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(Re)learning Chinese

I’ve never been a fan of Chinese food, or at least not the stuff that generally goes by that name in the U.S. When I was little, my family often went to our nearby Hunan Chinese Restaurant, but I remember it less for the food than for the décor: the goldfish in the fountain at the center of the room; the tinkly click-click of the beaded curtains in the hallway to the bathroom; and Shawn, the maître d’ with tight, shiny skin and starchy chinos with cavernous front pleats. As for the food, I’ll admit to a pre-teen’s weakness for crispy egg rolls, sweet-and-sour chicken, and beef with snow peas, but I drew the line there. What I knew as Chinese food always seemed to taste the same—lightly salty, greasy, and slimy with cornstarch.

But in recent years, I’ve found myself enjoying many things I’d previously relegated to the “no, thank you” category, and I realized that I had to give Chinese food another shot. After all, my condescension was based almost solely on those childhood experiences in Oklahoma, a state much better known for chicken-fried steak than for Peking duck. For the sake of fairness, I had to give it another go.

Still, it wasn’t a priority. In fact, I managed to live in Seattle for two years without ever venturing into the International District, although I often thought longingly of things I’d likely find there: bahn mi, rice noodles, knobby vegetables, musty-smelling teas. Note, however, that Chinese food didn’t make the list.

But all that changed last Sunday, when Kate and I strolled from her apartment down to the “I.D.” (as it’s called around here) on a scouting mission for a cocktail party we’re scheming. Dear reader, we both know that I’m prone to exaggeration, but believe me when I say this: I was in heaven. We gazed through windows at menus; we stroked bagfuls of wiry greens; and I dragged Kate into all the Chinese bakeries, where I ogled the soft, round buns and brioche-like breads filled with coconut or taro. I could have stared into the bakery cases for hours, singing along dreamily with the easy-listening music (ahh, the sound of my childhood!) that seemed to follow us from storefront to storefront. Even Kate, half-Chinese and something of a regular in the neighborhood, was entranced by the brightly colored, eerily perfect cakes, although she was less impressed with my lip-synching.

Somewhere along the way, after the fortune-cookie factory and before the Chinese grocery, we passed a restaurant called Shanghai Garden. Grabbing my arm as though a bolt of lightning had surged through her body, Kate panted something about vines. From what I could understand, Shanghai Garden is apparently known for its stir-fried pea vines, a dish that Kate likens to catnip for humans. Recalling an exchange I’d read on eGullet, I asked if they served hand-shaved noodles. Kate nodded. It was a date.

So last night we two descended on a very full Shanghai Garden, its glass tabletops gleaming and requisite fish tank glowing. We were seated by the window, at a table bathed in surprisingly flattering neon pink light. Warming our hands against white ceramic teacups, we sized up the extensive menu. The pea vines were a must, and after some discussion and more panting, we settled on barley-green hand-shaved noodle chow mein with pork, as well as an order of vegetable steamed dumplings to start.

The dumplings arrived quickly, little doughy purses gathered into the shape of waves.

Their deep orange skin was a bit unsettling, but we didn’t ask questions. Pinching them with our chopsticks, we dipped them into a sauce of soy and sesame oil with shavings of ginger and, slurping up errant drips, bit into them gently to reveal their verdant spinach filling.

Then came the pea vines, hot and sleek with oil from the wok. They were sweet, barely wilted, and astoundingly green-tasting, as though they’d just been picked.

The hand-shaved noodles were less photogenic, thick green ribbons stir-fried with egg, Napa cabbage, ruffly carrot coins, and thin strips of pork and piled onto the plate like debris from an explosion.

But they made up in texture (soft, almost melting under the tooth, yet not at all gummy or slippery) and flavor (mild, earthy, comforting) what they lacked in visual sophistication. We had two servings of everything and picked our plates clean, working our chopsticks like long, graceful fingers. We also carried on as usual, howling and slapping the table, making faces and talking microfinance and modern capitalism, but that's old news by now.
Our fortunes were a bit vague and vanilla,

but between the table’s rosy pink glow and our full bellies, we were too happy to care. And anyway, now that I've learned my lesson, there’s always next time.


Two holy trinities, failure, and the gratin that saved the date

It’s been a long, mundane week. By day, I poke and prod at other people's punctuation. I cross items off the list. I fall asleep on the bus. And I pass my nights on the couch with a highlighter and a pack of Post-It flags, wrapped in a wool blanket and wearing pink-and-green Christmas gag-gift socks with candy canes and “Sweet Stuff” printed around the ankle.

After so much toil and troubling footwear, I’ve earned something very, very good. Short of dashing Frenchmen beating down my door, I at least deserve a glass of wine, a piece of cake, and hours of exuberant hip-shaking and singing to myself. With years of practice, I've learned what makes me happy, and although I don't often go so far as to surprise myself with flowers, I’m quite good at anticipating and fulfilling my needs. After all, as Autumn, wise waxtician and facialist of Duque, says, “Honey, you’re always dating yourself!”

The evening thus began with an after-work stop for the holy trinity of foodstuffs: a bottle of wine, good dark chocolate, and butter. Coming home, I took down one of the wine glasses my neighbors recently lent me—ah, the luck of having generous teetotalers next door!—and I preheated the oven and fired up the stereo. Then I retrieved from the refrigerator my beloved jar of sourdough starter, foamy, thick, and very lively, thanks to a recent feeding.

I set to work on Margot’s trademark sourdough chocolate cake, a moist, fine-crumbed wonder I’d helped to make several times but had never put together on my own. Somewhere between greasing the pan and creaming the butter, I poured myself another half glass of wine. [For the scorekeepers present, that’s one and a half very modest glasses, total.] Then things started to get a little unsettling. Half an hour later, I sent the following e-mail to Margot:

“I hate myself.
I just made your sourdough chocolate cake and accidentally left out the sugar. There I was, working the hand-beaters feverishly, thinking, "Wow, this butter is creaming really strangely with these eggs. Usually, recipes tell you to cream the butter with the sugar before adding the eggs. Hmmm. I guess the sugar comes later in this recipe. How weird." But I carried on and even tasted the finished batter before pouring it into the pan, thinking, "Well, it tastes okay, I guess." Then, while washing the bowls, I finally started to panic, realizing that I'd added no sugar at all. Ever. I went back and reread the recipe and realized, sure enough, that I'd completely missed the "cream sugar and butter blah blah blah" part. Needless to say, I took the thing out of the oven, poured it down the garbage disposal, and started hating myself. I’ve never done this kind of thing before. Guess there's a first time for everything, eh? But if we're talking first times, I'd prefer something sexier.

Apparently, the holy trinity was not a very cooperative team. I may have simply been very tired, or maybe delirious from too many nights in those socks, but I blame this disaster on my pathetic and intractable lightweight status. It was clearly time to get something into my stomach. Luckily, I’d planned ahead.

For a year or so, I’ve been a subscriber to Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s Splendid Table Weeknight Kitchen e-mail newsletter. Each Tuesday I find a new recipe in my inbox, led off by a lusty description from Ms. Rossetto Kasper herself. A few weeks ago, the focus was an egg and tomato gratin from Jacques Pépin’s newest book, Jacques Pépin Fast Food My Way. A simple layered dish of gently boiled egg, sautéed onions and tomato perfumed with thyme, and gruyère cheese, it sounded like a holy trinity in its own right. And it could easily be made in single servings, a distinct bonus when you’re dating yourself.

So, cheeks burning from the cake failure and wine, I opened the refrigerator and pulled from its cool belly the container of saucy sautéed onions and tomato I’d made only a few days earlier. I turned the oven up to 400, put an egg on the stove to boil—a blessedly easy task, perfect for restoring culinary confidence—and grated a handful of gruyère. While the gratin baked, broiled, and bubbled in its ramekin, I toasted a few slices of day-old La Brea wheat baguette for dipping and scooping, and I set the table.

It was simple; it tasted like France; and it was exactly what I needed. The cake may have been an embarrassment, but there was more wine if I dared, and my cabinets are never without chocolate. Now if only I could get myself to give me a back massage.*

*Special thanks to Amy for providing the inspiration for this post.

Egg and Tomato Gratin
Adapted from The Splendid Table Weeknight Kitchen, which in turn excerpted from Jacques Pépin Fast Food My Way

The recipe below makes one gratin serving four people, but it can also be made in individual ramekins for four single-serving dinners. Simply make the onion and tomato mixture the first night, and each night thereafter, just boil and slice an egg or two, top with some of the vegetable mixture and a loose handful of cheese, and bake.

6 large eggs, preferably organic and free-range
2 Tbs good olive oil
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
4 tsp chopped garlic
¾ tsp dried thyme leaves
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 14-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes, roughly chopped and juices reserved
2/3 cup grated gruyère (or other good-quality Swiss-style) cheese

1. Place the eggs in a saucepan and add cold water to cover. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, reduce to a simmer, and let cook for exactly nine minutes. Immediately (and carefully) pour the hot water out of saucepan and run cold water over the eggs. Transfer the eggs to a bowl filled with ice water and let sit for 10 to 15 minutes, until thoroughly cooled. Peel the eggs, and cut each of them into four wedges. Arrange the wedges in a 6-cup-capacity gratin dish or baking dish.

2. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Add the onions, and sauté for about two minutes; then add the garlic, thyme, salt, and pepper. Add the tomatoes and their juice, bring the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer, covered, for 4 minutes.

3. Pour the onion and tomato mixture over the eggs in the gratin dish and sprinkle the cheese evenly over the top. Bake for 10 minutes; then turn on the broiler and broil the gratin 3 or 4 inches from the heat source for 2 or 3 minutes, just to brown the top. Serve.

Serves four.


Odysseus and the macaroons

I’m generally very well-behaved, of a willpower that knows few equals. I can bake a whole mess of very treacherous and tempting stuff, stash it in the freezer, and peacefully coexist with it—no boundaries transgressed!—until the next dinner party, appropriate event, or emergency. But, dear reader, I’ve met my match, and it’s a chocolate-covered coconut macaroon.

For the first two decades of my life, I associated coconut strictly with the scent of cheap tanning oil, a very nasty substance indeed, and especially for a redhead whose skin has only two settings: pale and burnt. As a child, I had a deep-seated, visceral aversion to lotions in general and put up impressive battles whenever my parents approached with a bottle of sunscreen, so I’ve suffered more than a few horrendous, nausea-inducing sunburns, often at beaches and pools where the scent of tanning oil hung heavy on the air. Needless to say, coconut had a few hurdles to clear before it could elicit a positive reaction from me.

But shortly before my 21st birthday, I was conquered by a one-pound monster of a chocolate-covered macaroon from Max’s Café in Corte Madera, California. I was converted to coconut worship, and there would be no turning back. That summer, I bought those macaroons more often than I’d like to admit. They’re dense, tooth-achingly sweet, and rich enough to cause hot flashes, and I'd usually cut each into quarters and, with remarkable discipline, savor it over a couple of days. Only once did I throw caution to the wind, inhaling three quarters in a single evening and barely surviving—with much, much regret—to tell the tale. The episode dampened my enthusiasm for a few weeks, but I’d sufficiently recovered by my September birthday and, in a show of daring, requested a cake-sized macaroon as one of my two birthday cakes. Max’s central bakery in the South Bay had never before taken an order like mine, but they pulled through admirably, creating the biggest and most horrifyingly beautiful chocolate-covered macaroon I’ve ever seen. You can catch a glimpse of it on the cake stand on the left in the picture below, in which I’m laughing out the candles on my other birthday cake, a four-layer lemon-curd stack, in my very short hair and very questionable dusty-purple eye shadow and lemon-curd face paint, this last thanks to my cousin Sarah, who, even at age twenty-three, had to put her hand in the cake—and then on me.

All of which brings us to a few days ago, when, in the interest of not wasting six egg whites left over from a galette des rois, I scoured my accordion folder of recipe clippings and came away with a perfect solution: chocolate-covered coconut macaroons. This was clearly some sort of sign. Thus I did the only rational thing possible: I promptly marched to the grocery store and spent $12 on coconut, whipping cream, good bittersweet chocolate, and a bag of sugar to refresh my dwindling supply. Never mind the fuzzy logic of buying things to avoid wasting: although I might not make such a good Depression wife, I can bake a mean macaroon.

This, however, is not good news. I can’t be left alone with these things, not even when they’re "safely" hidden away in the freezer. In fact, and what’s worse, I prefer them frozen. I've clearly met my match. Each time I walk into the kitchen, I feel like Odysseus, preparing to sail past the Sirens: for my own good, I should ask my neighbors to chain me to something solid and heavy, seal their mouths with anti-macaroon protective tape, and ignore my screams and pleas as they remove the (now half-empty) Ziploc bag from my freezer and carry it down to the dumpster in the parking garage. Short of this, my only hope for salvation lies in forcing the macaroons upon unsuspecting friends. Last night I gave three of them to fellow macaroon-lover Keaton, who ate one on the spot, moaning with pleasure. She has no idea of the danger now lurking in her kitchen. Oh Keaton, I’m so sorry.

Chocolate-Covered Coconut Macaroons
Adapted from Bon Appétit (September 2002) and the Marigold Kitchen of Madison, Wisconsin

These macaroons are dangerously good. The coconut base is moist, sweet, and wondrously crispy on the outside, and its cap of chocolate is a perfect, slightly bitter counterbalance.

3 cups (lightly packed) sweetened shredded coconut
¾ cup granulated sugar
¾ cup egg whites (about 5 or 6 large)
1 ½ tsp pure vanilla extract
¼ tsp almond extract
8 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
3/4 cup heavy cream

Place the first three ingredients in a large, heavy saucepan, and stir to combine well. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring regularly, about 10-12 minutes, until the mixture is pasty but not dry. (The uncooked mixture will look sort of granular at first, then creamy as it heats, and then it will slowly get drier and drier. You want to stop cooking when it no longer looks creamy but is still quite gluey and sticky, not dry.) Remove from heat. Mix in vanilla and almond extracts. Spread out the coconut mixture on a large baking sheet. Refrigerate until cold, about 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Line another baking sheet with parchment paper or a Silpat baking mat. Using a ¼-cup measuring scoop, scoop and pack the coconut mixture into domes, and place them on the baking sheet. You should wind up with about a dozen. Bake the macaroons until golden, about 30 minutes. Transfer to a rack and cool.

Set cookies on rack over a rimmed baking sheet. Place the chopped chocolate in a medium bowl. Heat the heavy cream in a small saucepan until it is very hot and steamy (not boiling), remove from the heat, and pour it over the chocolate. Whisk until the mixture is smooth and the chocolate is thoroughly melted. Spoon the glaze over the macaroons, covering them almost completely and allowing the chocolate to drip down the sides. [You will have leftover glaze, which can be refrigerated or frozen.] Refrigerate the macaroons until the glaze sets, at least 2 hours. Transfer the macaroons to an airtight container, and refrigerate or freeze.

Yield: 12 macaroons


The city of intrepid palates

Intensive training in anthropology and ethnographic methods has taught me the delicate art of participant observation, and, because it’s a shame to let these things atrophy, I feel compelled to exercise my skills every now and then, or constantly. I’m the one in the grocery check-out line who’s fervently studying the contents of your cart, the one quietly noting behavior on the bus. Most recently, using my best eavesdropping and staring skills, I’ve compiled an informal and quite accidental study, and the results are promising indeed. With a sample size of two and no further delay, I’m happy to announce, dear Seattle, that your children are of unrivaled sophistication. They’re very significant, statistically.

For example, I recently overheard the following conversation between a little girl and a man in the produce department of Whole Foods:

Man: “What kind of apples do you want?”
Girl: “Chocolate apples!”
Man: “I don’t think they have that kind….”

This is a child of unparalleled vision. And thank heavens, because this is just the sort of leader we need in these sorry times. Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait a few years and hope, in the meantime, that she’s not quashed by bland and tiresome adults, such as the inferior specimen accompanying her.

On Sunday night, I had the pleasure of dining with another model of refinement, a towheaded fifteen-month-old named Eero, the son of my friends Jenny and Thomas. When he’s not having his diaper changed or toddling around with a book in his fists, Eero is putting away spoonfuls of plain yogurt and mounds of roasted broccoli, raw red peppers, mangoes, and persimmons. He loves to drink fizzy water from his mother’s (glass!) cup, and he even springs for raw fennel, so long as he can take it like a little bird—standing in the kitchen, flapping his arms, stamping his feet with impatience, and opening his mouth wide.

Sunday night was no exception. While Jenny and I bustled around their cozy kitchen, putting the finishing touches on a homemade galette des rois,* whisking béchamel and whipping egg whites for a pumpkin-and-goat-cheese soufflé, shaving fennel for a salad, and chatting, Eero played with a head of radicchio and the bowl of the food processor. One should never underestimate the importance of being comfortable in the kitchen from an early age.

While the soufflé did its mysterious work in the oven, we sat down for a quick sip of white wine around a gorgeous hors d’oeuvre platter Jenny had improvised before my arrival.

It was stunning: two peppery hunks of salmon, caught and smoked by one of Thomas’s brothers; a pile of thinly shaved apple; a smattering of pomegranate seeds and slices of scallion; and a small bowl containing an ingenious mixture of mayonnaise, walnut oil, minced scallion, and pomegranate molasses. Listening for the oven timer, we cut thick slices from a crusty loaf of bread and piled them high with salmon, fruit, scallions, and the nutty, punchy mayonnaise. At one corner of the table, chunks of salmon and bread disappeared at an alarming rate into Eero’s little body. And he wasn’t finished. In the half-hour that followed, he got himself around two and a half servings of pumpkin soufflé and some plain yogurt topped with apple butter. I stared shamelessly. After all, as a kid, I was no Eero.

I’ve not yet determined what one must do to produce this sort of “intrepid palate,” as Jenny calls it. Perhaps there's something in the Seattle city water supply? Or a strategic coital position? Further studies and staring will be necessary. But when my time comes, I’m aiming high. I’m aiming for chocolate apples. I’m aiming for Eero.

*Dorie Greenspan’s Paris Sweets strikes again!


On industry, indolence, and Italian vegetable soup

Every now and then, something comes over me, and I produce. With no real hunger or purpose, I make, say, three mini-loaves of fancy banana bread, a batch of strawberry scones, a loaf of sourdough, and barrelfuls of Italian vegetable soup—all in less than twenty-four hours, and mostly on a Friday night, no less. Behold the pinnacle of geekiness! But because a girl’s got to keep these things in check, I usually make sure that my bouts of industriousness are immediately followed by a good dose of sloth, generally in the company of someone upon whom I can foist some of the products of my labor. Hence Saturday night’s languorous session on the couch, spooning whipped cream and sipping wine, wearing unusually wavy bedroom hair, and snorting and guffawing in intentionally bad French with Kate. Whoever said that sloth is a deadly sin has obviously never spent an evening with us.

I arrived at Kate’s with a heavy bag of loot: a crusty homemade sourdough boule, my jagged-toothed Wüsthof bread knife, a wedge of bleu d’Auvergne from my personal ripening cellar (a.k.a. the refrigerator), a baggie of scones, and a Tupperware full of still-warm soup. Taking stock of our wares and coming up short, we ran down to DeLaurenti’s, barraged the poor wine saleswoman with inarticulate questions about Italian reds, and returned to Kate's with a bottle of Argiolas Perdera Isola dei Nuraghi 2002, jammy, spicy, and as fun to pronounce as it is to drink. I set the table—complete with the few napkins I didn’t set on fire at my birthday dinner—while she washed lettuce and handfuls of peppery watercress. With rain falling on the cold streets outside, we sat down to a warming winter dinner: steaming bowls of soup, hearty with carrots, cabbage, zucchini, Swiss chard, and sweet white beans,

and, on the side, greens with vinaigrette, creamy bleu d’Auvergne, and chewy bread.

And, because we needed to meet our regular whipped-cream quota, we collaborated on a now-routine-but-still-exhilarating gâteau au chocolat fondant, which, incidentally, gave me a chance to show off my natural grace in the kitchen. Not only did I drop a chocolate-batter-covered spoon on the floor and nearly knock over a pitcher of kitchen utensils while making the thing, but, once it was out of the oven and cool, I shot a knife across the kitchen trying to serve it. I just get so eager.

Kate, on the other hand, whipped the cream with uncommon elegance.

We collapsed onto the couch and, wine glasses and bowl of cream nearby, made fast work of the cake. Then, in only a couple of hours, we planned our entire lives and a cocktail party. Even in times of slothfulness, we can’t help but be productive.

And what’s more, before I left, we even took out the trash.

The rubbish chute is the highlight of every visit chez Kate. I adore it, and, knowing this, Kate saves her very best trash just for me. I’ve thrown into the chute's greedy mouth everything from a candy-coated apple to a bag full of mussel shells, and I can’t get enough of the clicketty-clacketty-THUMP! of trash tumbling down through the darkness. It’s pure heaven. Someday I’ll have a rubbish chute of my own, and I’ll fulfill my dream of sliding down it. I’ve long had visions of putting myself in small, confined spaces: cabinets, the space under airplane seats, and so on. When I was moving into my current apartment, I crawled into a corner cabinet in the kitchen and had my mother close the door behind me. It was strangely satisfying, if only for a few seconds. A rubbish-chute ride would surely be divine, if painful.

Coming home and sighing contentedly, I gave thanks for so much industry and indolence by turning out the light and tumbling down through the darkness to my bed.

Fretwell (Italian Vegetable) Soup

This soup recipe comes from the Fretwell family, longtime friends in Oklahoma, and they in turn discovered it somewhere in Italy. I have only a blurry Xeroxed copy of the recipe (which the Fretwells had faxed to them from wherever they first ate it), and so I thus cannot give credit here to its original author. That’s a true shame, because this is one of the most delicious vegetable soups I’ve ever tasted. The Fretwells brought us many meals while my father was ill, and this was one we requested repeatedly. But consider yourself warned: this recipe makes a veritable cauldron of soup. If you don’t have a stockpot that can hold twelve quarts or so, do this in two batches, or halve the recipe.

1 ½ lbs. dried cannellini or Great Northern beans
Olive oil
2 or 3 fresh sage leaves
1 or 2 garlic cloves, peeled and left whole
2 or 3 medium yellow onions, chopped
8 medium carrots, sliced into ¼-inch coins
5 celery stalks, trimmed and sliced into ¼-inch crescents
2 medium zucchini, halved lengthwise and sliced into ¼-inch half-circles
1 bunch red Swiss chard, washed, dried, and sliced
½ head green cabbage, cored and chopped roughly
1 quart vegetable broth (I used Imagine brand)
1 28-oz can whole peeled tomatoes, juices reserved and tomatoes chopped roughly

Soak the beans overnight. The next day, drain them, put them into a large pot, add water to cover by 2 inches, and cook, with sage and garlic, for about one hour. As the beans cook, skim off any white foam that rises to the surface, and halfway through their cooking time, add ½ Tbs salt.

Heat 2 or 3 Tbs olive oil in a large soup pot, add onions, carrots, and celery, and sauté for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally, salting lightly, and adding more oil if necessary. Add the zucchini and the vegetable broth, cover, and bring mixture to a simmer. Then add Swiss chard, cabbage, tomatoes, and tomato juices. Cover the pot, and simmer over low heat for half an hour or so. Add the beans and their cooking water, salt to taste, and simmer, covered, over low heat for one hour, stirring occasionally. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Serve over slices of day-old crusty bread, and garnish with a drizzle of olive oil if you like.

Serves scads—but scads!—of people.


Outline of a Theory of Cabbage

Be warned: I’m baring my geek stripes. If you’re of weak constitution, please avert your eyes.

Since our lengthy discussion of soufflé, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about cabbage. After all, whenever I’m plotting a soufflé for dinner, cabbage inevitably shows up, usually bringing its posse of caraway seeds, vinegar, and an apple or two. It doesn’t take much to convince me to eat this humble crucifer, and anyway, the unctuous, dairy-rich egginess of a cheese soufflé truly has no better match than the sweet-tart earthiness of braised cabbage. I think a lot about these sorts of things, and about social science. And that’s where things get geeky.

Today, while riding the bus home from work and school, I wracked my brain for a way to “pitch” cabbage to you, skeptical reader. Surely I don’t have to tell you that, in the U.S., the cabbage is woefully misunderstood. Never mind the fact that German kids are eating sauerkraut as soon as they have teeth, or that corned beef and cabbage may well be the best thing to come out of Ireland, ever. Here it is roundly reviled, or at least disliked enough to permit me this slight exaggeration. So as the bus rattled north toward home and dinner, a silent conviction took shape within me: cabbage must be defended! What we have here is cabbage under siege! Cabbage must no longer be linked to discipline and punishment; no, it’s part of the natural order of things! By the time we arrived at my stop, I had it: an outline of a theory of cabbage.

Dear reader, you know that it’s time to close the book on graduate school when even vegetables call to mind famous works of social theory, such as Michel Foucault’s “Society Must Be Defended,” Discipline and Punish, and The Order of Things; Zygmunt Bauman’s Society Under Siege; and Pierre Bourdieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practice. I wince just typing this, and I pity my poor companions on the bus, who I probably blinded with the blazing rays of geekiness emanating from my feverish brain.

But I’m deathly serious about this defense-of-cabbage business. Nearly everyone I consider a friend shares my appreciation for it, and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if our friendship were in fact based upon some cabbage lover's force field we mutually exert upon each another. And on some level (far below consciousness until this writing), I’ve been putting men to “the cabbage test” for years: I’ve eaten the stuff in some form or other with every man I’ve taken seriously, and honey, it works every time. Often they're okay with geekiness too.

So, when you start daydreaming about what to serve with your soufflé (or anything else, for that matter), please give this theory a try: I hold that, under both controlled and uncontrollable conditions, one who tries braised red cabbage with apples and caraway seeds will come back begging for more,

and the same goes for an even simpler preparation, sautéed green cabbage with apples and red onions.

A Pinot Noir would be nice as well, and a bookmark.

Braised Red Cabbage with Apples and Caraway Seeds
Adapted from The All New Joy of Cooking

2 Tbs olive oil
3 Tbs finely chopped red onion
1 small head red cabbage (about two pounds), quartered, cored, and very thinly sliced
1 large Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored, and coarsely grated
3 Tbs apple cider vinegar
2 Tbs honey
1 tsp salt
1/8 to ¼ tsp caraway seeds

Heat oil in a large, nonreactive skillet or Dutch oven over medium-low heat. Add onions and cook until translucent and slightly golden. Add cabbage, apple, vinegar, honey, salt, and caraway seeds; then cover pan and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the cabbage is very soft but not falling apart, about an hour.

Serves roughly 4. Delicious warm, at room temperature, or cold, straight from the fridge.

Sautéed Green Cabbage with Apples and Red Onions
Adapted from Chez Panisse Vegetables

Olive oil
1 medium red onion, very thinly sliced
1 medium green cabbage, quartered, cored, and very thinly sliced
1 large crisp, sweet apple, such as Golden Delicious, cored and very thinly sliced
Apple cider vinegar

In a large sauté pan or Dutch oven, heat a little oil and sauté onions until translucent and just beginning to brown. Add the apples, and sauté one minute, or until everything is sizzling. Add the cabbage, the salt and pepper, a dash of vinegar, and a little water. Stir over high heat just long enough to barely soften and cook the cabbage, a few minutes. It should retain a little crunch but lose the raw flavor of uncooked cabbage. Adjust seasoning, and serve.

Serves 6 to 8. Delicious warm or at room temperature.


On soufflé and trepidation

In this world, there are plenty of things to be afraid of, but soufflé is not one of them. We know all too well the horror of a natural disaster, the freak accident, the uncertainty of change, the fearful dwindling of the bank-account balance, the sleep lost to worries and wondering. For me, there’s a special terror reserved for the blast of a tornado warning siren: evidently, my Great Plains youth still haunts me. But if there’s one thing that won’t keep me up at night, one thing that I can count on, it’s soufflé.

I ate my first soufflé as a preteen, at Oklahoma City’s swank but sedate Coach House Restaurant. It was an apricot soufflé, tall and trembling, served in a small ramekin. The waiter, deathly serious, plunged a silver spoon into its center and poured a thin stream of translucent apricot sauce into the chasm. I scooped up a spoonful: the soufflé was airy, eggy, and sweet, with a thin crust of sugar where it met the ramekin’s edge. Everything went quiet. I didn’t speak until I’d scraped up every bit from the ceramic dish and licked my spoon clean.

But a dozen years would pass before I’d try my hand at making one. After all, everyone knows that soufflés are notoriously difficult. According to the word on the street, your soufflé will be nothing more than a scrambled-egg discus if you: a) open the oven before it’s finished baking; b) over-whip your egg whites, c) under-whip your egg whites; d) turn your back while it’s baking; e) don’t worry enough; or f) worry too much. It’s terrifying. To draw on Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by soufflé, starving / hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the streets at dawn looking for a whisk….” If I’m going to sweat and twitch, it shouldn’t be over dinner.

But, dear reader, because there’s nothing more luxurious and magical than a good soufflé, we can’t let ourselves be beaten down by fear. We’ve at least got to try. In this life of uncertainty, we’d be wise to heed the words of another poet, William Stafford:*


It could happen any time, tornado,
earthquake, Armageddon. It could happen.
Or sunshine, love, salvation.

It could you know. That's why we wake
and look out—no guarantees
in this life.

But some bonuses, like morning,
like right now, like noon,
like evening.

Yes, some bonuses, like soufflé. Heartened by these words, one night in late 2003, I took my soufflé dish down from the shelf. Little did I know it would be the opening of a new era. Armed with Julia Child’s masterful The Way to Cook, I was ready, and it was a simple matter of following instructions. From the béchamel to the stiff peaks, it was straightforward, even easy(!). In a show of defiance to fear, I even drank a glass of wine while it baked. And when I pulled it from the oven, golden and soaring, I knew it was a sure thing. I brought it to the table and served it proudly, breaking the crust and listening with glee to the crackly hiss of a spoon through delicate webs of pillowy egg. It was both ethereally light and fantastically rich with cheese. A bonus indeed.

There’s not a second to waste. After all, it could happen any time: tornado, earthquake, Armageddon, soufflé.

*From The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems (Graywolf Press, 1998).

Cheese Soufflé
Adapted from The Way to Cook, by Julia Child

Thank heavens for Julia.

2 Tbs finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano, or other hard cheese
2 ½ Tbs unsalted butter, plus more for buttering dish
3 Tbs all-purpose flour
1 cup whole milk, hot
½ tsp paprika
A pinch of nutmeg
½ tsp salt
3 grinds of freshly ground pepper
4 egg yolks (from large eggs)
5 egg whites (from large eggs)
1 cup (3 ½ ounces) coarsely grated cheese, such as gruyère or sharp cheddar

Generously butter a 7 ½- to 8-inch diameter soufflé dish. Roll the grated Parmigiano Reggiano in the buttered baking dish to cover the bottom and side. Set the oven rack in the lower third of the oven, and preheat to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

To make the béchamel:
Over moderate heat, melt 2 ½ Tbs butter in a 2 ½-quart saucepan; then blend in the flour with a wooden spoon to make a smooth but somewhat loose paste. Stir until the butter and flour foam together for two minutes without coloring to more than a buttery yellow. Remove from heat. When the bubbling stops, in a few seconds, pour in the hot milk all at once, whisking vigorously to blend. Place the saucepan over moderately high heat, whisking rather slowly, reaching all over the bottom and sides of the pan, until the sauce comes to the simmer. Simmer two to three minutes, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the sauce is very thick and coats a spoon nicely. Whisk in the seasonings, and remove from heat. Whisk the egg yolks into the hot sauce one by one, transfer sauce to a large bowl, and set it aside.

To finish:
In a clean bowl and with clean beaters, beat the egg whites to stiff shining peaks. Scoop a quarter of the egg whites into the bowl with the sauce, and stir together with a wooden spoon. Turn the rest of the egg whites on top; rapidly and delicately, fold them in with a rubber spatula, alternating scoops of the spatula with sprinkles of the coarsely grated cheese. Pour the batter into the prepared baking dish, and use your spatula to trace a circle in the top of the batter, just inside the rim of the dish. This will help the soufflé to rise freely.

Place the soufflé in the oven, and turn the oven temperature down to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Bake about 25 to 30 minutes (without opening the oven), until the soufflé has puffed one to three inches over the rim of the baking dish and the top has browned nicely. Serve immediately, because yes, it will deflate within a few minutes. To serve without crushing it, use two serving spoons pointed down and back-to-back; plunge them into the crust and tear it apart.

Serves four.


Sugar High Friday #4, or how I got my hands on a pain de Gênes

It was a circuitous route that brought me to le pain de Gênes, the sunny yellow French cake rich with butter, eggs, and almond paste,

and I never would have made it without a former New York cabbie and his Citroën.

It all began one day in the mid-1990s, in the parking lot of an Albertsons grocery store in Oklahoma City. My father, the ever-willing food shopper, paused with his grocery bags to admire a Citroën parked near his (beloved but ridiculously unreliable) Alfa Romeo. Because Burg was that sort of guy, he struck up a conversation with the owner of the Citroën, and, to make a short story shorter, they became best friends.

Every Saturday for years to follow, Burg and Michael would go for a morning walk together, leisurely strolling the neighborhood for an hour or so and finishing with an elaborate lunch, never without a frothy beer or a bottle of wine. Michael was a transplanted New Yorker, a cab driver turned writer and, with his partner Becky, a successful business owner. Intense and pensive, he devoured books of poetry and loved encouraging me—then an angsty, slightly punk, and borderline nerdy teenager—in my own stunted “career” [she writes, wincing] as a poet.

Michael was also a tremendous cook, and he loved feeding us in his airy kitchen with its dark wood floor and cabinets. He often prepared dishes that he and Becky had discovered in their nomadic hippie days in Mexico, and I still get weak-kneed just thinking of his roasted Coca-Cola chicken with hominy and his boiled yucca with olive oil and sea salt. We'd talk Adrienne Rich or poems about popes and poodles until it came time for dessert, when all attention would turn to Becky, an artist and skilled baker. As it fate would have it, one evening in late 1997, after another simple but haunting meal, Becky served an almond cake. Plain and unpretentious, it was rich and dense, imbued with sweet almond. I quite nearly scrapped my plans of leaving for college—my kingdom for almond paste!—just so I could stay there and eat the stuff forever.

But I didn’t. Life continued apace, albeit sans almond cake. And years later Michael and Becky, ever nomadic, moved to Paris, which is only appropriate, for it was there that I was reunited in fall 2001 with my lost love of the cake variety, what I would come to know as a pain de Gênes.

I’ve always felt pretty lucky, but Fortune really smiled on me when she gave me apartment only a few blocks from Au Levain du Marais, one of the best boulangeries in Paris. Occupying an ornately tiled corner space on boulevard Beaumarchais (at rue du Pasteur-Wagner, just north of Place de la Bastille, 11th arrondissement; also at 32, rue de Turenne, 3rd arrondissement), Au Levain du Marais is best known for its fine baguettes and its crusty, rustic pain au levain. I, of course, partook liberally of these, but I also acquainted myself with the pastry case, driving the women behind the counter crazy with my perpetual whimper, “Euh, euhhhh…j’ai du mal à choisir...euhhh...” (Uh, uhhhh…I’m having trouble choosing...uhhh...).

One day, I spotted a buttery-looking square of yellow cake behind the glass, topped with a snowy dusting of powdered sugar. Pointing to it eagerly, I asked for its name. It was a traditional pain de Gênes (“Genoa bread”), I was told, a cake made with almond paste—those two magic words!—invented to commemorate the 1800 siege of Genoa, when the city’s inhabitants survived largely on almonds.* Without a moment’s hesitation, I ordered a piece and carried it home gently, tucking my nose under the neatly folded, butter-soaked paper wrapper for a whiff of almond paste, heady and almost liqueur-like. After years of abstinence, there could be no keeping us apart.

In the time since, I’ve certainly eaten my fair share of Paris’s pain de Gênes, but here in Seattle, I’ve yet to find a bakery that offers it. But I’ve got two hands, a decent kitchen, a stack of cookbooks, and a Whole Foods at my disposal. So when Viv of the illustrious Seattle Bon Vivant announced that nuts were to be the theme of Sugar High Friday #4, I, nearly panting with anticipation, wasted no time.

After consulting a few recipes, I settled on the “Montmartre Square” in Dorie Greenspan’s fantastic Paris Sweets, which, if you are an aficionado of la pâtisserie, you must buy. Having been too kind to steal my mother’s KitchenAid stand mixer last Thanksgiving, I borrowed one from my generous next-door neighbors, and, at long last, I had a humble and painfully delicious pain de Gênes in my very own kitchen. From the first bite, I couldn’t help myself: my most visceral French—only the finest in slang, gleaned years ago from a reggae-jivin’ Parisian boyfriend—came rushing forth: “J’hallucine grave! C’est trop bon!” (I’m seriously trippin’! It’s too good!). It’s in moments like these that I’m at my most eloquent. Michael would surely be proud of the little poetess in me.

*For more information, see Dorie Greenspan’s Paris Sweets, pages 38 and 52, and the introductory paragraph here.

Montmartre Square with a Few Changes, or Pain de Gênes
Adapted from Dorie Greenspan's Paris Sweets

This is one of two slightly spiffed-up versions of a pain de Gênes featured in Greenspan's book. I've de-spiffed this one a bit, leaving off the almond-paste cloak that covers the original. Someday I'll try it as it's written, but I'm awfully partial to just a homey dusting of powdered sugar. Also note that Greenspan recommends using a stand mixer for this, since the cake batter is beaten for a full fifteen minutes—plenty long enough to wipe out the usual handheld beaters.

¼ cup all-purpose flour
2 ½ Tbs potato starch (available in the baking section of must supermarkets)
14 ounces soft, pliable almond paste (I used two tubes of Odense brand), broken into pieces
4 large eggs
1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, melted and cooled (but still liquid)
1 Tbs Grand Marnier or kirsch (I used Jim Beam; honey, work with what you’ve got)
Powdered sugar, for dusting

Center a rack in the oven and preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter an 8-inch square pan (preferably metal, with nice, straight sides and corners), dust the inside with flour, tap out the excess, and put the pan on a baking sheet.

Sift the flour and potato starch together and set aside. Put the almond paste and two of the eggs in the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat on medium speed for five minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, remove paddle, and put whisk attachment in place. Return the mixer to medium speed and beat in the remaining two eggs one at a time. Once eggs are incorporated, beat the batter for another ten minutes, scraping down the bowl frequently, until the batter is creamy. It should remind you of mayonnaise.

Stir a couple of tablespoons of this batter into the cooled melted butter. Reduce the mixer speed to low and beat in the Grand Marnier, followed by the dry ingredients, mixing only until just incorporated. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold in the butter.

Turn the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 35-40 minutes, or until the cake starts to pull away from the sides of the pan and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove cake from the oven, unmold onto a cooling rack, reinvert if you like, and cool to room temperature.

Dust powdered sugar (through a sieve or special powdered sugar shaker, if you have one) onto the top of the cake. Serve.


Feeding a cold: chicken stew and oliebollen

Since Christmas morning, I’ve been nursing a mild but persistent cold, the sort of thing that manifests itself in unladylike snorts every few minutes and a nasal bedroom voice by early evening. It hasn’t slowed me down, but it’s made soup sound exceptionally good. So this New Year’s Day, I shelved my tentative plans for good-luck black-eyed peas masala and opted instead for a cauldron of rustic chicken stew.

And because it was indeed a cauldron, I invited my favorite Dutchman, he who crafts beautiful cutting boards, spoils me with sausage and greens, and boasts woodsman biceps as big around as my head. [And I don’t take this last lightly, seeing as the diameter of my head is pretty large; when I was little, I’d wind up in tears every time my mother tried to put me in a turtleneck.]

Nicho arrived, as is now the norm, with Swiss chard and a bag of dog food for Index, who trotted in happily and curled up on the floor in the hallway. I put a small pot of stew on the stove to reheat and cut thick slices of the Essential Baking Company’s Columbia Bread, brushed them with olive oil, and slid them into the oven to warm and crisp. Nicho set to work cleaning and chopping the chard,

which we sautéed quickly with olive oil, a dash of white wine, sea salt, and—at Nicho’s wise suggestion—a few dabs of Dijon mustard stirred in at the very end.

We sat down to deep, wide bowlfuls of stew ladled over the crisped bread, which slowly swelled with broth and yielded deliciously to our spoons. Nicho’s mustard chard made a wonderfully earthy and complex side-note, and we scraped our bowls and plates contentedly, talking between slurpy mouthfuls, watching Index sleep alarmingly soundly at Nicho’s feet. Then, rising to clear the dishes, Nicho presented me with a suspicious pink-and-white striped Victoria’s Secret box, hinting only that what lay within “could be worn.” Tucked beneath a layer of pink tissue paper I found a Ziploc bag full of homemade oliebollen and appelbeignets, doughnuts traditionally served in Holland to celebrate the New Year. And wear them I did—in my belly.

The oliebollen (which translates enticingly to “oily balls”) were cakey, dense, and only slightly sweet, freckled throughout with currants and golden raisins,

and the appelbeignets were surprisingly light, a round slice of apple tossed in cinnamon, coated in batter, and fried to golden.

I can only imagine how treacherously delicious they were the night before, fresh from the fryer and still warm. Nicho blames them for his so-called “winter chub,” which, by all appearances, does not exist and anyway is seasonless, having been a topic of conversation since early fall. He was admirably restrained, only eating half an appelbeignet, but I threw caution to the wind and downed one and a half oliebollen and the other half of his appelbeignet. After all, I’ve got the old “feed a cold; starve a fever” thing on my side.

Chicken Stew with a Secret Weapon

My half-brother Adam and his kitchen-savvy wife and kids made this stew for our family the day after Thanksgiving 2004, when we all needed a low-key, soothing, and restorative dinner. They based their recipe on one created by Jody Adams, a well-known Boston-area chef, and they served it ladled over big pieces of olive-oil-rubbed and grilled baguette. It was absolutely slurp-worthy—comforting and familiar, rustic yet sophisticated.

Recently, my sister-in-law Susan sent me a link to one version of Adams’ recipe, and through a bit of Internet searching, I found another version that resembles even more closely the one they served me. My own version falls somewhere in between the two, featuring, among other things, the addition of a Parmigiano Reggiano rind. An old trick favored by Italian grandmothers, it’s my secret weapon for adding body, richness, salt, and a round, luscious aroma to soups. And if you need a back-up weapon, slip Q and Not U’s Different Damage into your stereo while cooking. It’s delicious too.

3 large, bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts (roughly 3 lbs, preferably free range)
Olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
Fresh thyme (about 10-12 sprigs)
2 quarts chicken broth (I used Imagine brand Organic Free Range), plus a bit more broth or water for thinning if needed
3 large carrots, cut into rounds roughly ¼-inch thick
3 medium leeks, trimmed, halved lengthwise, rinsed thoroughly, and cut into rough 1-inch pieces
1 Parmigiano Reggiano rind, roughly 2 inches square
1/3 cup tiny soup pasta (I used Ronzoni brand acini pepe, but you could also try stelline, which takes me instantly back to the Campbell’s Chicken and Stars of my childhood)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Rinse and dry chicken breasts, and place them in a single layer in a baking dish. Rub them with olive oil, and sprinkle them with salt, pepper, and roughly 3 sprigs’ worth of thyme leaves. Roast the chicken for 30 minutes, or until it is cooked through and the skin is golden. Set the meat aside until cool enough to handle; then shred the chicken from the bone in large flakes, discarding the skin. [Note, however, that most of the seasonings are stuck to the outside of the skin, so as you remove it, you might consider rubbing it, seasoning side down, against the meat.]

Pour chicken broth into a large pot, Dutch oven, or stockpot. Add the carrots, leeks, cheese rind, and a dash of salt. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and let cook about 25 minutes, until vegetables are tender and broth smells lightly of the cheese. Add the leaves of 7 or so sprigs of thyme, and let cook another five minutes. Add chicken and pasta (and a bit of additional broth or water, if you feel the mixture is too thick), return the soup to a boil, turn down the heat, and let the soup simmer for 5 minutes. Taste for seasoning, and add more salt and pepper if needed. Retrieve and discard the cheese rind. Ladle into bowls.

Serves a lot.


2005: The first meal and a trend predicted

Two thousand five has officially arrived, bearing hip-shakin’ hip-hop, sparkly lights for the Space Needle, an unwelcome nuzzle, and tater tots.

Seeking a relatively low-price, low-key New Year's Eve celebration with the possibility of dancing, three of us traipsed down Fremont Avenue to a hip-hop show at Suite G. I stuck to gin and tonic—not quite ginny or limey enough, but then again, the bartender was no David Rosengarten—and Teresa took quite a liking to the “Strasberi Drop,” while Megan sampled the “Bird of Paradise.” Featuring crème de cacao, amaretto, something else I’ve forgotten, and cream (reassuringly billed as “fresh”), it was dessert in a martini glass. I wanted desperately to fill a bathtub with the stuff and roll around in it, although Megan seemed to prefer the idea of dipping herself in her aunt’s banana cream pie.

Over the hubbub (“This is it, WHAT! Blue Scholars in the place—put your fist up! Doin' it large to bring in 2005, y’all!”), we talked bacon fat, pulled pork, lamb-chop sideburns, wild animal desire, and anthropology. I made the mistake of accidentally catching the eye of a fairly drunk-looking but otherwise handsome man as he passed us, and he generously rewarded me with a warm and scary neck-nuzzle. Blessedly soon thereafter, the clock struck midnight and we, weary after so much stimulation, snuck out in search of something greasy.

Late-night, rain-slicked Fremont doesn’t offer much, but we did find an auspicious first meal of 2005 in a basketful of chips with salsa and guacamole at Dad Watson’s,

and Megan demonstrated the proper way to eat a tater tot with Ranch dressing.

Now, perhaps you’re wondering at the lack of Champagne, caviar, and other highfalutin celebration fare, but think again: tater tots, I’ve been told, are the noblest form of potato. Apparently, these crunchy little barrels of potatoeyness are no longer to be frowned upon or shoved aside with other unsightly flashbacks of the school cafeteria. I believe, dear reader, that we're witnessing the birth of a trend, and in fact, 2005 may well turn out to be the year of the tater tot. But frankly, I’m undecided. I’m a little afraid of what might be lurking within, of what lies behind that über-potato flavor. I sense the work of a laboratory. But I did make fast work of the tortilla chips.

And then, perfectly sober, I knocked a glass of ice water into my lap while doing a seated shimmy to Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin.’”

Thus began 2005, already making good on promises of thrills, adventure, and salty snacks and treats. Happy New Year to you and yours. May you be warm, dry, and well-fed.