roasted acorn squash and red peppers, sautéed red onions, and made a big salad of farmers’ market lettuces and shaved fennel. We then watched The Shining, which Nicho had never seen before. He was terrified and tense and spent the majority of the movie clinging to my side, reminding me that he’s “not a horror-movie person.” I patted his hand reassuringly. Adventurous indeed.