The other day

For no good reason, I felt joy percolate in my gut. Well, there is a reason, but it makes no sense, has no business speaking and I don’t care, because it hasn’t come around for a while and I want to stand next to it and feel it run right through me like a virus we are not supposed to catch. Just let it infect every cell and become a part of me that never leaves. I am tired of working out the logic. You tell me where the logic in love is.

My favorite dessert is creme brûlée. It is slightly dense in a way that gives me shivers when the spoon goes in. And it is just sweet enough. If somebody asks me what my favorite is, I don’t say, “ohhhh, I don’t know..there are so many good ones..I can’t pick.” I know exactly what my favorite dessert is. The taste of the vanilla bean that got its flavor hanging on a vine in the warm sun and then distilled itself by getting drunk sitting in a vat of vodka, is a fact of life that helps my heart beat.

It is not hard to make; you just have to pay attention. Slice the vanilla bean in half, and then down the middle and scrape the paste off the skin with the back of a small knife. Save one half for another time. Put everything, skin included, into 2 cups of heavy cream and let that simmer until there is a rim of tiny bubbles all around the edge of the pan. Turn off the heat. Let it sit for about 15 minutes. Whisk 4 egg yolks with 2/3 cup sugar and a pinch of salt, until combined. Pour hot cream slowly into the egg mixture, while whisking. Pour everything through a sieve to remove impurities. Preheat oven to 320 degrees. Set ramekins into a roasting pan and nearly fill the ramekins with the custard mixture. Set the roasting pan in the oven and then pour simmering water around the ramekins to come up the sides by about half an inch. Bake until nearly set. They should have a slight wobble in the middle. If some are undercooked, take them out with the rest, but leave the undercooked ones in the roasting pan for another minute. Cool completely. You can refrigerate them to hold them until you need them, once they have cooled. Let them come to room temperature before proceeding. Sprinkle the tops with a dense, but not thick, coating of brown sugar or raw sugar. Caramelize them using a blowtorch or the broiler. If you use the broiler, watch them like a hawk.

How to make bread from starter

you are my subjunctive
my hope for what is yet to come

I have kept starter in the refrigerator without using it for two months now. I got it going at the beginning of all this, with a dried cherry, an apple core, some flour and water, that I carried wrapped in a napkin and stuffed up under my sweater, to keep it warm. I haven’t felt like making bread for a while, but I am going to think about it.

It takes a couple of days to get the starter up and running again. I add as much flour as there is starter, and half as much water. Twelve hours later, I throw half of that away, and repeat the preceding step. When it starts to show a little life, I save the discard in a separate bowl, instead of tossing it. When the starter smells like fresh yeast and is full of life–a web of tiny bubbles that you can see through the side of the jar–it is ready. I add half of what I have (usually about a cup) to whatever is in the discard bowl, along with 2 cups of high quality flour (spelt and a little rye is my favorite mix), a good spill of olive oil around the edges, a rounded teaspoon of salt around the edges, and enough water to make a loose dough. I beat it for a hundred strokes with my hand, and let it rest, covered and in a warm place, until it doubles. I add more flour, not more than about 1/2 a cup, to make a dough that is not at all stiff, but can hold itself together without looking like a milkshake. I move that around the board for a minute, then turn it around and onto itself, to make a ball. I let it rise in the fridge overnight and up to 24 hours. I let it come to room temp, and rise a bit more on an oiled sheet pan, either in a ball shape, or ciacina, a flat-ish round. I make a slash across the top, if it is a ball, and bake it in a 400 degree oven until the bottom sounds hollow.

When you can’t give it up

I was all Visible Eyelashes and Big Hair for the first quarter of giving it up, but if you looked back and couldn’t find me, what happened was, my eyelashes lost their grip. My hair got wet, my team was sleeping, and I dropped the pom pom’s because my hands got busy stripping off the uniform and turning the knob of a hot shower to remove all residue of trying to give it up. I moved from there like drainage, into a pool of exactly where I was and where I wanted to be.

So, I haven’t been that successful.

Then, like taps played too early in the morning: “THERE IS ONLY ONE THING TO DO, AND THAT IS, GET THE WINDOWS AND DOORS OPEN. THIS KIND OF THING HAPPENS ONLY IN THE DARK. LET THE LIGHT IN.” This is the cheerleader talking, because she is goddamned pushy. My son thinks he doesn’t know how I make him feel. I know exactly how I make him feel.

I wish she would shut up and leave me alone, but a week ago, I started marking off the days with a sharpie on the back of a business card, which is the longest I have gone so far. No, I don’t feel better for it, but unfortunately it is has made a difference to count. Tally marks prove I won a distance. Which is what I don’t want, but there it is. And distance gives perspective. Like when they tell you if you can’t get the answer on a test, “Come back to it. Give yourself some distance.” And they are right.

It can come to you.

I am nowhere obvious except not where I was and the cheerleader is on a warpath, playing movies of what used to make me happy. Yesterday I bought a cauliflower. There is nothing so soothing as a velvety cauliflower soup. It gives your hands something to do other than strip down.

Saute an onion, a few legs of celery, a well rinsed leek, a few fresh sage leaves (make sure they hit the bottom of the pot in plenty of fat to prevent them from going black) a few thyme sprigs, a few parsley stems, a peperoncino, two fat garlic cloves with the peels smashed off, in olive oil and butter, with a good pinch of salt and a grind of freshly ground black pepper. The pepper is important in this. Cauliflower needs pepper. Peel and chop a Yukon gold and add that. After five or six minutes, stirring when it sticks, add enough water to cover the potatoes. Bring it to a boil. Add the cauliflower, broken into flowerets. Add more water, to come just below the cauliflower. You can always add more at the very end. Taste the water for salt, and add another stream of olive oil. Cook covered, until the cauliflower and potatoes are tender. Remove the herbs. If you want, tie them with cotton string before you put them in, to make it easier to get out. Let the soup sit for a minute to calm down. Puree in batches in the blender, being careful to remember not to fill the blender more than halfway, each time. Taste again for salt, pepper, and olive oil or butter.

Right or wrong

I am not sure if it is right or wrong that I cook for Ferdinand every night. I don’t care. I love to cook for him. I love getting the message every night asking me if we are going to have dinner. I love hearing his feet on the stairs. I love listening to him talk. I love how he says, “that was really good, Mom, thank you.” Then he bends down to hug me. It feels like seeing the whales or snow falling all around in you in a pine forest.

I remember once when Ferdinand was two, we were on a ferry and my mother was sitting next to me. I was kissing Ferdinand’s cheek and he was kissing mine and we were laughing and my mother said, “that is enough of that.” My mother was not a disciple of kissing and laughing. And if she went to church, you went to church. If she believed, you believed.

In the time it took for me to turn my head from my baby’s cheek to my mother’s eye, something ate my acquiescence. Then it took infinite root like a loose, stubborn weed that grows into a tree from soil that has forever refused to grow you what you want. I turned to her as quiet as the snow and as sure as the sea and said, “you had your babies. Ferdinand is mine.” Right or wrong.

Last week I rolled out tortellini and stuffed them with roasted butternut squash and dressed them with browned butter. I made teeny tiny gnocchi with ragu. Kichri with yellow lentils and rice. A hamburger from ground meat that I get at my favorite butcher down at Essex street market with a side of broiled Yukon golds and another side of garlicky broccoli. Soup of sweet potato, carrot and ginger with a side of a frittata with red peppers and onions. Chicken cutlets with lime and thyme. Side of leftover kichri. Chicken cutlets with panko, chiles, garlic and rosemary. Side of mashed and string beans. Bowls of broth. Bowls of carrot sticks and fennel slivers and cucumber spears. Apples, pears and clementines.


You know what I love about the mini hagan daaz? It has its own mini scoop secured under the lid, so that when it is before the sun comes up and you haven’t memorized where the light switch is in the kitchen yet, you don’t need to bang around looking for a spoon.

what about the pancakes

This is not the first time.

I make pancakes for myself, almost every morning. I have a line of bags of about 8 different flours/grains on a shelf right at eye level on the inside of the fridge door. Today when I got up (it is early, so give me that. Usually about quarter to five.) I opened the fridge door, looked at the bags, saw one that said, “cornmeal,” but I was looking for buckwheat. I went past the cornmeal and picked up the next bag, and read, “dark rye.” I thought, “there is the buckwheat,” and started to make the pancakes. As I was stirring, it didn’t smell like buckwheat. I looked at the bag, which of course told me the truth, again. But the whole truth is, dark rye pancakes aren’t bad, if you give them about a half teaspoon of raw sugar to the mix and some cornmeal. The problem is not the pancakes.

I can have a way of seeing something to be exactly what I want it to be, even when it is not.

But that original thing that always was and always would be what it is, because of the error, transforms for a minute. It becomes something else, something maybe never intended, but worth it. So there is that.

pancakes for one:

Beat an egg with a spill of olive oil and a generous spill of milk. Give it a shot of water from the faucet. Whisk with a fork until it comes together. Add a pinch of salt, a pinch of sugar, and enough baking powder to fill the well in your hand, when you cup it tight. Maybe 1/2 a teaspoon. Pour in what looks like half a cup of whatever flour floats your boat. Whisk that lightly with the fork, just to incorporate. A few lumps are okay. Heat a heavy saute pan with good tab of butter. When the butter starts to sizzle, tip the pan so that it is well slicked. Pour in your batter. I use a 6 inch saute pan and make one large pancake, because I am lazy. The heat should be medium high. When it starts to bubble around the edges (wait for it, or it will take forever to cook in the middle), flip to the other side. When you press gently on the center of the pancake, it should feel like it is springing back.

on the menu

on the job last night:

norwegian gravlax on cornmeal blini with creme fraiche, grated horseradish and scallion
pane nero (chicken liver pate) on crouton with gherkin penny
brined, braised shrimp with lemon and olive oil
zucchini the size of a double decker checker, roasted, then topped with wedge of barely hard boiled egg and one side of a sicilian green olive
single checker radish rounds topped with maldon salt, miniature ruffle of irish butter

first course
farinata (a dosa sort of italian crepe made with chickpea flour, water, salt and olive oil) scattered with slivered sauteed artichokes and ripped roasted shitake

main course
Pappardelle (with polenta added. I figured it out) with braised lamb shank (red wine) pulled off the bone and sauce from pan liquor. with fontina and parm reg

shaved fennel and pea shoots with sea salt, lemon and olive oil topped with oven braised beets (fennel, garlic, fennel seed, lemon, bay leaf, thyme, sugar, balsamic, onion, clove, olive oil)
and tiny wedge of petit billy

chocolate jonty (flourless chocolate cake) with vanilla bean, garnished with creme fraiche chantilly with a side slick of spiced red wine syrup (sugar, clove, star anise and cinnamon stick )and poached oranges (poached in the syrup just til they puff)

What used to be

I was wondering why my thighs ached. I figured it out. It is because what used to be in my heart has moved to my legs, because my heart couldn’t take it.

Like when you are holding a stone platter that somebody’s grandmother brought over on their lap on a ship from some far away country when she was 14 with nothing but a piece of bread in her pocket and that platter and an address, and you drop the platter. You hit something unexpectedly with the edge of your elbow and there is the tiniest slick of grease on your fingers from the pot you have been standing over. And that is it. The platter is on the floor in pieces. Your heart can’t take that. That is why you take it in the legs. Then your legs feel weak, and it is hard to get up from the bed.

There is only so much you can think about that. I get on the train to Essex Street to buy marrow bones and chicken carcasses. I come back home, put them in the deepest pot I have, with water, carrot, celery, onion with a clove stuck in it, garlic, bouquet garni of leek, thyme, parsley and bay leaves tied with kitchen string, three cherry tomatoes, the tiniest shower of salt and a pour of olive oil. I let it simmer for a few hours. I sit there and smell it. Every fifteen or twenty minutes, you have to skim the scum that rises to the top. When it is done, you leave it for a while, just long enough so that it is not too hot to pour through a sieve. I used to throw the bones and tired veg away, but now I pick the meat off, scoop out the marrow with a spoon and float the carrot and celery in a bowl of hot broth.


I am not sure they are worth keeping. It is like carrying all the furniture you have ever lived with.

I will tell one. When you make beef stew, the simmer bubble should gently break the surface of the liquid at a slow and steady pace. Anything rapid and fierce will break apart the pieces of meat in a way that disperses a heavy meaty flavor from their flesh in bits that aren’t quite visible, but are more than the essence of themselves. Think about standing mid thigh in the ocean. You can see the ocean floor. If you stamp your feet, you might still be able to see a small shark that swims by your knees, but there is more than just a cloud of foaming water with a few plankton and minnows making it hard to see. There is heavy stuff now–dirt from the bottom–and if you drank that water, that is what you would taste. Stamping feet on an ocean floor and too high a flame give the same cloud.

Shuck it

I have worked in many restaurants, but never the line. I never had the courage. Cooking is one thing, but cooking and getting it out to a massive crowd who are all ordering on a whim is a whale in a bear suit. (which makes crazy thoughts go through your head like, “why the f…are you ordering a Tbone right now? What about the short ribs? why can’t you have the decency, this one time in your life, to order short ribs?”) Anyway, I was asked to help a friend, and I said yes. When I got there, the chef asked me to shuck oysters. I have never shucked oysters. Not because I don’t have the dice, but because, why would anyone eat a raw gelatinous glob of grey flesh? Not me. The next chef down looked at me and wrote what he was thinking on his forehead. “Fish Tender Grandma. Cardboard box with a captain on it.” It took me three oysters and I was in charge of the raw bar. No one has ever had to wait so long for a plate of oysters. No one. The rest of the table was easily on dessert by the time my plate of half a dozen beauties showed up. Some of them were in tact and some of them were most definitely ripped to shreds with that dull blunt of an ice pick you are meant to do the surgery with, but my hands are without wounds, and everybody ate. If nothing else, I know how to set a goal, no matter what is happening around me. Like some people go for, “my son will win the olympics. I will never yell as a mother.” Quietly, in my head, I tend to go for, “my son will live to see the sun rise. I will remain coherent to witness it.” So, I am so happy that I shucked almost all the oysters I was asked to and tossed a bunch of frites into a fryer (also a first; apparently very popular in haute cuisine) could identify “ile flottante” when it was shouted in my direction, and got floating as directed, all on the plate. The beautiful thing is, I know so deeply, that high end restaurant cooking is not my cooking. I love it, I appreciate it, I will eat it, but it has nothing to do with me. Which makes it possible to show up as the parsley chopper and counter scrubber, the curb hugging bottom of the totem pole with no chops and walk out without a chin scrape. And knowing so much more about raw mollusks than I did when I got there.

The tricks:

There is no drinking or smoking, before or during this. I mean, you can, but not if you want to keep the hand holding the oyster. Make sure you know where your oysters came from. They should have papers to prove it. An oyster knife looks like the kind of short knife you would carry in your inside pocket in case you had to take it to a party and stab somebody with a slow and painful entry. The blade is not sharp. It is like a slender, dull, little dagger. Dampen a kitchen towel and fold it into a square. Hold the knife in your right hand, if you are right handed and set the oyster on the towel with the flat side up and and the narrow end of the oyster pointed to the right. In that nose, there is a line of tight, dark grey flesh. You have got to find that and stick in the oyster dagger, grabbing the dagger with your palm facing your chest. Now wiggle the dagger a bit, holding the left edge of the towel over the oyster for safety. Go slow. Don’t let anyone rush you. Keep your focus. Make sure your dagger is pointed at a forty five angle DOWN; not to the side. Remember you want to keep your hand; for many things, not just shucking oysters. If you are making progress, the tip of the dagger will have made its way into that skinny piece of nearly invisible flesh. Quickly give a flick to your wrist to twist the shell open. Gently. If you go too hard, the shell will flake and crack and all of that mess will get into the pool of oyster liquor that gets thrown down the throat along with the flesh. Don’t throw up yet. Don’t think about that. You have got a job to do. Once your are in, (remember–with just the point of the knife; just enough for entry.) drop the towel. Catch the crack you have got open with your right thumb to hold open just enough to get the flat of the knife between the rest of the two shells so that you can very gently loosen the shells from each other, all the way around their circumference. You want to keep the flat of the knife, scraping against the flat of the top shell, so that you very cleanly and carefully cut the flesh from the top shell without ripping it. Once you feel the flesh has been released, open the shell (the top shell should be completely clean) and hold steady onto the bottom shell that has both the oyster and the liquor in it. Don’t lose a drop of that. Now set the bottom shell onto the towel and with the point of the dagger, carefully loosen the belly of the oyster so that it can slide away when tipped to somebody’s mouth. Keep watching the liquor. Keep it in there. Very carefully inspect the edges for flakes of shell, which can contaminate the whole thing, and wipe any shell bits away from the edges with your clean fingertip. Last and most important step: Smell it. The oyster should smell fresh. It shouldn’t smell weird or suspicious in any way. There should be plenty of liquid and not at all dried up looking. You think that $2 is a lot of money that you spent for that oyster? Think about how much it is going to cost you for an ambulance to take you and your wretching gut to safety.

You did it. Now do what you want with it. At the restaurant they served it with a tiny ramekin of mignonette. Just let a teaspoon of good salt dissolve in 1/4 cup of dry red wine and 1/4 cup of red wine vinegar. Finely chop a small clove of garlic and a small shallot. Bang a sprig of fresh thyme once or twice, and add that with a tablespoon of or two of olive oil and a few good grinds of black pepper. Let it sit for at least twenty minutes and up to overnight. Taste. It should pack a punch.