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Like he did

The three of us have that hanger-onner of a virus that’s going around. The past two nights, I’ve coughed myself to sleep in the basement guest room, and as anyone who’s ever coughed herself to sleep can tell you, it’s slow going. I use the time to think about pressing issues like how much I like the taste of original Ricola; or how much I prefer haunted, unsmiling, True Detective-era Matthew McConaughey over other Matthew McConaugheys, even with the long hair that makes him a ringer for my uncle; or how it could be that Alice’s feet smell so exactly like buttered popcorn. But sometimes, an extremely rare and good sometimes, I use the time to write in my head. The other night, for instance, I found myself thought-writing about endive: about how much I hated it as a kid, about how much my dad loved it, about how he was always buying it and shoving it into salads when I wasn’t looking, about how fast he would have jumped to get himself around our dinner that night: bread, cheese, and Jennifer McLagan’s Belgian Endive Bathed in Butter.

In a couple of weeks, on December 7th, it will have been twelve years since my dad died. He’s now been gone for a third of my life. I’m glad to be able to say that, at this point, I don’t think about him a lot, and that I remember only faint outlines of what it felt like to grieve him. It feels like progress. But there must be some subterranean part of me that doesn’t forget, because every late November or early December, sometimes even on the 7th itself, he shows up. Maybe I notice the picture of him in the front hall for the first time in months, or I read a book to June and suddenly hear him thirty years back, reading it to me. Brandon blows his nose in the next room over, and because his nose has started to honk like a migrating goose, like my dad’s did, I forget for an instant who is on the other side of the wall. Or maybe I eat endive for dinner and then lie there in the dark, paging through one of the photo albums in my head. My mother tells me that the same thing happens to her. We call and swap pictures.

I remember worrying as a kid, when I heard that someone I knew had died, that they might come back to haunt me, that maybe they would have something important to say and would choose me as the person to tell. From the bathroom of the house I lived in as a kid, I could look into the mirror above the sink and see behind me into the living room, and I was sure that, looking up sometime from spitting out my toothpaste, I’d see a ghost there. I consoled myself by eventually deciding that, if the dead person in question really cared about me, they’d have the courtesy, at least, to find a way to come back that wouldn’t scare the crap out of me. They’d be subtle about it. Anyway, I didn’t need to worry: nothing so Unsolved Mysteries has ever happened to me. But I still think about it sometimes, especially at this time of year. My dad has his ways.

I spent a lot of time worrying about those ways, really. He loved cheese and butter and paté and meat, everything that was bad for you in the '80s and '90s. He had a substantial gut. It was irresponsible! Of course, none of that is what did him in: as it turned out, behind his gut was a tumor the size of a half-gallon jug of milk, and kidney cancer doesn’t care what you eat. Still, it would take some years before I would think to, or dare to, bake eight endives in almost a stick of butter, and before I could appreciate butter in any way like he did.

Well! At this point in the post, I guess I should state very clearly, and unsexily, that I received Jennifer McLagan’s Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor, with Recipesfrom its publisher, as a free, unsolicited review copy. And that I loved it immediately, not only because I like bitter flavors - Brussels sprouts, Campari - but also because, as my friend Brandi puts it, Jennifer McLagan "really goes there" in everything she does. Her books celebrate some of the most basic elements of food - and in particular, the elements that no one likes to talk about, like fat and offal. Bitter is her latest, out only two months now, and the recipe for Belgian Endive Bathed in Butter was the first I dog-eared.

I conquered my aversion to endive a long time ago, but even if that weren’t the case, I think it would be hard to find this endive less than lovable. It starts with butter browning in a skillet, to which you add whole endives, turning them to coat, and then lemon juice, and then you cover the whole thing, slide it into a low oven, and two hours (two hours!) later, you open the oven triumphantly to find the endives caramelized, as soft and floppy as wet rags - tasty wet rags, reeeeally tasty wet rags - in a brothy sauce of their own juices, enriched and mellowed with butter, brightened with citrus. You could serve them next to a pork chop or a piece of roasted chicken, but we ate them on a tired, coughing Thursday night, with just bread and an aged goat cheese that I had picked up earlier in the day. And then we slept, or rather didn’t sleep for a while, and then sleep came, and then morning came, and then there were leftovers.

P.S. Because of you, Delancey has made it to the final round of the Goodreads Choice Awards. If you would, please consider casting a vote again. Thank you.

Belgian Endive Bathed in Butter
From Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor, with Recipes, by Jennifer McLagan

As McLagan explains, endive should never be cooked in water, because it’s mostly water itself; instead, what it needs is fat. I advise you to listen to her, and to have some good bread or hot rice on hand, to soak up the pan juices.

One additional note: the original recipe calls for three tablespoons of lemon juice, but I found it a little too lemony. I may well be nuts. But I would suggest starting with two tablespoons and adding more as needed.

8 Belgian endives, about 1 ¾ pounds or 800 grams
7 tablespoons (100 grams) unsalted butter, diced
Kosher or sea salt
2 to 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 300°F.

Wipe the endives with a damp cloth, tear away any leaves that have gone bad, and trim the stem end, if needed.

Choose an ovenproof skillet with a lid (or, if you don’t have a lid, aluminum foil will work), one that’s just large enough to hold the endives in a single layer. Place the skillet over low heat, and add the butter. When the butter is melted, raise the heat to medium, and cook the butter, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan from time to time, until the milk solids begin to brown and the butter smells nutty. Add the endives – yes, you’re using them whole, not sliced or halved or otherwise cut up – and lower the heat. Turn them to coat with butter, and season them with salt. Cook, turning occasionally, until they are lightly colored, then pour in 2 tablespoons of the lemon juice. Cover the pan, and place it in the oven for 1 hour. Remove the pan from the oven, turn the endives carefully, and then cover it again and return it to the oven. Cook for another 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the endives are limp and very, very soft.

Before serving, taste a little of the pan juices, and if you’d like more brightness, add lemon to taste. Serve hot, with more salt at the table and freshly ground pepper.

Yield: 4 servings


I got to go back

The first time I went to the Oklahoma Arts Institute at Quartz Mountain was in the summer of 1995, a few months after a fire destroyed the lodge, its rooms and dining hall and library. I was sixteen, one of about a dozen high school students from across the state who’d been accepted to the summer program in poetry.  Quartz Mountain is beautiful, an isolated chain of red crags along a lake in the southwest part of the state, but my introduction wasn’t poetic: because the library was gone, our class met in a trailer, with a limping air conditioner, folding tables, and a couple of electric typewriters that we shared. But our teacher was the poet Peter Fortunato, brought in from upstate New York to spend six hours a day in that trailer with us, six days a week, for two weeks, and I would have hung out with him in a dumpster, if I had to.

Peter had wavy black hair and a goatee, and he rolled his own cigarettes, occasionally during class. (I should add, disclaimer disclaimer disclaimerthat this would of course no longer happen at OAI.) He had been an apprentice to Gary Snyder, and he introduced us to the work of Mary Oliver, James Wright, Robert Hass, poets whose voices and rhythms worked me like a tuning fork. Peter took us on walks around the foothills and the dry meadows and up to a cave where we read aloud, and I’m about 90% sure there was a smudge stick involved. At home, I was more interested in going to punk shows than communing with nature, but I remember those weeks so clearly, because it was at Quartz Mountain that I first felt taken seriously as a writer, and that I could call myself a writer, capital W, without feeling naive or sheepish. At sixteen, that was a tremendous feeling. At thirty-six, it’s still a tremendous feeling.

Peter worked on the side as a hypnotherapist, and you could hear it in his voice: both soft and firm, careful. One day, while we were discussing some poem or other on the topic of dreams, he told us that, on a couple of occasions and with much practice, he’d been able to control his dreams by getting into a very focused, hypnotic state at bedtime. We were riveted. I tried it myself a few times, never with any luck. But I still think about it sometimes, especially when I’m working on a book and find myself dreaming in words, writing in my sleep. My mother reminded me the other day that I even named my first car after Peter Fortunato, a totally mortifying fact that I should probably keep quiet but this sentence is already almost finished and well, there you go. He made an impression.

I went to Quartz Mountain again the following summer, and again in 2000 and 2002, when I was in my early twenties, to work as a counselor and an assistant to the writing faculty. By then, I wasn’t writing anymore, not outside of school assignments, and I felt detached from even the idea of writing. It had been my teenage thing, and I was done with it and glad. I don’t know why I thought to go back to Quartz Mountain, but there I was, working for and with poets George Bilgere and Ruth Schwartz. If they noticed what a cynical shit I was, they said nothing. It wouldn’t be for another couple of years, until I started this blog, that I would start to sort it out, get out of my own way, and return to writing.

I got to go back to Quartz Mountain last week, this time as a teacher myself. Each fall, OAI offers a Fall Arts Institute, a series of four-day workshops for adults, and Oklahoma public school teachers automatically receive full scholarships(!). I taught a workshop called Writing Life, on personal narrative and memoir. It was my fifth time at Quartz Mountain, but only my second visit since the rebuild was completed, a new lodge and library and, across a foot bridge, a large performing arts facility at the foot of the mountain. I wanted to go back to the amphitheater where we always gave a big reading on the last day - barefoot, as was the tradition - and to the pavilions along the lake where the dancers and photographers and actors held their classes. I was elated, and I was terrified. Nobody hears the words Oklahoma arts retreat and thinks, Carnegie Hall of the Great Plains! or, if I can maaaake it there, I can make it annnywhere!, but being asked to teach at Quartz Mountain felt bigger, more significant, than anything else I’ve achieved. Bigger than ten years of blogging, writing two books, or having a baby, even a baby who weighed nine pounds. I got to go back to the beginning.

People come to Quartz Mountain ready to work hard. As a result, the place feels electric. I asked my students to read a lot, and I asked them to write a lot. Every day, they showed up and did the work. We read Joan Didion’s "On Keeping a Notebook," some David Sedaris, a chapter from Calvin Trillin, a chapter from Roz Chast, some M. F. K. Fisher. In the off hours, we ate chicken fried steak and listened to lectures on Shakespeare and watched the relief printmaking students steamroll their panels in the parking lot, and I took a glass blowing lesson in the amphitheater. I was so charged up that, for two of the four nights, I hardly slept.

It occurs to me that, while writing this, I’ve felt electric too - this manic kind of drunken feeling that I get sometimes, if I’m very lucky, when I catch the updraft of a story and it pulls me up up up and along on its momentum. I usually come to a couple of hours later, jittery and light-headed, and find that I worked through dinner. Writing isn’t often like that; it’s usually a lot of sweating and grimacing and taking breaks to eat another package of your kid’s string cheese. But that feeling is what I’m always hoping for, every time I sit down. Peter had a term for it, a term that came back to me this weekend, when a student was describing her experience with a writing exercise. "You're riding Pegasus!" he told us, "Isn’t it amazing?"

It is.

P.S. Delancey is a nominee in the Goodreads Choice Awards! This is one of few - or maybe the only - book awards chosen by readers, not fancy judges. There are some incredible books and authors in this year's competition, and if you feel so moved, please consider casting a vote.


Even on a good day

My mother has been in town since early this month. We don’t often get this kind of extended time in the same place, and I’d forgotten what a good cooking collaborator she is. She makes sure our wine glasses are never empty. She cleans up as she goes. She doesn’t mind deveining shrimp! I could go on and on. I bow down.

At my reading in Madison last week, someone asked me to talk about a few of my favorite cookbooks. The ones I mentioned were The Zuni Cafe CookbookAll About Braising, various Nigel Slater titles, and Every Grain of Rice, and because I am long-winded, my answer wrapped up, blah dee blah blah, about twenty-five minutes later, on the topic of everyday cooking, which I usually do without consulting a book. In truth, I pointed out, I only cook two or three "real" dishes a week - and by "real," which is a very arbitrary word, I mean things that involve more than 10 minutes in the kitchen. I only very, very rarely make more than one "real" dish at a time - say, this favorite Sichuanese beef-and-celery recipe plus a side of braised bok choy.  Usually, even on a good day, it’s just the beef and celery, with some rice from the electric rice cooker. I can’t remember the last time I made a meal that involved three different, recipe-based dishes on a plate.  Most of the time, my home cooking is very simple and quick: scrambled eggs and a salad dressed in the vinaigrette I always keep in the fridge, a bowl of soup with some cheese and bread or crackers, or rice topped with whatever’s in the crisper drawer and a fried egg and hot sauce.

Later, when I was sitting at a table, signing books, someone expressed surprise that I "cook" so little - that, for someone who professes to love cooking, that I don’t actually do a lot of it. I sort of bumbled through an answer, and a week later, in the wake of much online discussion about domesticity, feminism, and the joys and headaches of home cooking, I’m still thinking about how to explain my thinking.  But I think what it comes down to is this: maybe we’re setting our standards too high for what it means to cook at home, to do home cooking? I mean, I love to cook, but I also believe it is totally okay - even good, even great, even elegant - to serve scrambled eggs for dinner. I have no qualms about feeding myself, my child, and my husband (and even company) a pot of vegetable soup that I made earlier this week, with some cheddar and purchased bread. I love to cook, but like everybody, my life is full. I’m tired at night. I hate deveining shrimp. I love to cook, but I love to cook two or three times a week, and not much more than that. The rest of the time, we eat leftovers, or we eat something that I (or we) can make in a few minutes. It’s still home cooking, and we’re still eating good food, and there’s real pleasure in that. That’s what I care about.

This soup is one that I’ve made probably a half-dozen times, adapted from a recipe that I found last year in Bon Appetit. You’ve got to peel and chop the bag of carrots, but after that, the soup coasts to the finish line by itself, and a single batch will cover a week’s worth of lunches or a couple of dinners for a small family. The photos I took of it were sort of lackluster, but you can picture it. The soup is anything but. It’s pumpkin-orange and velvety, laced with a creeping heat that leaves your mouth tingling. I like it with sharp cheddar and a pile of Triscuits.

Happy weekend.

Carrot-Coconut Soup with Chile and Lime
Adapted from Bon Appetit and the Clayburn Village Store & Tea Shop in Abbotsford, BC

½ stick (57 grams) unsalted butter
2 lb. (910 grams) carrots, peeled and chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
Kosher salt
4 cups (950 ml) chicken broth
1 ½ to 2 (13.5-ounce) cans unsweetened coconut milk
About 2 Tbsp. sriracha, or to taste
Lime wedges, for serving
Fresh cilantro leaves, chopped, for serving, if you feel like it

Melt the butter in a large (5-quart) pot over medium-high heat. Add the carrots and onion, season with a couple good pinches of salt, and cook, stirring often, until the carrots are softened, 15-20 minutes. Stir in the broth, 1 ½ cans of the coconut milk, and 1 tablespoon of the sriracha. Bring to a simmer, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are very soft and the liquid is slightly reduced, about 45 minutes. Puree in small batches (remember: hot liquids expand!) in a blender. (Or, my preference: puree right in the pot, with an immersion blender.) Check for seasoning, and add more salt and/or sriracha, if you like. (I usually add 1 more tablespoon sriracha.) If you’d like more richness, stir in the rest of the coconut milk, and then reheat as needed.

Serve with a generous squeeze of lime in each bowl, and top with cilantro, if you have it.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings


Looking forward

I picked up a roll of film that I shot at Sam and Megan’s wedding last month, and maybe my friend at the lab did some wizardry with the negative scanner, but the whole roll has this glowy, ethereal light shining through it. It’s a decidedly end-of-summer light. I like the way it makes me feel.

The past few mornings, our neighborhood has been white with fog, this dense fog that blows up the street in visible gusts, and it feels so familiar and so welcome, but it is a decidedly not-summer thing.

I’m writing this from an airplane to Chicago. Brandon is with me (!), and having had a lot of long days lately (hosting a dinner at Delancey in honor of Francis Mallmann (!), hosting a dinner at Delancey in honor of our friend Renee Erickson (!), being so fired up afterward that we planned another special dinner for mid-November, completing eight months of testing to finally finally finally put a wood-fired burger (!), Brandon’s new pet, on the Sunday night menu at Essex), we are giddy to get out of town. We bought Ranch-flavored Corn Nuts for the plane ride, and we intend to land with no teeth left. We’re going to sleep a little, and then probably eat a lot, and then we’ll drive to Madison on Thursday for my talk at the Wisconsin Book Festival. Madison, I heard a rumor that you’re great. I’m looking forward to meeting you.

In the meantime, there are many things to read.

I inhaled Lena Dunham’s brand new book, Not That Kind of Girl, in just over a week, which might be the fastest I’ve read anything that I wasn’t being tested on. There’s a lot of talk about her book, good and bad and indifferent, and I think that’s great. I loved it, and I loved that she was willing to do it – to write about bad decisions, condoms, body stuff, the messy stuff you do when you’re twenty, the stuff we’re not supposed to talk about.

The theme of last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine was feeding kids, and the entire country is now tearing its hair out. But I loved Mark Bittman’s piece about parenting as a food writer – not because I think his example is in any way the norm, food writer parents or no, but because he gave smart, sensible advice about eating.

On a related note, this article is so funny and so good. Thank you, Luisa.

And: career tips from smart women! SHINE THE WAY, LADIES.

See you very shortly.

P.S. Renee will be at Maiden Lane in New York City next Monday, and I hope you’ll go eat Messy Shrimp with her in my stead. (Tickets over this way.) She’s so good.


The satisfaction

In early September, a kind reader in north-central Idaho left me a comment. Her name was Michele, and her Italian prune plum tree was promising a bumper crop: did I want some? This kind of thing does not happen all the time, or ever, so I said (yelled) yes. That is how it came to pass that last week, a box showed up on our stoop, containing almost ten pounds of plums cushioned in bubble wrap. I hauled it to the table and let it sit there for a couple of days, admiring it like an expensive flower arrangement, patting it softly like June’s head, before getting down to work over the weekend, freezing a pound of halved plums for cakes later on and turning the approximately eight pounds that remained into my favorite, and simplest, jam.

I’m not crazy about most jams/jellies/preserves that you can buy at the supermarket. Either they’re too sweet, too far removed from the fruit they once were, or they’re the type that markets itself as low-sugar, which usually means that the flavor is flat, vaguely brown-tasting. Bah. If I happen to be in a market that has high-end, small-batch jam, like June Taylor, that’s a whole other story. That stuff is incredible: clean-tasting, softly set, full of bright fruit. (Santa Rosa Plum and Tayberry Conserve!!!) But it’s also so expensive, so so so expensive, that I can’t bring myself to use it in my, or my child’s, peanut butter sandwich. I feel more inclined to use it as currency than to actually eat it. That’s why, whenever I can, I try to make jam. I can make it exactly the way I want it. And the satisfaction! THE SATISFACTION!

I am not a jam expert. I am also not a canning expert. But almost ten years ago, my friends Kate and Margot taught me their favorite jam formula, which Margot learned from an older family friend in Italy, and between it, a few other recipes I’ve tried, a few cookbooks I’ve read, and trial and error, here’s what I’ve figured out.

1. I like jams that use a 2:1 fruit-to-sugar ratio. When you’re measuring it out, it looks like a terrifying amount of sugar, but stay strong, hold firm, because most of the time, it will yield a jam that’s just right. The sugar not only preserves the fruit, of course, but it plays a big role in drawing out its flavor. Use too little sugar, and the flavor and color will be dull. Jam is not a place to go on a no-sugar diet.

2. This is a personal thing, but: the best jams are the simplest. You can fancy them up with tea leaves, hibiscus flowers, spices, blah dee blah, but my goal in making jam is to taste the fullest flavor of the fruit itself. The only things I put in my jam are fruit, sugar, and fresh lemon juice. God, I’m a cranky old lady. I annoy even myself.

3. To check my jam for doneness, I like the saucer test, which I describe in the recipe instructions. Read on. (I should also mention that the jam below looks more liquidy than it actually is. It was sort of sinking into the yogurt. Anyway, the photo above is a better representation of the consistency of the jam, if you want a visual aid.)

In short, THANK YOU, MICHELE AND GARY! Kindness like yours is a too-rare thing. We’re going to be eating your plums, in this jam, which is really your jam, all winter long.

Italian Plum Jam

Note that you’ll want to pit the plums before weighing them. You’re doing this recipe by weight, and you don’t want the pits to mess up your 2:1 plum-to-sugar ratio.

Also, listen: I know the instructions that follow are long. I wanted to go into as much detail as possible, because I understand that jam-making can seem mysterious. But once you’ve tried it, I doubt you’ll need to read the instructions again. Jam-making is a very tactile thing, all about watching and listening and prodding, and I get better at it, more instinctual, every time I do it.

Oh, and: My current breakfast of choice is a spoonful of this jam stirred into a bowl of plain whole-milk yogurt.

1 kilogram (2 pounds 3 ounces) pitted and quartered Italian prune plums
500 grams (1 pound 1 ounce) granulated sugar
Juice of ½ lemon

A Dutch oven, or similar
6 (8-ounce) canning jars, with lids and rings
A rimmed sheet pan
A couple of clean kitchen towels
A few saucers
A large pot for boiling the filled jars
A rack that fits inside the large pot
Tongs, or a jar lifter

Combine the plums, sugar, and lemon juice in a Dutch oven (or other wide, deep pot of similar volume), and let it sit at room temperature for 2 hours, until very juicy. (If your schedule makes this tricky, don’t worry: you can let the mixture sit longer, if needed. I’ve let it hang out for up to 4 or 5 hours.)

While the fruit is hanging out, wash the jars, lids, and rings in hot, soapy water, so that they’re perfectly clean, and then put the jars (upright) on a rimmed sheet pan. Lay the lids and rings on a clean towel to dry completely. Put a few saucers in the freezer; you’ll need these later, for testing the jam.

Shortly before you begin cooking the jam, preheat the oven to 225°F, and slide the sheet pan of jars into the preheated oven. It will need to stay there for 30 minutes to sterilize the jars. (I find this oven method easier than boiling the empty jars, because I used to always splash boiling water everywhere when I was lifting them out to fill them. But do whatever you prefer. Or, you can entirely skip this sterilizing-before-filling step, because, as it turns out, safety experts no longer consider it necessary. When in doubt, this is a great resource.)

After you put the jars in the oven, take out a large pot, place a rack inside of it, fill it with water, and set it over high heat. (I use a round cooling rack; Marisa uses a silicone trivet; and you can also use a folded dish towel, though it tends to float until you put jars on top of it.) The pot must be large enough to hold 4 or 5 jars in a single layer, and the water should be deep enough to cover the jars by 1 or 2 inches. You’ll want it to be simmering by the time the jam has finished cooking, because you’ll use it for processing the filled jam jars.

When you’re ready to cook the jam, place the pot of fruit over medium-high heat, and bring the mixture to a rolling boil. Soon, you’ll notice a pale-colored foam rise to the surface. Use a spoon or a skimmer to remove as much of the foam as possible. Keep the jam rolling along at a boil, stirring frequently to prevent scorching, and keep an eye on it: first it will be very juicy, and then it will start to cook down ever so slightly, the texture unifying, the color darkening, the surface glossy. Around this point, maybe 20 minutes into cooking, it will probably also start sputtering like lava when you stir it: be careful! That scary sputtering is how I know to start testing the jam for doneness. It probably won’t be ready on the first try, but it’s good to get a feel for it.

How to test for doneness: In general, the setting point for jam is 220°F, so you can test by taking its temperature as it boils: when it hits 220°F, it’s generally ready. However, that said, pectin-rich fruits set at a slightly lower temperature, so if you always just sit back and let your jam go to 220°F, you could wind up with a too-stiff jam. I prefer to use a more tactile test for doneness: the saucer test. Here’s how to do it:

Take the pot off the heat while you test it. Take 1 saucer out of the freezer, and dribble a little jam on it, maybe a silver dollar-sized puddle. Return the saucer to the freezer for 15 seconds or so, so that the puddle of jam is neither warm nor cold. Then remove the saucer from the freezer, and sweep a fingertip through the jam: does it feel like it’s developing a certain solidity, as Marisa explains, so that your finger leaves a trail? Or, on the other hand, is the jam still runny, so that it quickly runs to fill in the trail? If it’s the latter, the jam isn’t quite ready, so return the pot to the heat, stirring, and test again in a few minutes. The jam is ready when your finger just begins to leave a clean trail. Another indication is that when you tilt the saucer, the jam slides very slowly, not quickly. It won’t look like jam, per se, quite yet - it’ll be softer, gloppier than that - but it will continue to thicken as it cools. (When in doubt, err on the side of undercooking, I’d say. You can always use it as a syrup on pancakes! You’ll nail it next time!)

When the jam is ready, remove the sheet pan from the oven. Working carefully – the jars and the jam are very hot! – use a ladle to divide the jam among the jars, leaving ¼ inch of room at the top. (A batch of jam will probably fill 4 jars, and maybe 5, but I like to sterilize 6 jars, just to be safe.) Wipe the rims of the jars with a clean, damp cloth to remove any drips. Put the lids and rings on, taking care to screw them just until they are snug (not crazy-tight). Use tongs or a jar lifter to carefully place the jars, standing upright, on the rack in the pot of simmering water. Bring it up to a boil, and boil for 10 minutes. Remove the jars (carefully!) with tongs or a jar lifter, set them on a rack, and leave them alone to cool completely. As the jars cool, you may hear little pops: that’s the lids sealing. When they’re cool, press each lid lightly to make sure it has sealed: it should curve downward very slightly in the middle. Properly sealed jam is safe to store at room temperature, but refrigerate after opening.

Yield: 4 or 5 (8-ounce) jars


Every Tuesday

Whoa. I got sucked into a black hole for a bit there, a (very pleasant, very festive) black hole of weddings and out-of-town visitors. Somehow it’s now September 26, and I’m glad to be alone tonight, in a quiet house, with a so-so brownie that I’ll probably eat anyway, rain falling outside and all the lamps lit. Hello! Or, OH-LO!, as June puts it.

In the weeks since I was last here, Megan and Sam got married, and Gemma and Christophe came to help us celebrate, and after that, my in-laws arrived, and now we’ve got a cousin from New York and her boyfriend in the guest-room-slash-dungeon downstairs. And because there is no one who doesn’t like tacos, for the past three Tuesdays, we’ve taken whoever is in town, including Sam’s entire family, to Essex for taco-and-tiki night.

Brandon started daydreaming last winter about doing something fun at Essex on Tuesdays, a night when Delancey is closed and Essex, at that point, was too. He played around with a few ideas - maybe a barbecue-only menu, or spaghetti and meatballs, something like that. We were both big fans of Alvaro Candela-Najera’s Monday night tacos at Sitka and Spruce (which you can now find every night at The Saint), so that got us thinking, and then Niah mentioned that he wanted to try doing a tiki night at Essex, and as it happens, tiki-style cocktails go well with the flavors and heat of Mexican food, and boom boom boom, one thing led to another, and that’s how we decided to do a special taco-and-tiki menu every Tuesday - with meats cooked in our wood-fired ovens (!) and tortillas made on-site from fresh masa (!!) and a free chips-and-salsa bar (!!!) and housemade hot sauce (!!!!).

Of course, Brandon and I know a lot more about eating tacos than we do about making them, so we turned for help to a couple of cooks at Delancey and Essex, Ricardo Valdes and Pedro Perez-Zamudio, whose families are from Mexico. To be fair, Tuesdays are now much more theirs than ours. After a couple of months of testing and re-testing, the menu was ready around mid-May, and that’s when I added the words "Taco-&-Tiki Tuesdays, 5 to 10 pm" to the hours sign in the Essex window, and we were up and running.

I’ve wanted to write about taco-and-tiki night here for a while now. But I wanted to share a recipe when I did, and it was hard to choose one that fit. Some of the best parts of the menu - the al pastor tacos, for instance, or the lamb barbacoa, or the lengua - involve a lot of steps, a wood-burning oven, a kind lady named Juana with a bowl of masa and very skilled hands, and spices that can be hard to find if you don’t have access to the kind of vendors that supply restaurants. Happily, though, Ricardo’s famous guacamole is not nearly that complicated, and he agreed to teach me how to make it.

Ricardo’s recipe was inspired by the guacamole his grandmother Guadalupe made when he was growing up in Oxnard, California. Originally from Jalisco, Guadalupe - not sure if I am permitted to call her by her first name? Maybe not? If I’m struck by lightning tomorrow, you know why - had an avocado tree in her backyard, and she grew her own cilantro, jalapenos, and serranos, all of which she used in her guacamole, along with red onion, garlic, tomato, and a generous amount of lime. Ricardo remembers watching her make it, methodically cutting each avocado in half, removing the pit, and scoring the flesh with a small knife before scooping it out of its shell and mashing it up with two forks. (I felt wistful just typing that, possibly because the only cooking I actually witnessed my grandmother do involved a packet of Lipton soup mix, a kettle of boiling water, and a mug.)

Years later, when he was hired as the chef de cuisine of a new Mexican restaurant, Ricardo was tasked with working up a great guacamole, and he started from Guadalupe’s formula. He left out the tomato, added some olive oil, and over a number of reworkings, he pinned down the quantities. The result is, and I don’t know how else to say it, really special. I mean, we’ve all made guacamole: you chuck some avocados in a bowl with stuff, and it’s good. Right? It can’t be bad. Still, this one is special. It’s bright with lime, spiked with just the right amount of herbs and heat, chunky enough to stand up on a chip but silky from a scant addition of olive oil. It’s the result of a lot of repetition, of familial memory coupled to muscle memory - Guadalupe’s taste and technique, honed and refined in restaurant kitchens.

And if you have someone smart around - someone like Ricardo, an actual professional who has the foresight to save some whole cilantro leaves for a garnish - your guacamole might even look attractive in a photograph! I had no idea that was possible.

It occurs to me that I should also share a (life-changing, guacamole-changing) tip that Ricardo gave me about avocados and ripeness. TAKE NOTE. When you’re making guacamole, of course you’ll ideally use firm-ripe avocados, but if only some of your avocados are ripe, weep not. Take the unripe ones, scoop the flesh into a food processor, add a dribble of olive oil, and blend them until they’re creamy, like soft, beaten butter. Somehow, blending them like this with oil deepens their flavor and makes them taste richer, riper, not sweet and starchy like normal unripe avocados. You can then take this blended avocado and fold it together with cubes of nicely ripened avocado, and make your guacamole from that.

P.S. I’m excited, and somewhat terrified, to be leading a discussion with one of my mentors, Renee Erickson, at Book Larder this Wednesday night, October 1, at 6:30 pm. Renee’s first book, A Boat, A Whale, and A Walrus, comes out on Tuesday, and it’s every bit as good as you would expect. (Someday I will get a tattoo of my life motto: WWRD, or What Would Renee Do.) Come see us!

P.P.S. On a related note, Brandon and Co. are cooking a four-course dinner at Delancey on Monday, October 6 to celebrate Renee.  There are still a half-dozen tickets left, I believe, and you can purchase them through Book Larder.

P.P.P.S. While we’re talking about restaurant stuff, this talk by Mark Canlis, of Canlis, is so good, so smart, and so humane. If you’re interested in the industry, or even just an avid diner, it’s worth listening - particularly to the first 27 minutes. Turn it on while you’re cooking one night.

Ricardo’s Famous Guacamole
Adapted from Ricardo Valdes

If you don’t mind the expense, it’s a good idea to buy a couple more avocados than you actually need for this recipe. Inevitably, one will have some gnarly spots of rot inside, and you’ll want to throw it out. Also, don’t cut open your avocados until you’ve prepped the rest of the ingredients, because the flesh browns quickly when exposed to air.

Last, note that this recipe scales up nicely. At Essex, our batches are ten times this size, and we mix them in a bowl big enough to sit in. (That’s last week’s batch, at right.)

2 teaspoons lime zest (about 1 lime’s worth)
¼ cup (60 ml) lime juice (about 2 limes’ worth)
3 tablespoons finely chopped red onion (about 1/8 of an onion)
A handful of chopped cilantro (about ¼ of a bunch)
½ of a jalapeno, seeded and finely chopped
½ of a serrano, seeded and finely chopped
½ of a garlic clove, pressed
4 teaspoons olive oil
A couple of generous pinches of kosher salt
A couple of grinds of black pepper
3 firm-ripe avocados

Prepare all of the ingredients, and keep them close at hand. Then, and only then, cut the avocados in half, remove and discard the pits, and (very carefully, with the avocado skin still on) cube the flesh of the avocados with a small knife. Use a spoon to scoop the cubed flesh into a medium bowl. Dump the rest of the ingredients on top of the avocados, and then go after the mixture with two forks or a potato masher, stirring and smashing until you like the texture. Taste, and adjust seasoning. It will likely need more salt, and you may also want more black pepper. If you’d like your guacamole to be spicier, add more chopped jalapeno or serrano. If you’d like more garlic flavor, add another half a clove. Note that the freshly made guacamole will be quite lime-y, but don’t worry, because the lime flavor will mellow with time. (That said, if you still think the lime is too dominant, feel free to add a dribble of olive oil.)

When the flavor is to your liking, press plastic wrap directly against the surface to keep air away, and chill for at least 1 hour before serving. Guacamole will keep this way without browning for at least a day, and it’ll still taste good after a few days, though it will probably discolor at the surface.

Yield: depends on how guacamole-crazed you are, but probably enough for 4 to 8 adults


September 6

From the summer of 2006 until the early spring of 2011, we lived in a nondescript duplex on 8th Avenue that shared the block with some other nondescript duplexes and one notably terrifying exception that we referred to as Boo Radley’s house. I didn’t love the neighborhood, but it was mostly fine, and after we adopted Jack, I got to know it well, because Jack, being a terrier, needed a lot of walking. We found our habits. If the sun was out, we’d walk up to the P-Patch at 60th and 3rd and ogle people’s tomatoes and dahlias; if it was raining, I’d drag him for a quick loop around the block; and if it was evening, dark already but not too cold, we’d walk a big rectangle through east Ballard so that I could look through the lit-up windows of the bungalows we passed as families cooked and sat down to dinner. I often dreaded walking the dog, especially in the fall and winter, when it gets dark so early, but once we were out and in a rhythm, the glowing squares of those windows would keep me going - we’ll turn for home after we pass the next house, or, wait, the next one - and so would the smells that filtered out to the street. I remember one night when I caught what was surely the scent of banana bread baking, another when someone was clearly burning garlic, and another when a whole block of 7th Avenue smelled like ripe apples. Or maybe it was applesauce cooking? Maybe I’d passed under an apple tree? It was too dark to tell.

We live closer to the water now, about a quarter mile from Puget Sound, and if the air smells like anything, it smells like saltwater. I imagine that will always feel novel to me, having grown up in a city where the nearest beach was, I don’t know, 500 miles away. I don’t walk much after dark now, because Brandon is working and June is asleep in her crib and Jack is an old man. I’m usually doing something like I’m doing tonight: sitting on the sofa with Alice, avoiding the dirty laundry by drinking a Negroni and reading, listening to Jack snore down the hall.

But late this afternoon, June and I took a sunny bike ride around the neighborhood, and somewhere between an impromptu stop at Uncle Sam’s house and a quick trip into the grocery store, June started screeching that she couldn’t get into her Tupperware of crackers, so I pulled over, reached into the bike trailer to help her, and that’s when I noticed it: the air smelled exactly like summer in Colorado, like the camp I went to for two summers 25 years ago, like dry pine needles in the heat. It’s something we almost never smell here, living as we do in what is essentially a rainforest, where everything is damp and green green green, always. But there it was. My memory of the scent was immediate, below language, just boom, Colorado summer. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. A couple of blocks later, blissed out in the grocery store parking lot, I misjudged a turn and fell off my bike into a trash can. But that smell! I’m so glad I found it again.

I was going through my hard drive last night and came upon some photos I took on my old digital camera six years ago, the summer that we got Jack, in that janky duplex. I was surprised by how nostalgic I felt for those windows and that white table, which we still have somewhere but don’t have a proper place for. All of these photos were in a folder called "Lunches." Lunches! I’ve let my lunch game slip. Oh well.

There’s a lot of good stuff going on out there lately:

How to be polite.

What Writers Can Learn from Goodnight Moon. (Goodnight nobody!!!!)

Chaz Ebert on Life Without Roger, from Anna Sale’s very, very smart Death, Sex & Money.

Ashley English’s newest, Quench, won't be out until late October, but I got an early peek. Rose and Cardamom Soda! Homemade Throat Soother Tea! Hard Cider! I'm in.

I picked up a copy of Rookie Yearbook Two last weekend, and the essay "Eating: A Manifesto" had me doing the Arsenio Hall woot woot woot arm thing. I love Rookie.

Betsy Andrews, executive editor of Saveur, is teaching a master class on food memoir and poetry at Hedgebrook.

My friend David Huffman has just launched a Kickstarter for his film Fork, and I’m backing it.

Last but not least, it’s pledge drive time at Spilled Milk. Right. I know. Nobody likes pledge drives. But I speak for both myself and Matthew when I say that making Spilled Milk is our favorite job. And we give it away for free. Your contribution helps us pay for ingredients, equipment, audio hosting, and production assistance, so that we can bring you regrettable jokes every week. (Thank you!)

I hope you’re having a great weekend.