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?

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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It has crossed my mind that I may be too selfish to write about the Maine coast in August. I don’t want to reveal my secret hideaway.

Sunset. Photo: Luke Myers

I could warn you that the mosquitos are fierce this year, high-pitched specks of pure evil, and that the humidity is akin to being licked by an enormous, overheated St. Bernard. There are deer flies and sharp barnacles, and they say that somewhere out there a lost shark is roaming around the harbors looking for lunch. Continue reading

Rock and R-Old Fashioned

Please head over to your nearest music listening device. Anything will do, as long as it’s loud, although today a record player would be best if you can wrangle it.

Please call up the Rolling Stones and hit ‘play’. If you can’t do that, I don’t really know how to help you. I’m afraid you better move on.

Because today is a very, very important day that calls for a special soundtrack. I can’t be in Portland this morning, but that won’t stop me from wishing a certain Nikki G. a most excellent 22nd birthday in the next best way.

Graduation from Reed College, May 2012

Nikki and I both drew semi-unfortunate housing lots before our sophomore year of college, I as a House Adviser, she as one of my “dormies”. We should have at least heard of each other before then, but even at our very small college, we managed to live on opposite sides of campus, have none of the same classes, and ignore each other in the dining hall (I did find out later that Nikki was the very-harried chemistry lab partner to another of my best friends, so our eventual friendship was inevitable). We were fated to live on the basement floor of the dingiest dorm on campus (“You’ll brighten up the halls,” they said. “We need you down there,” they said.) where nobody lived after freshman year  unless they were inclined to join any of the eccentric theme floors in the building or had a terrible lottery number. In Nikki’s case, she’d settled for the tiny room with the stuck windows because she would only have to spend a few months there before departing for Paris.

We were friendly for a month or two at first. Possibly we each recognized a kindred spirit in the other, though we had never had more than brief pleasant conversations in the hall. Demanding classes and separate social circles kept us from real camaraderie, but all it took was a pizza to establish our true friendship, which should come as a surprise to no one. We found ourselves in the dorm at an off hour one night–we’d missed dinner, our friends were out, and we were both skulking around with nothing to do, so we ordered a pizza straight to the common room and gossiped for hours.

In some ways, we are as different as can be. Nikki is the tall brunette–and the G. in her name actually stands for “gregarious”–and I’m more of the short, shy, blonde type, but this friendship works. After the pizza night sophomore year, our rapport took off like a rolling stone.

Now, to the Stones. When I told Nikki excitedly, “I just started listening to the Rolling Stones!” as though I had personally discovered them, she didn’t laugh at me (like she should have) but instead exclaimed, “They’re my favorites!” and played me an album in the campus coffee shop. That became a theme over the next few years; I would wander in for a coffee in various states of consciousness, she would supply it, and we would rehash the weekend’s events over the sweet strains of Keith and the boys.

Since I can’t have a birthday drink with Nikki in person today, I have taken one of her favorite bands and one of her favorite cocktails, and put them together. I would like to introduce “Nicole’s Rock and R-Old Fashioned”–a loving cup from me to you!

Nicole’s Rock and R-Old Fashioned

Makes 1, once. Repeat as needed.

Now you must understand that I’m usually the gin-soaked queen in this friendship. Bourbon is reserved for those nights I’m feeling terribly, terribly bold. But you can’t make an old-fashioned that riffs on the Rolling Stones without bourbon, so that’s exactly where I started.

Kentucky Bourbon, like ya do.

I am neither mixologist nor food stylist nor photographer, so I made this all up from start to finish with a little help from the web. I tested two versions of the old-fashioned, with no expectations as to which would be better.

If I recall correctly, Nikki is full of good sense and does not care for maraschino cherries one whit. They have no place in a nice drink, but I wanted something to add a little punch. I took a cup of dried Columbia river tart cherries, to rep our Pacific Northwest, and drowned them in a jar of Maker’s Mark in hopes that they would reconstitute nicely for a garnish. I also planned to omit the orange slice, which some might call blasphemy, but think about it: the Stones wouldn’t mess with silly little orange slices in their drinks. I added some lemon zest to the jar of cherries and bourbon instead, to add a little more depth. The cherries took much longer to plump up than I had expected, so I let the mixture sit for a couple of days.

These cherries are absolutely smashed by now.

Once they were good and liquored up, I set about testing the old-fashioneds. I made a simple syrup with brown sugar instead of white, because, how could I not? It was sweeter than I anticipated, so I started with half an ounce of the syrup, and a couple dashes of bitters.

Before pouring in the whiskey, it occurred to me that I might taste the cherry mixture first. I know there are some of you who’d cry foul at using it in such a fashion–whiskey sullied with fruit!–but please, have some courtesy and get off of my cloud. It was a tremendously exciting idea.

Cherry Bourbon Old-Fashioned, Take 1

Cherry Bourbon Old-Fashioned, Take 2

I don’t own anything that resembles a proper old-fashioned glass, so I disassembled a small canning jar for the drinks. It’s about the right size, gives a little nod to “that Portland thing” about sipping from jars, and has a little bit of honky-tonk-ity to it. Perfect.

I couldn’t taste the cherries in the bourbon at first, because even half an ounce of brown sugar syrup overpowered two ounces of whiskey. I added a bit more whiskey, and found it better, especially after chewing on a tart, boozy cherry. The cherries came out the real winners of this experiment. They’d make a wicked little snack over vanilla ice cream, if you need to go there.

For the next old-fashioned, I took the traditional route. A hint less than half an ounce of syrup, a few dashes of bitters, two ounces whiskey, with cherries to garnish. Bourbon Old-Fashioned

This take was nice, in the sense that it conjured fond yet hazy memories of running around campus, soaking wet, during Reed’s end-of-the-year festival (you had to be there, really…). Perfect if you feel like playing with fire, but a bit much if you’d like to get on with your day. So I did something I hadn’t planned on doing, and added a splash of water. The Classics major in me likes things as pure as possible, and adding water felt like a cop-out, but it did serve to mellow the drink to my liking.

I hadn’t forgotten about the cherry bourbon concoction. When I tasted it again, with the extra whiskey and a few more melted ice cubes, it was much more pleasant. The sweetness of the sugar was less pronounced, and the cherries added just a little something extra to the whiskey–not enough to be identifiable, but enough to be different.   I’d have finished this one, but I had to sway my way back to the kitchen to clean up and hightail it out of town for a brief vacation.

Just Can’t Seem To Drink You Off My MIIIIIIIIIIND!

I wound up with a couple of tasty drinks, a jar of evilly-tasty cherries, and a bunch of Stones songs stuck in my head. This whole experiment would have been greatly improved if I’d had Nikki around to help me finish the bourbon, but you can’t always get what you want. Given our current unfortunate distance, the tribute would have to do, and sometimes, you get what you need. Which, in our case, is almost always a strong drink.

Happy happy birthday, Nikki, from me, Keith, and Mick!

Let It Rock

P.S. I’ll buy you a drink if you caught all the Stones references.

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."