Archive for June, 2008


So the local investigative news reporters came knocking at my parents’ house the other day (where I’m visiting) because they’d heard about my mom’s cutting board. They were reporting one of those dangers-that-lurk-in-your-very-own-kitchen stories, and someone (I won’t say who) leaked the information that my own mother has a cutting board from who knows when. It’s scarred and stained and, even though scrubbed fastidiously and put in the dishwasher, I still have a hard time sleeping with that thing in the house.

Alright, so I’m fictionalizing the account. My imagination got the better of me, sort-of David Sedaris style*. There is such a cutting board, and it is in my mom’s kitchen, but I haven’t whispered that to any journalists on the prowl. I did, however, ask her if I bought her a new one, if she’d toss ol’ Scarface, but she shrugged and smiled, in her I-was-raised-in-the-Sixties-in-northern-California way, and said, “If you want me to. But you don’t have to buy me a new one.”

Of course I don’t, because she’s perfectly able to do so herself. She just won’t, because she’s a little better than I at distinguishing between needs and wants. I “need” the new tea towels with the French writing, for instance, because they match not only my kitchen color scheme, but also my sensibilities, which have changed dramatically since my once-upon-a-time bridal shower. My mom hardly ever needs anything at all, or so it seems. She’s my shining example of practicality (among other things).

There’s still a brown plastic cup in mom’s cupboard that’s been there since before I could even think of reaching the cabinets. Surely she doesn’t keep it around for nostalgia’s sake. It’s because it continues to perform its function. There’s also a punitive, (literally) bent-out-of-shape strainer that jabs you if you’re not paying attention, and a grocery caseload of repurposed cottage cheese containers that will be used for the duration of their immortality, long after the ink on the labels has been whooshed off without a trace into the plumbing, microscopic bit by microscopic bit.

Way before minimizing carbon footprints (as is the parlance these days) was de rigeur, I was raised to turn off the tap while brushing my teeth and taught that all leftovers must eventually make their way into a soup. Where did I emerge from, then, me with my running mental kitchen wish list?

Even as I recognize the wants for what they are, I still claim my affinity for new stuff, kitchen goodies included. Give me a good chopping knife over any of those new-fangled chopping implements any day, but there are useful tools and ingredients beyond pantry essentials that can go a long way toward furthering one’s repertoire. Proof: my panini press and the fact that once-exotic tahini has become one of my refrigerator staples.

Here’s my wish list as it stands at the moment, things I “need” to buy based on recipe ingredient lists and discussions with other people who cook. First up: A new cutting board for my mom. What’s on your list? Drop me a comment and let me know.

  • Amaranth
  • Dagoba cacao powder
  • Spelt flour
  • Rose water
  • Pomegranate molasses
  • Julienne slicer
  • Instant read thermometer (for fish)
  • Aebleskiver pan
  • Scone pan
  • Mandolin
  • Mortar and pestle
  • Wheat grinder
  • Set of stainless bowls

* I am not comparing my writing style to that of David Sedaris — oh, heavens, no. I’m only referring to his admissions of  “exaggerating for effect.”  See this NY Times article.

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How to read about supper

I’m getting way ahead of myself. I’m immersed in “The Splendid Table’s How to Eat Supper: Recipes, Stories and Opinions,” Lynne Rosetto Kasper’s latest doing (along with Sally Swift, the award-winning radio show’s producer). I’m barely keeping my head above water, so deep am I in love with this book, but I’m grinning the entire time, even as I’m gasping for air (not that such an overstatement is physiologically possible).

I’m midway through the book, through skimming recipes and thoughtfully perusing all the snatches and tidbits of accompanying information, and I haven’t yet made a single recipe (although, just the other night, I did employ the salad-in-a-bowl method, along with the biggest light-bulb-over-the-head, accompanied-by angelic-choirs tip to hit my kitchen in a long while, the suggestion to whisk in a drip of fish sauce to homemade vinaigrette for umami. Do you guys know about this? I’m telling you — try it now!). The book is, in a word, delightful. (I really do have a few critical bones in my body, I’m just not inclined to bend them here.)

Not to drop names, but while we’re on the subject anyway, I’ll mention that a couple of months ago I had the absolute pleasure of talking with Lynne for a magazine piece I was writing. Since then, I’ve been wanting to get this book, but I have a bad way of plunking things into my Amazon shopping cart and making them wait, until one day when I feel entitled and make the order official with a few practiced clicks.

The book arrived the other day. It landed on my doorstep under cover of cardboard, and I’m sure the mail carrier had no idea of the gloriousness he’d placed there, that within that box was a shrink-wrapped emblem of my current kitchen philosophy, and a token of my cooking future.

I’m hopelessly amenable to suggestion, and now Lynne and Sally have me wanting to visit an Indian grocery, place ever more cookbooks in my Amazon cart (thanks to their “Build the Library” featured cookbook sidebars), and do all sorts of new things to eggs, from making a 65-degree egg to pan-frying deviled eggs (a move that is sure to redeem the deviled egg in my eyes). All I can say is, thank goodness for cookbooks, because left to my own devices, to my personal void of imagination, we may never eat cinnamon-scented tomato sauce. Good cookbooks are capable of doing the same thing that good books do, of raising awareness and reinvigorating curiosity.

Another reason to like the book: it’s heavy on meatless dishes, and those that have meat can often accommodate a substitution (even those that can’t have something to offer by way of method). Lynne and Sally are big on encouragement, intent on coaxing the intuitive cook out of everybody who has ever, or who would like to, wield a pastry scraper or Microplane grater. The book mixes all that with a bringing-back-dinner philosophy – the authors are so into resurrecting dinner hour in American households that they’ve called it supper, which conjures altogether different ideas of what the meal should be all about.

And sometimes it starts with visiting the nearest Indian grocer.

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Hiding in

A funny thing happened on the way to my in-laws. I’d actually just come from their house, which is minutes away from ours, and I’d popped back home to grab something we’d forgotten, when I remembered I had a batch of cookies to make.

Brian’s brother and his family were in town, and so we were doing the requisite family togetherness pizza night thing, and the mood was – as they like to say in poor novels – rich with tension, so I didn’t at all mind having to ditch the party momentarily.

When I arrived home and saw “Pure Dessert” propped open on my stovetop, and magic flour dust from that morning still settled on the counters, I glanced sideways at the clock and wondered if I could put my dough together in fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes to read and carry out a recipe I hadn’t made before. Fifteen minutes to whisk together the buckwheat and all-purpose flours, to just-to-smoothness cream the butter and sugar and vanilla, to briefly knead and mound the dough and shape it into a log, wrap the accomplishment and stick it – almost toss it – in the fridge, where it had to rest overnight to prepare for slicing.

So was this an avoidance tactic or what, my temporary deferment of the inevitable, this backdoor expression of mental anxiety? I know baking provides good and proper therapy, but it seems a little much to dodge encounters with well-meaning family by holing oneself up with one’s kitchen friends. There’s got to be a psychological term for that one.

Just that morning I’d taken full advantage of the glut of ready lemons rolling around in the bin to make Alice Medrich’s suck-your-cheeks-in lemon bars for a social thing. Only the yield was too small, and my lack of eggs prompted me to set my heart on making her Nibby Buckwheat Cookies instead, a recipe I’ve had in reserve for a while (and which has been blogged to death about already, but trust me, it’s deserving).

Brian called right as I was finishing up and I fumbled tellingly with the phone buttons, snippets of dough on yet unwashed fingers. Maybe I do need a diagnosis, but somehow making that dough, even if I had to hop madly around the kitchen to do it, bolstered me for an evening of the three brothers and their parents rehashing stale childhood caper stories/bachelor party hijinks/news of long-ago neighbors. It wasn’t the delivery pizza or family fun that brought a sly smile to my face that night; it was knowing I had a confidential batch of cookie dough, waiting for baking.

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Spring fresh

I was making beds today, giving them the freshly laundered sheet treatment, and as I puffed a flat sheet up into the air and let it sail down on top of the mattress, I realized, even as I got a whiff of just-out-of-the-dryer scent, how much I didn’t feel like the women in the commercials who do the same thing (you know, when CGI flowers arc and somersault, when their eyelids draw downward and they inhale, smiles tugging at their mouths because they’re making a bed).

I guess I don’t care for bed making, as activities go. Oh, I like order and the appearance of order enough that I make my bed on an (almost) daily basis, but the act itself does not my attention pique. I cringe a bit at using the word mundane – it’s been used to a fault in reference to household chores – but in honesty that’s how I would have to describe shuffling from one side of the bed to the other, back and forth, all the tugging and the hoisting and the tucking to ensure flatness and evenness.

The same mundanity, however cliché, applies to unloading the dishwasher, another domestic dislike I hold dear. Also on the list: vacuuming, cleaning showers… I might as well just stop there because do you really want to be privy to my list? Cleanliness may be paramount, but that doesn’t mean I can claim to enjoy cleaning. You can’t perceive love from a clean toilet, or a speck-free armoire. You can perceive pride of ownership, maybe OCD. But unless you’re a social worker, you’re not about to look at spotless countertops and think, my, this is a woman who undoubtedly loves her family.

Slap together a fat grilled cheese, slicing the cheese according to a child’s particulars, on the other hand and, there it is: love in action. Carefully measure and whisk and stir; heat up the griddle and employ a spatula, early in the morning, and there’s undoubtedly love in the mix. Gently layer flavors in a salad in a way that makes the whole thing feel a little reinvented, or bake an all-around favorite cookie, and it’s there, too.

I suppose that’s one reason I’m so taken with cooking. I have a family now, of all things. Someone has to feed them, and I’m not about to leave that most important nutrient-and-taste-delivery job to someone who could care less about nutrients or even taste (I’m thinking not only of fast food, but of supermarket prepared and processed food).

Cleaning has to be done, but we all know that in this country, one could conceivably get away without cooking. Still, cooking becomes requisite because no other soul will go to the trouble of seeing that our appetites don’t disproportionately fall into the cracker box, that we don’t get mired in a rut of romaine and one mere type of tomato. Even if it’s necessary, cooking’s not a daily bore the way pushing a mop around can be. Like I said, no one’s going to come home to clean floors and see it as an expression of my unconditional affection. But let them taste the way a poached egg’s yolk flavors sautéed chard, or why tart Pink Lady apples taste so good with aged white cheddar and a smattering of nuts, and they get it.

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