Don’t Ask ‘What’s Cooking?’

I have written before about being impatient in the kitchen. I want to be one of those breezy hostesses with hundreds of dishes in my repertoire, feasts that I can conjure at an hour’s notice for twelve people. Never mind that most dinner parties I’ve co-hosted have been more party than dinner–I have tremendous expectations for the entertaining I will do in the future.

I have it all planned: You arrive at my small albeit cozy and candle-lit home, greeted by a whoosh of  warm air and a plate full of appetizers. We will tumble into the tiny kitchen that miraculously holds every guest and you’ll settle down at a little table full of fresh bread with spiced oils and fruit and trade animated stories with our friends, laughter tinkling quite merrily, probably. I will float from the pantry to the stove to the fridge, pouring wine with one hand and whisking salad dressing for a bowl of sparkling greens in the other while I pull some impressive beast with roast vegetables from the oven only to turn around and present a lattice-top pie from…where? My bosom? You have no idea, because you’re dazed by my culinary mystique. Dish after fragrant dish materializes in front of us, and once we’ve finally eaten and drunk ourselves into a comfortable haze, we rise from the table to find that someone has already loaded the dishwasher.

Basically, I want my kitchen to look like that scene with the dancing cutlery in Beauty and the Beast. It’s not gonna happen.

Aside from my somewhat flawed expectation that every meal should be a feast (I blame Brian Jacques), I have considerably little experience with kitchen basics. I can chop vegetables, but I don’t really know how. I eat meat, but I don’t prepare it for myself because I don’t trust myself to cook it well. I love the idea of making my own culinary staples, but there are so many that I don’t know where to start. There are plenty of unusual food facts tucked into my brain, but I still have yet to make a decent fried egg. Cooking is neither easy nor pleasant right now; it’s actually sort of infuriating. It’s time to start learning.

This month I’ve endeavored to get better acquainted with the kitchen and the foods I like so that every cooking experience won’t feel like a chore or worse, a disaster. Some of this education has been informal–I made a steak! All by myself! I didn’t think I liked steak!–but for the more serious business I’m turning to the professionals. By the end of October, I’ll know how to wield a knife, bake bread, and brew my own beer. And what more do you need, really?

Lobster for All

I went to Maine and all I can talk about are hot dogs and chicken and dumplings. What’s wrong with this picture?

Lobster, Lindsay. You forgot the lobster.

I didn’t forget the lobster. This is lobster’s year–a warm, early spring caused quite the lobsterpalooza on the Maine coast this summer. The glut was great for tourists and seafood shacks but less so for the lobstermen trying to make a living off the lowest prices in decades. We did the best we could to help; a shack’s sign along the highway announced that their lobsters were “cheaper’n hot dogs!” and we took full advantage.

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Here For A Hot Dog: Maine part 2

I have been rising early enough to be able to tell that fall is beginning to wheedle its way in. Our chilly mornings have some bite to them, and I think hopefully, maybe today I can wear my sweater. Today? But I shed the sweater by 11 am and switch to a tank top by 2.

Napa Valley’s summers are persistent, and at times I love the dusty depth of the early fall heat. There’s no chance I’ll get confused, though. I know my summer is over because I’ve had my Brunswick hot dog.

Empty Cottage. Photo: Luke Myers

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What Happens At BlogHer Food…

…Stays at BlogHer Food.

Jokes, jokes. I’ll share the gossip now that I’ve settled down. I moved out of Portland last week, a two-day drive that felt a little bit like I was playing a live version of the Oregon Trail computer game in reverse. I half-hoped my GPS would narrate the trip for me (“You have crossed Lake Shasta! Weather: Hot. Health: Fair.”) but she wasn’t up for it.

I could have used a bit more of her navigational input on my drive up to Seattle for the conference. I got a late start, and a few hours later found myself zipping down the wrong exit ramp for no reason whatsoever and winding through a Washington suburb trying to find the freeway. But if you’re acquainted with my infamously flawed sense of direction, you know it wouldn’t have been a real trip if I didn’t take at least one unnecessary turn.

Detour aside, I made it to my friend’s home in Kirkland in time for an insane snack before we rounded up the rest of the Leite’s Culinaria posse, who hail from Anchorage to Austin to NYC. Our dinner at Delancey was a highlight, since I had been trying to visit for years and had never had the time or means to make it up there. Over pizza and prosecco (which, uh, had a starring role all weekend), we checked the conference schedule and snapped glamor shots of the food with our phones. All the better to tweet them with, my dears.

Right, so, the tweeting. I was in school for the past eighteen years, where gratuitous use of phones, laptops and otherwise tech-y gizmos was verboten. Not so at BHF, where every table looked like an Apple expo, and I felt like a Luddite with just my phone and ancient laptop. Hell, my phone doesn’t even have Siri. But for the purposes of occasional live-tweeting (not only was this not considered rude, it was useful for keeping track of the various panels and connecting with folks) and sharing photos, it got the job done.

I discovered some important secrets about food bloggers that weekend. First of all, this crowd is cheerful and clique-y–if you haven’t been tweeting, producing content, and commenting on other blogs for a long time, don’t expect to roll with the bigwigs. I saw introductions and smiles fly all weekend, though, and while there are certainly some weird politics deep within the blogging world, people are friendly and eager to meet one another. I did happily take advantage of being part of the E-Leite team (this is funny if you know about my job–oh, come on, it is), but it meant that I spent a lot of time shaking hands and silently reminding myself to “be cool be cool be cool don’t scare the bloggers!”

Second, writers are writers and not public speakers for a reason. I scribbled some amusing notes during the panels I attended, but I got more out of the discussions from conversations I had afterwards. That is not to say that the panels were unsuccessful, but it is clear that discussing the simultaneously personal and public act of blogging, in front of a live audience no less, is tricky no matter what approach you take.

Third, when it comes to food and drink, these people can put it away. It was a pleasure to eat with friends who know Seattle well; our crew made certain that the word “hungry” was not in our vocabulary. We had uproarious meals, all appropriately fueled by plenty of beverages, and mornings found us comparing hangover cures. This is the way I like to live, always tumbling towards the next meal, but by Sunday evening my stomach had announced, “Excuse me–you are not to consume any more charcuterie, cheese, or chocolate milkshakes until I say so.” (We have since reconciled.)

I stayed an extra night in Seattle, in part because I was already feeling sentimental for the Pacific Northwest, but mostly because we had established such a pleasant lifestyle for ourselves in such a short time: Eat, Drink, Tweet, Repeat. I can’t think of a better way to have ended my time in the PNW–I’m starting Phase Two with new blogs to read, new friends to @tweet, and some new writing tools under my belt. Along with a few Top Pot Doughnuts, obviously.

Spiky Supper

Tonight, I wanted a hands-off meal. I wanted dinner to fix itself. I needed to concentrate on packing my bags and composing myself before a very busy weekend at BlogHer Food in Seattle, which, trust me, is more exciting than a free trip to the Academy Awards in my world. Not that I’ve ever been offered such a thing.

But I am going to BlogHer, where I’ll be meeting my boss David Leite (along with many other talented writers and bloggers) in person for the first time, and I am psyched. I have been looking forward to this for months, and I’ve been hitting the blogs hard to see who’ll be in attendance this Friday and Saturday–it seems prudent to brush up on some names and faces before I mingle with a seething mass of food-and-word lovers.

So, I’ve been distracted. This evening I was almost too excited to eat, let alone cook, so when I found a lone artichoke–the most laid-back meal I could imagine, in terms of cooking–in the fridge, I didn’t think twice.

I should have. I’d never cooked an artichoke before. Pssshh, but you just plop it over boiling water and steam it til it’s done! No big deal! A baby could do it! Ha. Ha. Ha.

I nestled the ‘choke in a steamer above a few inches of water, and trotted off to my room, where I intended to watch one episode of something short and frivolous before checking on dinner. I had a vague idea that it would take about 30 minutes to steam an artichoke, but hadn’t even bothered to confirm.

And here is where a good deed that I performed rather grudgingly paid off and saved the day. Earlier this week, I installed a smoke detector in our hallway in order to appease the landlady make our home very safe. We’d had one–well, part of one–stuck on the ceiling for the past eight months, but it lacked batteries and anything resembling a “detector,” and since our house is all of four rooms and a hallway, we were never terribly concerned that we might not notice a fire. I was more intent on avoiding the stink-eye from our landlady when she brought a prospective tenant by, so I went ahead and hooked it UP. The new detector is sleek and subtle, and has a special silencing button that you can hit should your cooking smoke drift a little too far out of the kitchen…

…which is exactly what happened tonight, when a polite but urgent beeping jolted me out of tv-land and back into the world where boiling water will evaporate quickly and old pots will scorch. I wrestled the pot from the clutches of the stove and flipped on the kitchen fan before turning back to that stupid overgrown thistle, which wasn’t even close to tender. After 20 more minutes in a new steam bath and much swearing on my part, the artichoke was good to go–sort of. Perhaps it wasn’t a very good one, or maybe it had just spent a little too long accidentally smoking in its own essence before the heroic rescue, but it made for an extremely underwhelming meal.

I consoled myself with extra garlic butter, and left to meet my friends for a beer.

My mise en place

As soon as I set up this site with the help of my housemate (hi, Sean!), I got an uneasy feeling that we had created a monster. Not because I’m a monster, although if you make me wait too long for breakfast we will have a situation, but because I’m being haunted by the words of Amanda Hesser. Amanda is a well-known food writer and curator of Food52, and recently published an article entitled Advice for Future Food Writers (full text is on their site, here). I read it in April, when I was two weeks away from turning in my undergraduate thesis, and what started as a little pleasure reading for procrastination soon became a full-blown “What am I going to do with my life?!” crisis.

Amanda’s essay can seem grim if you scan it quickly, late at night, and under the influence of way too much caffeine. Her premise is that, as an established author in the rapidly-changing food community, she no longer advises aspiring food writers to start a career focused exclusively on their writing. It simply cannot be done anymore; food publications and their budgets are dwindling and the proliferation of blogs (food and otherwise) has made it harder to stand out as a fledgling writer. These observations made perfect sense to me and confirmed some of my suspicions about the state of food blogging, but after my first brief read-through of the article I felt queasy and a little angry. I’ve only wanted to be a Saveur contributor since I was oh, 9 years old.

However, I regard the food writing community as I do a crowded kitchen: when someone who knows what they’re talking about pipes up, you get out of the way and listen. Amanda Hesser has never let me down culinarily and her own publications are impressive, so it seemed only right to give her article a more studied read. As it turns out, it doesn’t really warrant all the hand-wringing and sighing on my part and Amanda is not out to squash my dreams after all, so I can blame my earlier hysteria on thesis-related madness. Advice for Future Food Writers concludes with a list of Amanda’s new recommendations, and the future is starting to smell a lot riper (in a fresh nectarine kind of way, not a Limburger cheese way). My takeaway from the article is that it is most important to get busy collecting experiences with food whether you’re growing it, preparing it, selling it, or writing about it.  Then you’ll build yourself a nice foundation in the food world and contribute to what is already an amazing community.

This is happy news for me, since I never wanted to spend the rest of my life typing away at a keyboard anyhow. Now that I’ve been kicked out of my nest of academia (okay, true confession time: I am pretty damn sore about having graduated–my precious college years, where did they go?!–and I miss my thesis every single day), I have to consider what I want to do next and how I’m going to do it, which brings me to the mise en place.

Mise en place is a culinary term that refers to the careful organization of ingredients and equipment before cooking begins. You’ve surely seen the pictures on various blogs: spoons just so, carrots scrubbed and peeled, minced garlic heaped in a tiny bowl, ready to be sauteed. Mise photos on cooking sites are my favorites, because they often include ingredients that I’d otherwise forget (oh hey, bay leaf), and I think the components of a meal before they are incorporated into the whole are always gorgeous. I love the concept of the preparation but in my own world, I struggle with the actual execution.

Here’s what happens when I try to assemble a mise en place: I have to wash a bunch of dishes first, knowing that I will only have to wash them again once more when I’m through cooking (we do it old-school in my mint-green Portland kitchen, with soap and a sponge). It does not make for a cheerful start. Then I have to chop, measure, and pour my ingredients into their respective bowls. Now, okay, I went to a Montessori school. I should have learned to chop, measure, and pour before I could spell my own name, but somehow that early tactile education did not transfer to my experiences in the kitchen. I spill. A lot. No two slices come out the same size, and I’m too terribly impatient to measure accurately (yes, this is my own fault). So let’s recap: I’m trying to put this recipe together, my hands are still kinda soapy, I’ve dropped food on the floor and down that infuriating, unreachable crevice between the stove and the sink, I’m getting hungry, and I’ve probably forgotten something. There is nothing about this process that says to me, “Keep going, girl! Don’t give up and order a pizza instead!” If I practiced, had more patience and a larger kitchen, I might have better luck with the mise en place and wouldn’t be such a haphazard cook, but what really concerns me is the way I fail to carry out those plans.

When it’s a recipe, that’s one thing. I really can just order a pizza or have cereal for dinner if a dish gets irreparably ruined. But there is something a little more sinister about the idea of having a mise en place for my life as a well-rounded Future Food Writer. I love to make plans. I live for lists (both To-Do and Pro/Con), and I like to know where I’m going, when I’m going there, and who I’m going to meet. I would love to have a mise for the next few years, to have all the ingredients for my life in one place, so I could start putting plans into effect and stop wondering, “What should I do next?” Lately it’s becoming clear that all of my imaginary plans, the “Well, what if I worked on a farm first and then tried to do some catering and then moved to Europe and then went back to school?” ideas, are becoming a hindrance to any real action on my part, but I fear that if I don’t plan, whatever I do next will be as messy as my meals.

It has been a very long time since I’ve been left to my own devices without school assignments or social commitments, so I’m easing into a freakishly free world. Yes, I would like to set up that mise en place with some rock-solid plans, but having already seen what happens when I try that with food, I’ve started to wonder if perhaps it might be time for some improvisation.

You say "ice cream," I say "research."