Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Radishes: a recommendation

Or, Radishes: a recollection

I can’t remember, really, if it was the first time I’d ever had the simple snack, but it’s certainly my most vivid memory of raw radishes and coarse sea salt. It was at Mike’s house, over a year ago, I think, it had to be over a year ago because I was still sleeping on Emily’s couch at the time, so that dates it to be, oh, sometime in February 2008. It was one night Mike invited me and that new character, Bennett, to his place after work. Steve was away, somewhere in Africa, and we could be as loud and raucous as we wanted. It had been ages since Mike invited me over after work. I said yes.

I'd been loud and raucous with Mike before, but that was always somewhere else: a bar, or Kate's house, or behind the dishwasher at work. Never at his house, though, and the Night of the Radishes was no exception. Mike, so magnetically verbose and brazen with the bottle in so many places, would transform into the calmest, most patient of drinking partners in his own home. Instead of breaking out the leftover gin from his and Steve's annual Christmas party, he gave us each a bottle of beer, which we each sipped prudently, me following Mike's lead, Bennett, I'm sure, following mine.

He also set out, by way of classic (and classy) good hosting, a bowl of raw radishes, freshly rinsed, with their tiny green tops sliced off, revealing a startling white below the red skin. Along with the radishes came a small bowl of coarse sea salt, nothing more, nothing less. Mike sat down, opened his bottle of Sam Adams, and began to ask questions.

My love for Mike comes in many ways, one of which is the way he can, painlessly and effortlessly, extract deeply personal information from strangers within a matter of minutes. The first time I met him, after ten minutes of conversation, he found out: how and why I dropped out of college two years before, what I'd done in the meantime, how much therapy I'd gone through, and if I was on any medication. I dismissed that last part with my right hand: "Oh, god," I said, "I prefer to self-medicate." Mike and I became great friends, very fast.

The Night of the Radishes, I think, was simply a chance to spend some quality time together. It had been a long time, and there is something special about sharing a drink together after work, no matter what line of work you're in. It also provided a good opportunity for Mike to exercise his people-probing skills. As the three of us dipped radishes into salt, Mike asked Bennett question after question, and I learned many new things about this new boy I was newly dating. Between crunchy bites, Bennett explained that eventually he would like to work as an actor (!), and that his move from Tallahassee to DC was only a stepping stone to New York City (!!). I remember being very quiet that night, and Mike, too, normally so brilliantly voluble, spoke little more than phrases ending in question marks.

Bennett and I took a cab back to Crystal City that night, to his place just outside the District. (Emily's couch, poor thing, would have to bear the night without me.) As we passed the monuments, just before merging onto 395, I told Bennett, "I'm sorry if Mike was bothering you with his questions. I always find him so impressive, how he gets answers out of people, but I can understand if it makes you uncomfortable."

He looked at me, and said frankly, "I didn't mind. I figured there were a lot of things you didn't know about me, either, and this was a way you could find out."

It's funny, to me, to think about what people remember, and what they forget. And how they remember. For instance: I remember moving from Mike's kitchen table, a few radishes left forlornly at its center, to his living room. Bennett and I sat on the couch, one cushion seat apart, and Mike sat on a chair to my left. Do we all remember this setting? Does Bennett remember being to my right? How did we look to Mike, our awkward pairing, still a little shy with public affection? (How did I not know he wanted to be an actor?)

Two night ago, I put out a platter of raw radishes and coarse salt. It was immensely pleasurable, the rinsing and slicing and casual arranging on the wooden cutting board. When Bennett came home, he saw them and smiled. It was one of those Oh Do You Remember? moments, a happy bubble of collective memory. I think, for some small reason, the Night of the Radishes was very big for Bennett and me. And I think, for no small reason, that Mike knew exactly what he was doing.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The making of your crepes

What is it, really, that makes your boyfriend’s sweater feel warmer? It’s made up of the same stuff as yours is, or so says the tag. Just cotton, and the fine handiwork of someone from Hong Kong. But there is something distinctly different about wearing that big brown sweater of his, as opposed to any of your own.

There is an intangible comfort to this cotton. Sure, someone points out, the act of wearing your boyfriend’s clothing could be analyzed as within a certain gender-role paradigm. That his lending it to you is a symbol of his being a good provider, a man taking care of his woman. That a heavy sweater could be taken even more literally, as a physical representation of bodily protection. That often, in heterosexual couples, men have bigger builds than women do, that body size has been traditionally associated with strength, and that by donning your boyfriend’s sweater is to revel in this inequity of size, a subtle act of submission.

Oh, maybe, but there’s more to it than that. There is the point where the tangible and the intangible meet up. There is, oh please take, for example: the length of its sleeves. The ends of each arm reach the middle of your thumb, and they make for a convenient guard against, say, the heat of the handle of your crepe pan. This built-in mitt means the making of your crepes go so much more smoothly, more serenely, than when having to reach for a kitchen towel every two minutes. “The making of your crepes” – it’s such a solitary, easy pleasure. There is nothing, really, that could beat this warmth – in front of your stove, in ripped jeans and socked feet, and your boyfriend’s sweater.

Crepes with Spinach, Mushrooms, Thyme and Avgolemono Sauce

I really enjoy this dish. There is quite a number of steps, but they are not difficult, and it’s a true pleasure to watch as the pieces come together. The dark earthy green of the spinach is complemented, both on the plate and on the palate, by the bright lemon tang of the avgolemono sauce. (The real key for the latter being a very good chicken broth – there are only three ingredients, and its flavor plays a key part in the success of the sauce.)


1/2 cup flour

2 eggs, beaten

1 tablespoon melted butter

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons milk

melted butter, for cooking


1 small onion, chopped

3 garlic cloves, chopped

2 tablespoons butter, separated

1 tablespoon flour

1/2 cup milk

1 teaspoon nutmeg

1 teaspoon dried thyme

10 ounces frozen spinach, de-thawed and drained

8 ounces white mushrooms, cleaned and thinly sliced

handful of flat-leaf parsley, chopped


1/3 cup chicken broth

1 large egg

1/8 cup lemon juice

For the crepes:

Whisk together all ingredients to form a smooth, thin batter. Let the batter rest, for at least thirty minutes, before cooking the crepes. (This would be a good time, say, to chop the onions, garlic, and mushrooms for the filling.)

Heat a small skillet over medium heat; when hot, brush lightly with butter. Pour about ¼ cup of batter into the pan. Pick up pan, and give it a good circular tilt, so that the batter coats the bottom evenly. Cook until golden brown on bottom – that is, until the top begins to look dry, about one or two minutes. Carefully turn crepe over (I use my fingers; once the bottom has set, it’s actually easier to flip than a breakfast pancake) and cook the second side until the bottom colors lightly, about thirty seconds. Transfer to a plate, and repeat with the remaining batter.

I usually get eight crepes out of these proportions. Don’t lose heart if the first crepe doesn’t turn out right – it’s just a matter of learning just the right heat, and just how much batter you should use. In fact, it’s kind of a bonus if the first crepe is botched. It makes a nice, chewy snack while you work on the rest.

For the filling:

In the same pan, cook the onion and garlic over moderately low heat, stirring until softened. Add the flour, and cook, stirring, so that it evenly coats the garlic and onions.

Adding the milk to the pan in a stream, cooking and stirring continuously until the mixture has thickened. I like to do this a few tablespoons at a time, adding more milk as the sauce becomes thick. Stir in the nutmeg, thyme, a little salt, and some freshly ground pepper. Add the spinach and mushrooms, and cook until heated through.

Keep the filling warm while you prepare the sauce, which comes together quickly. I kept the crepes and the filling, separately, in a low oven.

For the sauce:

In a small saucepan, bring the broth to a boil.

In a small bowl, whisk the egg and juice together. Once the broth is heated, add half of it to the eggs, in a thin stream, whisking constantly. Whisk this mixture into the remaining broth on the stove.

Heat the sauce until thickened slightly, but be careful not to let it boil. The idea is that the heat only thickens, not cooks the egg. Once the sauce has thickened a bit, add salt and pepper to taste.

Assemble crepes by putting a few heaping spoonfuls of filling into the crepes. Last night, this made for four very stuffed crepes. I think these proportions could easily stretch to six crepes, which makes for three lemony-spinachy-mushroomy crepes each for two happy people.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The little pasta that could

I've become rather adept at cooking while drunk. In fact, I'd say, it's actually making me a better chef.

This may sound disconcerting, I'm sure, especially to my mother, the only known reader of this blog -- but (but!) I promise, it's all in good fun. I've long been a fan of drinking, and eating, and eating after I've drunk. Usually, I'm simply game for a slice of greasy pizza, but if I'm a fan of cooking, as well, why pick up a phone when I could put a pot on the stove?

I think the thing about cooking when drunk is that the process becomes more casual. Sure, your spontaneous potato-bacon-egg-cheese-pasta-rice-more-cheese hash may not work, but you're drunk, so who cares? Put some hot sauce on, and it'll probably taste good. And sometimes, just sometimes, you stumble onto little miracles: take, for instance, the example of making Kraft Mac n Cheese, when already committed (the pasta has been dumped in boiling water) you realize you are out of milk, so what are you going to mix that powdered cheese with? You search through your fridge, and come up with some heavy cream -- so you throw in an extra knob or two of butter, and a few tablespoons of HC (called "crema de leche" here, though I've yet to find where else cream comes from), something you'd be too wimpy to do if you didn't have some whiskey in you. You mix up some of the brighest orange macaroni and cheese you've ever seen, which proves to be some of the richest you've ever eaten. (You think back to your youth, when the color of garishly neon orange never steered you wrong: Cheetos, Fanta, candy corn.)

This recipe comes from last Saturday night, when I admittedly did try to order a pizza, but the place had stopped delivering. I didn't want to go out, but I didn't want to go to bed hungry, either, so that meant I had to make something myself. Bennett was already in bed, so that meant I could experiment as I wanted -- there was a bag of peas in the freezer, for instance, and while the boy will eat, with gusto, anything I make, I'm still hesitant to force peas upon anyone who doesn't like them. There was a recipe, more a suggestion of ingredients, really, in Comer y Pasarla Bien (that shiny Narda Lepes cookbook), that I'd been eying for quite some time. It's simply a mixture of cooked municiones (munition pasta!), frozen peas, cheese, salt and pepper. The little pasta are the perfect backdrop, providing a comforting chew, and the peas give just the sweetest bite to each spoonful. The cheese (and what little there is of it, really) pulls everything together happily. The result is incredibly creamy, intensely satisfying -- one of those more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts dishes.

And please note: I made it the next day, completely sober, and enjoyed it just as much. I think it's going to be one of my faithful pantry staple plates.

Creamy peas and little tiny pasta

Two things: first, as made obvious, I'm sure, I'm not familiar with the English name of the pasta used -- it's municiones in Spanish, which translates to ammunitions. They are very, very tiny little bullets, these guys, smaller than ditalini.

Second, I give the ingredients and approximate measurements I used, but really, this is a very flexible recipe. For instance, you could make this dish more elegant by using creme fraiche, fresh buffalo mozzarella, fresh peas, and so on. I liked it very much with what I had, which was very basic. I suppose that's what makes it so lovely.

1 cup tiny little pasta
1 cup frozen peas
1 ounce mozzarella
2 tablespoons sour cream
salt and pepper, to taste

Bring a not-very-large pot of salted water to boil. While the water's heating up, cut up the mozerella. I cut mine (appropriately) into pea-sized pieces.

Once the water is boiling, add the pasta and cook according to package directions (mine needed five minutes). When three minutes of cooking time remain, add in the frozen peas. Drain, reserving just a little bit of the water.

Put the pot back on the still-warm burner. Add in the reserved cooking water and chopped mozzarella. The cheese will look like little bits of butter, at first, against the pasta and the peas, which is quite visually exciting. Then it begins to melt, and pull apart stringily, which is even more exciting. Stir vigorously, to make sure the cheese breaks up and sticks to the pasta and peas more or less evenly. Add sour cream, and salt and pepper to taste.

Friday, September 25, 2009

A veritable bounty

Or, What Happens When Jolan Visits Chinatown

For all my love of Argentine food, I have some beef (groan) with food shopping here. Perhaps it's because I'm spoiled, coming from the States, where even the average supermarket has its International aisle, replete with hot sauces, fish sauces, interesting juices, and even more interesting oils. While such International fare can be found in Buenos Aires, it takes more than simply schlepping off to the nearest Giant.

Enter el barrio chino, aka Chinatown. The city's Chinatown isn't much more than a few blocks, but it bustles with various Asian restaurants, specialty stores, and inexpensive kitsch shops. My favorite place to visit in the neighborhood is Casa China, a three-room market packed full of all sorts of fun imported foods. Need rice flour? Go to Chinatown. Need hot bean sauce? Go to Chinatown. Canned chestnuts? Fresh dill? Philadelphia cream cheese? It's all there, waiting patiently, in Chinatown.

I can spend hours walking up and down the food aisles at Casa China. I actually have to limit myself to a certain amount of pesos in my wallet before I leave the house, because otherwise I would spend way too much on that fancy bottle of pickled peppers from Patagonia, and we would be left eating nothing but rice flavored with expensive hot sauce for the rest of the week.

I kept myself to buying just a few ingredients necessary for tom kha gai, a Thai soup that is a favorite in our humble household. That meant: fresh lemongrass, cilantro, ginger, mushrooms, fish sauce, and coconut milk. I also got excited and bought two hot sauces and dende oil, the latter being such a sexy thing, all bright orange and Brazilian and promising all sorts of fun experimenting this week.

I do recommend making the Thai soup -- it is easy, healthy, and incredibly tasty. It does require a hefty amount of ingredients that tend not to be pantry staples, but once you buy the basics (red curry paste, fish sauce), the majority of cost has been borne (and those ingredients are wonderful in so many other things). If you're missing a thing or two, don't let that put you off. I've made this soup at times without lemongrass, or without ginger, or without fish sauce, and while it may miss a certain depth of flavor, it's still very bright, and very spicy. And if you're just around the corner of your International aisle, why not check it out?

Thai soup (tom kha gai)

My version of this soup is adapted from Cook's Illustrated, where they originally stipulated adding chicken breast along with the mushrooms. Pork works wonderfully, too, I'm sure, but I think I prefer this (almost) vegetarian, made a substantial meal when served over hot white rice.

1 teaspoon vegetable oil
3 stalks lemongrass, tough outer leaves removed, cut into 2-inch long pieces, and sliced thin lengthwise
2 shallots, chopped
a small knob of fresh ginger, sliced thickly
a handful of chopped cilantro leaves
2 tablespoons fish sauce, separated
2 cups chicken broth
1 can coconut milk
2 teaspoons sugar
1/4 pound white mushrooms, cleaned and sliced into 1/4-inch pieces
juice from 1 lime
1 1/2 tablespoon Thai red curry paste

optional garnishes:
one serrano chili, seeds removed and sliced very thin
one scallion or green onion, sliced thin
another handful of fresh cilantro, chopped

In a large saucepan, heat the vegetable oil over medium heat until just simmering. Add the lemongrass, shallots, ginger, cilantro, and one tablespoon fish sauce. Cook until the vegetables are just softened, a little less than five minutes -- you don't want them to brown. Stir in the chicken broth, and half the can of coconut milk. Bring everything up to a simmer over high heat; cover, reduce heat to low, and let the pot simmer until the flavors have combined well, about ten minutes.

With a fine-mesh strainer or slotted spoon, strain the solid aromatics from the liquid, reserving the liquid and discarding the solids. Return the liquid to the saucepan.

Return the mixture to medium-high heat, stirring in the remaining coconut milk and the sugar. Bring to a simmer. Add the sliced mushrooms, and cook until they are just tender, about three minutes. Remove the soup from heat.

Combine the Thai curry paste with lime juice, and the remaining tablespoon of fish sauce. Add most of this mixture to the soup -- it's what gives the broth its spicy heat. I tend to like mine very spicy, which is why I recommend only adding a portion to the main pot, and to set out the remaining curry at the table.

(The spiciness of the curry paste can be easily adjusted: a higher proportion of lime juice to curry will thin out the paste, and make it a bit gentler on the palate.)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Sanded snow

It took me quite some time to think of a proper name for this blog -- I'm terrible at naming my creative writing (as exemplified by the stark naked titles in my "Writing, etc" file folder). When I decided I was finally ready to really start working on this project, I asked my friend Lauren for some ideas on names. While I didn't go with any of her suggestions, I think they are funny, and certainly deserving of some online attention. I told her:

Also... I'm trying to start a blog, if not as a road to Fame and Fortune, so much as a way to keep myself writing every day, but I can't think of a good name for it. Something food related, perhaps literary. You're always so clever with things like that. Any suggestions?

And she replied:

i am really into the job you gave me. when i am on the subway i try to think of good blog names. I don't really know what blog names are like which might put me at a disadvantage. i keep thinking of food and literary ones but then i dont want your million readers to think it is a daily thread about that. This is what I have come up with so far:
Over Easy
Fresh Out of the Oven
Shitake Scout
Jolan and the Giant Truffle
I Say Nah BA Kahv You Say Tomato
Poached Prose
Major Major Major Blog

Not going with "Major Major Major Blog" was hard, and perhaps the only reason I didn't pick "I Say Na BA Kahv You Say Tomato" was that I don't say Na BA Kahv. I say NA Ba Kahv, which is wrong, I know, but I figure he's not going to correct me.

I did, however, go with something from him, from one of my favorite pieces of food writing -- from a man who was not, by any means, a food writer.


from Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, Vladimir Nabokov

Van drank a glass of milk and suddenly felt such a wave of delicious exhaustion invading his limbs that he thought he'd go straight to bed. "Tant pis," said Ada, reaching voraciously for the keks (English fruit cake). "Hammock?" she inquired; but tottering Van shook his head, and having kissed Marina's melancholy hand, retired.

"Tant pis," repeated Ada, and with invincible appetite started to smear butter all over the yolk-tinted rough surface and rich incrustations -- raisins, angelica, candied cherry, cedrat -- of a thick slice of cake.

Mlle Larivière, who was following Ada's movements with awe and disgust, said:

"Je rêve. Il n'est pas possible qu'on mette du beurre par-dessus toute cette pâte britannique, masse indigeste et immonde."

"Et ce n'est que la premi
ère tranche," said Ada.

"Do you want a sprinkle of cinnamon on your lait caillé?" asked Marina. "You know, Belle," (turning to Mlle
Larivière), "she used to call it 'sanded snow' when she was a baby."

"She never was a baby," said Belle emphatically. "She could break the back of her pony before she could walk."

"I wonder," asked Marina, "how many miles you rode to have our athlete drained so thoroughly."

"Only seven," said Ada with a munch smile.


For those of you who are not fluent in French, as I am not, the following translations come from Vivian Darkbloom's notes:

tant pis: too bad.

rêve etc.: I must be dreaming. It cannot be that anyone should spread butter on top of all that indigestible and vile British dough.

et ce n'est que etc.: and it is only the first slice.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Empanadas with morcilla and apple

Or, Vampire Pies!

There aren't many foods I don't like. They include, in no particular order: cauliflower, black licorice, pears, some offal (intestines, stomach), veal, well-done hamburgers. For the most part, I don't like not liking these foods. (Except the veal. I figure, if there is some sort of giant cosmic food balancing scale, my unnatural love for foie gras is weighed out by the fact that I don't eat veal.)

The list used to be longer. I used to hate avocado, mayonnaise, sweetbreads, cabbage, blue cheese. But I dislike self-limiting myself in the food world, and I try foods from the Don’t Like list every so often. And I’ve come to love many of my previously hated foods. Sometimes the love came slowly: mayonnaise, for instance, came in slow increments of the faintest smearing on a slice of toast, topped with a lot of turkey and bacon (the avocado would come later). I’m still careful with the stuff today, and those giant, industrial-sized plastic jars of the jiggly goo continue to weird me out. Other times, the love was like an epiphany: avocado (I told you it would come later) happened towards the end of a long trip in Guatemala, in a secluded town on a volcanic lake. With little cash left, my friend Lauren and I simply stocked up on Cokes, stale bread, and fresh avocados – smaller than ones I’d been used to in the States, these fruit had giant pits and sweeter flesh. We would sit on a quiet dock by the lake, and sandwich the avocado's tender green meat in between packaged hamburger buns. That was our diet for three days, and I came back home a convert.

The list also used to include morcilla, also known as blood sausage. Morcilla, as I am familiar with it in Argentina, is a dark black sausage, less spicy and more soft than its more popular cousin, chorizo. Morcilla is available in many of the restaurants down here, and is a staple of any asado – that is, a barbeque, Argentine-style. I’d tried it various times, in various places, but was always disappointed by the bland flesh, and the weird white parts (that is, the fats) that I was left chewing last.

But. But! Just two weeks ago, Bennett went to an asado. He hung out with our friend Augustin, the asador (that is, the guy doing the roasting), drinking beer and talking, and occasionally being handed a bite-sized piece of meat from the grill. Bennett hadn’t been much of a blood sausage fan either, but this time the morcilla, he told me later, was great.

“Really?” I asked. “Was it a different kind, do you think?”

“No,” he said, “it looked the same. But Augustin gave me little pieces to eat as it grilled. I got to try it when it was barely cooked. It had a different texture than normal – it was kind of like a pâté.”

Aha! An epiphany! Maybe my dislike of morcilla wasn’t so much the taste, as the texture. The following week, we bought a pack of blood sausage and grilled them at home. Barely warmed through, they were soft, with a creamy filling. The sensation was completely different, and wholly enjoyable. They were, though, extremely rich, and hearty eaters though we are, had a link and half left over.

Not long ago, I’d come across a recipe for morcilla in a recently purchased, shiny new cookbook, and decided now was the perfect time to try it out. Narda Lepes, author of Comer y Pasarla Bien (my poor translation: Eating and Doing It Well), has a recipe for bite-sized focaccias, topped with morcilla and apple. Last night, I tweaked and twisted the recipe, to fit what was in our pantry (no mint) and formatted to what I like (not so crazy about pine nuts). I made empanadas, instead of focaccia, using store-bought dough. The results were small, golden puffs, whose flaky layers gave into a thick, rich filling. We ate them as we drank a bottle of white wine and watched La Suerte Está Echada (The Die Is Cast). I’d recommend doing as many things out of that sentence as you can.

Empanadas with morcilla and apple

(A quick note: the following amounts make a filling enough for eight or so nicely stuffed empanadas. Between two people, they make a large appetizer, or could also work for a light meal, followed by some simply dressed greens.)

1 Tb. olive oil
¼ onion, diced
½ apple, peeled and diced into small cubes
150 g. morcilla (a link or two, depending on size)
1 garlic clove, diced
flat-leaf parsley, chopped
packaged empanada rounds

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

In a small saute pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, stirring frequently, for a couple of minutes. Add in the apple, and cook the two together for eight to ten minutes. Neither the onions nor the apples should brown – you want the heat to release their flavors, and mellow their crunch, not cook them too much. Remove them from the heat.

Making a shallow slit down the length of the sausage, peel off its skin. Chop the morcilla into smallish pieces. (In her recipe, Narda says to pull out all the little white parts from the inside, leaving only the cooked blood. I’m sure this has much to do with texture, more than taste. Hers are open-faced bites, designed for an elegant party; mine were closed, meant to be eaten on the couch, in the dark. I tried taking them apart as such for a few minutes, then got frustrated and left the majority of the white parts in. The empanadas were still delicious.)

Mix the onion and apple with the garlic, parsley, and salt and pepper to taste. Add in the sausage. Make a little assembly line: empanada rounds, filling, tray. Put a heaping tablespoon or two in the middle of each round of empanada dough, and fold into a half-moon, making sure that the empanada sealed well. (Oven-baked empanadas, I’ve found, though, are much easier to keep closed than fried ones.)

Once the empanadas are formed, bake them in the oven for about fifteen minutes. They are ready when puffed and golden.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The basics

Or, In Praise of the Yolk

I've never been much of a breakfast eater. When I was younger, much younger, mornings before school usually started out with me being called two, three, four times from bed by my father. When I finally did rouse myself, the kitchen counter would already be set with a box of cereal (the kind with little to no sugar; I had very strict parents in this regard), an empty bowl, and a carton of milk. The routine was simple, functional. My father moved about the kitchen, making coffee for himself and my mother, and making lunch for me. I crunched quietly, reading the cereal box, solving the same puzzles over and over, day after day.

You can imagine, I didn't develop any strong sentiments for weekday breakfasts. (Weekends were another story: bacon and pancakes and lots and lots of syrup, all my early-morning sugar deprivation accumulated the previous five days bursting, finally, in bright brass.) As I grew older, heading into high school and then college, early-morning fare became even more sparse -- just a banana here, maybe a bagel there, but usually I was running on empty, so to speak, until lunch.

This isn't necessarily a Bad Thing, I think, though you will most often hear otherwise from people who are, well, much wiser than me. I, however, do believe that feeding yourself is more than following a strict, Three Meals A Day regimen. It's about learning to listen to your body, about understanding when you need nourishment, and just how much. I find I am most satisfied when eating when on just the brink of hunger, and stopping when just on the brink of being full. This brings me back to breakfast: when skipping breakfast, I wasn't necessarily listening to what my body wanted, or needed. I was too busy, or too silly, to feed myself. Lunch then was often out of desperation, not pleasure. Two meals a day (out of however many you find you like to have), wasted!

Lately, I have come to learn the importance of the basics. The basics of cooking, of creating nourishment from nothing pre-wrapped, pre-packaged, pre-preserved. (Though things of that manner can be so wonderful, too, in their proper places.) The basics of starting off my day with something so simple, its elegance is easily overlooked: the soft runny gold of a soft-boiled egg yolk.

I'm not sure if it's that I'm here, in Argentina, learning to love the morning perfection that is a soft-boiled egg on toast, or if the difference really is tangible, but: I have never seen egg yolks so golden. I buy my eggs, in packs of six wrapped in newspaper, from the butcher (Luis!) down the block. I'd like to think they are eggs from organic, free-range, happy chickens who do nothing but eat golden grain and chatter to one another all day, but really, I have no idea where these eggs come from. (Another often-cited, and reasonably so, Bad Thing.) Maybe one day I'll ask Luis. In the meantime, I am happy to buy my little treasures from him as they are, room temperature, as all the eggs are here in this country -- something natural and reminiscent of farm freshness, which I smile over as I stick them in the back of my refrigerator.

Which leads me to my boiling technique: I've seen the magic number for the perfect soft-boiled egg in many places. Four minutes in boiling water. Such a precise time frame kind of freaks me out, when it comes to something as simple as an egg. What I do, then, is take four cold eggs from the fridge (two for me, two for B), put them in my saucepan, fill the pan with cold water just above the level of the eggs, and put it over medium-high heat. I put on water for tea, and pull out the toaster. I put a few slices of bread in to toast, get out the pale ceramic cups, and three bowls. Bennett sets the table with spoons and salt and pepper, and takes the bread out of the toaster. I pour hot water into our cups, and bring our tea to the table. About this time, maybe ten minutes, the water for the eggs has become hot and bothered -- not quite breaking the surface with big bubbles, but small globes cling to the sides of the pan and the eggs, and a few escape to fresh air. I turn off the stove, drain the hot water from the pan, add cold, swish it around to stop the eggs from cooking and make the handling of them much more pleasant. These are placed in a bowl, next to ours. We sit down and delve in.

A quiet often settles in, as our spoons crack the shells. I like to hit mine right in the middle, the egg's little equator. This affords me equal pleasure at scooping out the barely-cooked whites from each side. Dropped on toast, sprinkled with a bit of salt and pepper, a soft-boiled egg is such a happy pleasure. The first time we made soft-boiled eggs together for breakfast, halfway through eating, Bennett said, "We forgot the butter!", and then, shaking his head and running his finger along the yellow yolk in his bowl, and bringing the finger to his lips, "But, they don't really need it, do they?"

You've got to admit (even if you do like butter with your breakfast), that's a pretty good way of summing up an egg.

And the next best thing (not next-best as in second-best, but as in "coming up next") is that this is the type of meal that will sustain you all throughout your weekday morning, through phone calls and faxes and city blocks and coughing buses, until you decide, at your leisure (because that is so rare, on weekdays), when and what you would like to have for lunch.

Very basic, indeed.

Monday, September 21, 2009

An introduction

An old joke that I used to use to describe myself: "I spend time knitting scarves I never finish, writing short stories I'll never publish, and looking through cookbooks, but always ordering a pizza, instead."

Well, I've given up knitting*, but I've graduated to cooking – and cooking a lot. Sometimes I cook strictly following recipes from cookbooks, and sometimes I cook new recipes simply inspired by the instructions. Sometimes I cook with inspiration and skill, using ideas and techniques (seemingly) all my own, and the end product is a beautiful representation of all the excitement and energy put into it – and sometimes, after all of that, we still need to order a pizza. But that's okay. I love learning, and I love pizza.

About four months ago, my boyfriend and I moved from Washington, DC to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Back in the States, I had a good job in a great restaurant. I was a server, which meant I was around delicious food all the time, but never involved in the making of it. It also meant that, as I worked most nights early into the morning, I rarely had the opportunity, or energy, to cook as I'd like at home. Quitting my job and moving to another country has afforded me the time and space to cook to my heart's content. It's been incredibly special, and absolutely necessary.

The next step, then, is to chronicle the cooking – mainly, I admit, to practice the writing. I have been, I suppose, like many others: with a skill and love for the written language, equaled only by the strong and ugly forces of arrogance and laziness. It’s only after receiving a few rejection letters for the few short stories recently sent out that I realize that I really, really need to practice writing. It’s not so much enforcing a chore so much as establishing a routine, a sunny structure to my already sunny days. And what better way to begin than amidst the smell of pumpkin bread baking in the oven?**

Not only am I learning just how to do what I love, but what it is I love to do the most. Most nights, Bennett (the boyfriend mentioned in the previously previous paragraph, and alluded to in the paragraph before that) and I will make dinner, have a digestif, and settle down to watch a movie we'd rented earlier, passing a plate of fruit back and forth between the two of us. It's a sweet life, and I'd like to share it.


**More on that doughy treat later.