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Easy enough

We moved last Tuesday. I’m going to repeat that, because it sounds so unlikely, so inadvisable, that I know you might not believe me. I hardly believe me. But we did. We moved. Brandon is starting a second business, and I’m trying to start a second book, so, you know, la la la, let’s move. We’ve had worse ideas, but I can’t think of them right now.

This is the last picture taken in our old kitchen. Our old kitchen, our old place, our old duplex, where we lived for almost five years, on a noisy street with the nocturnal neighbor who does outdoor home improvement projects by flashlight. I will miss that place, but only a little, and never at night.

I don’t know where this white table is going to live in our new place. Right now, it’s in the living room, looking out of sorts, trying to seem relevant by holding up a vase with a couple of wilting ranunculus. The saddest table in the world. But I love this new-to-us house, even the red carpet and wood paneling downstairs, sort of. I hope we stay here for a long time. The dishwasher is a model called the Quiet Partner. The Quiet Partner! YES.

The kitchen is hardly set up, and I feel like an alien in there, like I’m trying to find my way on a new planet, one with banana-colored formica and a mauve oven and stove. The only thing I’ve cooked so far is spaghetti with braised kale, and then I’ve been microwaving leftovers, which is easy enough, even if you come from outer space. But tomorrow I plan to unpack the blender, and maybe I’ll find the mesh strainer with it, and then I can make parsnip soup. That’s what I want for lunch this week. Parsnip soup, toast and sharp cheddar, and an orange.

This soup is adapted from a parsnip puree that my friend Matthew taught me to make. Matthew and I co-host the podcast Spilled Milk, and recently, when we did an episode on parsnips, he made this puree. We ate it on crostini, which was terrific, but it was so nice on its own that I really wanted to eat it just like that, from the serving bowl, with the serving spoon. Matthew mentioned that with a little thinning, the recipe also makes a good soup, so when I got home, I tried it. There’s barely anything to it: a bag of parsnips, some vegetable stock, a little butter, a little cream, a little salt, a little pass through the mesh strainer. But what you get is something that you, or at least I, can be very pleased with: a perfectly smooth soup in a shade some call Cosmic Latte(!!!), subtle but gutsy, with that sweet vegetal funk and enough fragrance to fill your whole head. The key, I think, is the vegetable stock. Matthew says that the natural sweetness of vegetable stock plays up the natural sweetness of parsnips, and I’m a believer.

Have a good lunch.

Parsnip Soup
Adapted from Spilled Milk and Matthew Amster-Burton

It doesn’t get simpler than this, so be sure you start with fresh, firm parsnips and decent-tasting vegetable stock. Homemade is nice, but honestly, I use Better Than Bouillon No Chicken Base, and the results are great.

3 to 3 ½ lb. parsnips
2 quarts vegetable stock
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, diced
Water or additional stock, as needed
½ cup heavy cream
Salt, to taste

Peel the parsnips, trim and discard the ends, and cut into ½-inch pieces. Put in a large pot, and add the vegetable stock. Bring to a simmer, and cook, uncovered, until the parsnips can be easily pierced with a fork, about 20 to 25 minutes.

Set a fine-mesh strainer over another large pot. Working in batches, puree the parsnips and stock in a blender, tossing in a couple of pieces of butter with each batch. (And remember that hot liquids expand, so never fill the blender more than a third.) This amount of stock should yield a somewhat thick soup, and you will likely need to add a little additional water or stock as you blend, until the soup reaches your desired consistency. As you finish pureeing each batch, pour the soup through the strainer into the pot, stirring and scraping as needed with a rubber spatula to push the puree through the mesh.

When the soup is entirely pureed, stir in the cream. Rewarm gently over low heat. Taste for salt, and serve hot.

Yield: I can’t remember exactly, but I would guess 6 servings.


It's called the Pantry

Well. World events don’t seem to get any less troubling, so we might as well get back to business. Yes?

Last week, I said that I wanted to tell you about a new project, and I still do. It’s a project that grows out of Delancey, but it’s a whole new thing: a business headed up by two of our friends, Brandi Henderson and Olaiya Land. Brandon is technically the third partner, but this baby really belongs to Brandi and Olaiya. It’s called the Pantry at Delancey, and we’re all very excited about it. Excited. Maybe that word isn’t strong enough. Elated? Too strong? Thrilled? Let’s go with thrilled. We are thrilled.

Maybe you already know Brandi.

She’s the executive pastry chef at Delancey. She’s been with us since December of 2009, when she moved up from San Francisco to take the job. Those of you who have been to the restaurant will recognize Brandi as the woman behind the Meyer lemon budino, the cider-poached apple with ginger streusel, the rhubarb shortcake with mascarpone cream, and the cannoli with blood orange and candied pistachios. I daydream about that cannoli sometimes. She also makes the ricotta that we use at Delancey, writes a blog called I made that!, and in her meager spare time, likes to cure meat. (That’s pancetta up there, in the top picture.) In general, Brandi likes making things, and that’s why we like her. And handily, she’s trained as an architect, which also makes her good at building things. She’s currently the construction foreman for the space that will soon be the Pantry. She’s also in need of a massage.

You know Olaiya, too. I’ve written about her a lot, because she’s taught me so much about cooking.

Brandon met Olaiya in 2006, shortly after he moved to Seattle, when they worked together at Boat Street Cafe and Kitchen. The first time we ate dinner at her place, she made baked eggs with caramelized onions, and as you can see, I still remember it. A month or two later, she braised a pork shoulder in Coca Cola and served it to us with a pile of warm corn tortillas, and even though we were helping her move and had to sit on the floor to eat, I still remember that, too. In the years since, Olaiya has run her own catering company and taught cooking classes at Sur La Table, PCC, and Delancey. I think it’s fair to say that she’s a gifted teacher. She makes it look like an afternoon stroll. I’ve gotten to sit in on her classes a few times, and if you’ve ever taken a cooking class from me and felt that you learned something, it’s not because of anything I did: it’s because Olaiya taught me how to teach.

We’ve cooked a lot together, eaten a lot together, and worked a lot together. Actually, I wrote a fair piece of my first book while sitting next to her in a coffee shop near her apartment. And I wrote the bulk of the proposal for my next book the same way. I feel lucky to get to work beside her, both independently and collaboratively. And really, when you get down to it, that’s what the Pantry means to me: making things, and making our way, with our friends.

I guess I should tell you what the Pantry is? Forgot about that.

The Pantry is a community kitchen. It’s a space for hands-on cooking classes, family-style dinners, private events, and locally sourced catering. It’s located directly behind Delancey, on Alonzo Avenue NW, with a garden entrance designed by Fresh Digs. (There’s only mud and fence posts right now, but not for long.) There’ll be a 16-foot farm table, a cooking camp for kids in the summertime, and a small retail area stocked with independent food magazines, Weck canning jars, Delancey cookie dough and pizza dough, all our best stuff. Brandi and Olaiya already have a number of classes in development: a pizza-making class with Brandon, butchering and meat-curing with Russ Flint of Rainshadow Meats, a food writing course with Francis Lam, a City Chickens class with the good people of Stokesberry Farm, classes with Olaiya, classes with Brandi, a class or two with me - more than I can easily list here. And eventually, the Pantry will also make a lot of products for Delancey, products that we currently have to source elsewhere, like fresh mozzarella, pepperoni, bacon, pancetta, and salame. The projected opening date is sometime in late spring. Cross your fingers.

I took these shots a few Saturday mornings ago. They’re outtakes - or, at least, I think they’re going to be outtakes - from the Pantry’s website, which our friend Sam is building. (More pages to come.) We were sitting there that morning, Brandi and Olaiya and Brandon and Sam and I, at the communal table in the dining room at Delancey, with cameras and film and blood orange peels everywhere, and Olaiya said something that I’m going to paraphrase badly, but maybe the spirit will still come through. She said something like, Look at this! Can you believe we get to do this? Each of us doing what we like to do, each of us doing what we do best, all of us working together?

I’m happy for our friends, and happy for that.


Find a way

I had wanted to tell you on Friday about a new project we’re working on.
(It is NOT a baby.) (I know the way you think.)

But then there was an earthquake, and a tsunami, and I think it’s fair to say that there are more important things to talk about right now. I found out tonight that the mother of one of our friends lost her home, and that her village has been destroyed. It’s hard to talk, or think, about anything else. (Though I very much like Ruth Reichl’s thoughtful post on the topic.) I hope that, wherever you are, you and your loved ones are safe. And I hope that those of us who can will find a way to help. The Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, whatever we can do.


They wake me up

Lately we’ve had a lot of friends passing through, lots of changes of sheets on the guest bed. Sam has been around a bit. Ben, our friend who moved here a couple of years ago but was quickly wooed away by work, is doing a short-term gig nearby and comes around on his days off. And Ryan, who also lived here briefly and was wooed away, is flying in tonight for a visit. The bourbon in the bottle is two fingers lower than it was last week, and the apartment feels nice, lived-in. Most days, days when we don’t have house guests, I spend long stretches of time alone, working. I like the quiet. I don’t need a lot of company. But then someone comes into town, or maybe only across town, with a pint of Coffee Heath Bar Crunch and the first season of Mad Men, and we squeeze on the couch with the dog who growls because we’ve stolen his spot, and we all know to ignore him because we’ve heard it before, we’ve done this before, many times, and then I realize how much I’ve missed my friends. They wake me up from wherever I’ve been.

This was the scene on Sunday morning, and that’s Ben’s leg there, and the edge of his napkin, after what I believe can only be called a biscuit feed. Ben’s wife Bonnie is out of frame, and Brandon, I believe, had retired to the couch by this point. You will note that there are no biscuits in sight, and that is because we ate them. But you know what biscuits look like. You don’t need a picture.

I don’t think there’s anything I like cooking quite as much as breakfast for house guests. Because if they’re sleeping in our house, we’re obviously fond of them, and who better to cook for than the people you’re fond of? Especially at the start of the day, when everyone is still a little soft, before any crap gets in the way. You can hear them coming up the stairs from the guest room-slash-dungeon in the basement, trying to be quiet, and then the shower turns on, and while it runs, you can sneak out of bed and into the kitchen and grind the coffee, boil the water, get started. You might even remember that you bought some very foxy tangelos, real supermodels, stems and leaves still attached, and decide to put them in a bowl on the table. Tangelos go with biscuits. Biscuits go with raspberry jam and a giant vat of honey.

The biscuits on the table on Sunday were Marion Cunningham’s, of course, because that’s how I’m doing things this year. This woman is teaching me so much! Like that cream biscuits are virtually impossible to mess up. Impossible! Even if you, like me, become convinced that you messed up the recipe and want to throw away the dough without even baking it and your husband and house guests have to talk you down by promising to eat said biscuits, no matter how bad they are. Which they aren’t. They’re outstanding.

Cunningham says that these biscuits belong in your permanent recipe file, and she is right about that. I’ve tried a lot of biscuit recipes, and this is my new go-to, easy. It is not for those seeking a light breakfast - the amount of cream and butter is, shall we say, festive - but it feels light going down, if that makes any difference. And it’s an epic biscuit: perfectly salted, tender-crumbed, so flaky that you can pull it apart in fine, lacy sheets.

I can say all of this, and I’m actually pretty sure I didn’t even make them quite right. I don’t think I used enough cream - the amount called for is a range - and so my dough felt tough and heavy, and by the time I started to worry, I had already worked it too much to go back and add more cream. The biscuits looked puny going into the oven. Very sad, flat, unpromising pucks. But then! In the heat of the oven, they puffed to about three times their original height, and maybe even four. Yeow. What I’m trying to say is, you can’t screw this up. No one can screw this up. And first thing in the morning, that - that, and the company of a few favorite faces - might be the most a person can hope for.

Cream Biscuits
Adapted from The Breakfast Book, by Marion Cunningham

These are terrific with jam or, of course, honey.

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. table salt
1 Tbsp. baking powder
2 tsp. sugar
1 to 1 ½ cups heavy cream
5 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted

Preheat the oven to 425°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. (If you don’t have parchment, leave it as it is, ungreased. The parchment is just for easy cleanup.)

Combine the flour, salt, baking powder, and sugar in a mixing bowl, and stir with a fork to blend. Slowly add 1 cup of the cream, stirring. Gather the dough together gently: when it holds together and feels tender, it’s ready to knead. If it feels shaggy and pieces are dry, slowly add enough cream to make the dough hold together.

Place the dough on a lightly floured board and knead for 1 minute. (You don’t want to overwork it.) Pat the dough into a square about ½ inch thick. Cut into 12 squares. Brush each with melted butter so that all sides are coated. Place the biscuits 2 inches apart on the baking sheet. Bake for about 15 minutes, or until lightly browned. Serve hot.

Yield: 12 biscuits