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Now you know

I have a confession to make. It probably seems like I live and breathe to cook, right? It probably seems like I never get tired of stirring and whisking and chopping, like I go to sleep at night spooning the refrigerator and wake up each morning to find a skillet under my pillow and a rainbow arcing gently, benevolently, over the stove. But the truth is, there are many days when I would rather do anything than cook. ANYTHING. Like, hit-myself-over-the-head-with-the-aforementioned-skillet anything. Anything.

Lately, I’ve been having a lot of those days. At first, I thought it was because of my recent run of bad recipes. It’s hard to feel terribly excited about spending time in the kitchen after you’ve botched a number of meals in a row. Remember that Great White song, “Once Bitten, Twice Shy?” I sort of feel like that. I am also so overdue for a haircut that I’m starting to look like the lead singer in that video. This can’t lead anywhere good, I fear, especially because I don’t have a pair of leather chaps to complete the look.

But really, I think my problem is even bigger than that. I think my problem is peanut butter. I lose all motivation when there is a jar of peanut butter around. Given an adequate supply of sandwich bread, I will eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches indefinitely, to the near-complete exclusion of other foods. I might bake something sweet now and then - the occasional cookie or cake, maybe - but otherwise, it’s all peanut butter, all the time. I know this because it’s what my life has been like for approximately a month. I am a sick, sick woman. Now you know.

But Brandon, bless his optimistic heart, apparently believes that I am still capable of redemption, because he staged an intervention last week. He told me, quite simply, that I had to stop buying sandwich bread. I nodded solemnly. Not long after, I successfully made a salad. And yesterday, I made soup, a puréed broccoli soup with a lemony, chive-spiked sour cream to spoon on top. I feel better already. Good enough, even, to foresee another batch in my near future. And after that, I might get my hair cut.

The soup in question is something that I had once intended to include in the book, but I worried that it sounded too boring. I don’t know. Broccoli soup isn’t an easy sell. I had a friend try the recipe, and she loved it - so much so, she reported, that she had to stop herself from eating the lemon-chive sour cream by the spoonful - but still, I was worried. So I yanked it. I moved on. I made other soups, and I sort of forgot about it. But the other day, while leafing through some photographs from a couple of years ago, I found a shot of this soup, and I realized that I missed it. So yesterday, I made it again, and now I don’t know why I ever doubted it. It was delicious.

It’s a pretty quick, simple soup, as these things go. It was inspired by a couple of different recipes: one that I read somewhere for a fairly basic broccoli soup, and one that Brandon found in college, a recipe for a puréed broccoli soup with leek, served with an herbed sour cream. He tells me, incidentally, that it was the first soup he ever puréed. I don’t know how he remembers this kind of stuff. Obviously, the part of my brain that was made to store such things is filled with song lyrics by Great White.

Our joint version starts with some onion and leek and garlic softening in a pot, and then into that goes a decent amount of chopped broccoli, some stock, and the rind from a small piece of Parmesan cheese. It all simmers together for about twenty minutes, during which time you slice some scallions and chives and zest a small lemon. Then you take out a small bowl and stir the scallions and chives and lemon zest into some sour cream, along with a little lemon juice, grated Parmesan, and garlic. By this point, the broccoli should be tender, and the cheese rind should be soft and sticky, and the whole pot should smell fantastic, very savory and fragrant with Parmesan. You pull out the rind, purée the soup, stir in some of the sour cream mixture, and then you serve it with another spoonful of sour cream on top. It’s both mellow and bright, light and rich, soothing in parts and punchy in others, and, I think, ideal lunch material. It’s not peanut butter, but I almost don’t mind.

P.S. I built a little page to list my book signings, and if you haven’t yet seen it, click here. The book comes out next(!) Tuesday(!), and I’ll be at the University Book Store in Seattle that night.

Broccoli Soup with Lemon-Chive Cream

I like this “cream” best when made with sour cream, but I’ve also used plain whole-milk yogurt, and it’s very good that way too. If you do use yogurt, keep in mind that it has less fat than sour cream, so you’ll probably need to add some olive oil to balance the acidity of the lemon. (Or just use less lemon!) I also found that the yogurt-based “cream” needed a pinch of sugar to balance it.

Oh, and should you have some of the sour cream mixture left over, it makes a great dip for potato chips.

For the soup:
1 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1 Tbsp. olive oil
2 medium leeks, white and tender green parts only, sliced
1 small yellow onion, coarsely chopped
3 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1 ½ lb. broccoli, both crowns and stems, trimmed and coarsely chopped
5 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 rind (about 2 inches square) from a piece of Parmesan cheese
¾ tsp. kosher salt, or less if your broth is well salted

For the sour cream:
1 cup sour cream (not low-fat or nonfat)
2 scallions, white and pale green parts only, very thinly sliced
¼ cup minced chives
1 tsp. grated lemon zest
2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
½ cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
½ tsp. kosher salt
¼ tsp. pressed or minced garlic

In a small stockpot or Dutch oven, warm the butter and oil over medium heat. Add the leeks and onion, and cook, stirring occasionally, until they have softened and the onion is translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic, and cook for one minute. Add the broccoli, stock, Parmesan rind, and salt, and stir to mix. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook, partially covered, until the broccoli is tender, about 20 minutes.

While the soup cooks, prepare the cream. In a medium bowl, stir together the sour cream, scallions, chives, lemon zest, lemon juice, grated Parmesan, salt, and garlic, mixing until fully combined. Taste, and adjust as necessary.

To finish the soup, remove the Parmesan rind. Using a blender and working in small batches – when puréeing hot liquids, never fill the blender more than one-third full – purée until very smooth. (Alternatively, purée it in the pot with an immersion blender.) Return the soup to the pot, add a few dollops of the cream mixture – I add about 1/3 cup – and stir to incorporate. Taste for seasoning, and adjust as necessary. If needed, rewarm the soup gently over low heat.

Serve the soup with a spoonful or two of the remaining cream on top.

Yield: 4-6 servings


A first-rate mess

On Saturday night, we covered the table with newspaper, dumped out a pile of Dungeness crabs, and made a first-rate mess.

My mother was in town for the long weekend. She’s a champion crab-leg sucker, so to celebrate her visit, we bought three large crabs, cracked and cleaned, and Ben came over, and Brandon put some Django Reinhardt on the stereo, and after a few minutes, the wine bottle was covered with smears of crab and bits of shell, and it was such a good night that, looking at this picture and knowing that the scene is over, balled up and packed into the trash can outside, I feel sort of on the verge of a sob. I also feel immensely relieved that my mother is now back in Oklahoma, where I can’t see her frown when she finds out that I have outed her as a crab-leg sucker.

If I didn’t have relatives in San Francisco, I might never have learned about Dungeness crab. In Oklahoma, we certainly didn’t have any. But in San Francisco, at my mother’s twin sister’s house, we sometimes ate it on Christmas Eve, with sourdough, green beans, white wine, and a roll of paper towels for napkins. When I was eighteen, I decided to go to college there, and though I wasn’t thinking specifically of improving my access to fresh Dungeness crab, the prospect didn’t hurt. Every now and then, I would go to see my aunt over weekends and holidays, and in the winter and early spring, when Dungeness crabs are in season, we would sometimes splurge on a couple for dinner. I liked the whole idea of them: their sweetly saline meat, the ritual of the newspaper on the table and the paper towels in our laps, the casual slurping and the communal mess, the way it all felt so California. I liked to think that, in eating them, I too was California, in a sense. Whatever I was, I wasn’t Oklahoma City anymore. Every time I would drive across the Golden Gate Bridge, I would feel close to squealing, thinking, I LIVE HERE! I never got tired of it.

But eventually I finished college, and I went back to Oklahoma. My father made the drive with me a few days after graduation, and I was so terrified by the thought of leaving San Francisco that I had heartburn for the entire trip. One afternoon, I remember, we pulled over at a rest stop in New Mexico and shared a slice of blackberry pie that we had bought earlier in the day, in Albuquerque. The wind was whipping my t-shirt around like mad, and my chest felt so tight and painful that I was sure, absolutely sure, that I was dying. Once we got to Oklahoma City, I knew, I would be diagnosed with some sort of rare, fatal condition and given only a few months to live, and everyone would take pity on me and send me back to San Francisco, where I would live out my final days in a Victorian with a view of the bay. It would be beautiful and tragic, not only because I was only 22 and had never had a real boyfriend, but also because I would probably die in the summertime, when Dungeness crabs are hard to come by.

But instead, the heartburn went away, and I didn’t die. I had a great summer. My hair was short and spiky, and I had a pink halter top. I met a guy in a grocery store and fell in love, and he made my chest feel tight in a much better way. That fall, I applied to graduate school. I wanted to go to UC Berkeley, but the only school that wanted me was the University of Washington. So I moved to Seattle, and it was here that, shortly after, I learned that Dungeness crabs were named for a town on the coast of Washington State, which is where they were first commercially harvested. Which means, I think, that I was actually supposed to be here, not in San Francisco, all along.

Now when I eat Dungeness crab, I feel very Seattle. Somehow, I never get tired of that either.

Dungeness crab doesn’t need much in the way of a recipe, but I can tell you that it, served with the roasted broccoli from this recipe (minus the shrimp, and use kosher salt, not regular, and don’t forget the finishing squeeze of lemon), a loaf of sourdough, and a bottle of some sort of crisp white wine, makes a dreamy mid-February meal. Just be sure to have a few layers of newspaper on the table, and some lobster picks and nutcrackers, for getting at the meat. If you want, you can also melt some butter - clarified, if you’re fancy - and set that out as a dip. Most importantly, don’t forget to put a couple of paper towels in your lap, or else you’ll have rivulets of crab juice running down your forearms and onto your pants. Actually, that’ll happen no matter what you do, but it’s nice to be able to sop it up occasionally. Otherwise, it gets sort of sticky. If you’re Ben, you’ll also spray crab juice all over the front of your shirt, but that’s a special case.

After dinner, after you’ve rolled up the newspaper and the crab shells inside it and wiped down the table, a batch of chocolate chip cookies becomes important, as does some port or Scotch. And after that, a good, long sleep.

About Dungeness crab

- The season for Dungeness crab runs from November or December through late spring. Many people say that the sweetest crabs are the ones available at the very beginning of the season, but the ones we ate last weekend were pretty delicious too.

- Buy your crab from a vendor you trust, and unless you’re going to go out on a boat and catch it yourself, it’s probably easiest to buy it cooked. (Some markets sell live crabs, but buying a live one is not a guarantee of quality.) Your fishmonger should be happy to clean and crack it for you, so when you get home, you only have to do a little work with a nutcracker to access the meat.

- Buy the crab on the day that you plan to eat it - it doesn’t keep well - and store it in the refrigerator until shortly before serving. I like to let mine sit out for about 20 minutes before eating, so that the meat isn’t too cold.

- If you don’t live on the West Coast (or in a city where fresh crab might be flown in daily), you can mail-order Dungeness crab from places like this. (That link goes to my favorite fish market in Seattle.)

- Dungeness crabs weigh from one to two pounds or so. We bought three big ones, and they amply fed four of us.


Ring the bells

February, February. I had forgotten how trying it can be.

I seem to have come down with a cold. I battled it for the better part of last week, and I thought I had won, but yesterday, it sneaked up and kicked me behind the knees, the way I do sometimes to Brandon when we’re in line at the grocery store, only I’m gentle and giggly about it, and this cold is neither. But I wanted to stop by here today anyway, because I have some good news for you. (And some butterscotch cookies! I made a recipe that worked! Ring the bells!)

The news is this. Those of you who lobbied for a book event in New York, take note: your wish has been granted. I will be at Idlewild Books on March 18 at 7:00 pm, and I am so, so excited to say that. I expect to see you all there. OR ELSE.

And now, the cookies.

If I didn’t have a sinusache, or a headache in my sinuses, or whatever the clinical term might be, I might have been able to take a better, less blurry photograph for you. But today was not the day for that. So please take my word for it: those are cookies, not lumpy pennies. They’re the butterscotch cookies from Judith Jones’s memoir The Tenth Muse. When I was reading it, this was the first recipe I dog-eared, even before the céleri rémoulade, and I don’t know why on earth it took me over a month to make the thing. I certainly won’t wait another month to make it again.

In the headnotes, Jones attributes this recipe to Schrafft’s, a restaurant in Manhattan where, as a child, she used to go for ice cream sodas or a sundae. (I particularly like her description on page 16: “I would sometimes go with a few classmates to Schrafft’s, one of the chain of genteel restaurants where the waitresses were all of Irish descent and dressed parlor-maid-style in black with a starched white apron and headpiece.” Parlor-maid-style! Headpieces! Hire me!) Apparently, whenever she went to Schrafft’s, she would leave with a dozen of their butterscotch cookies, her favorites at the time. But then Schrafft’s closed, and with it went the cookies. Years later, no doubt in a moment of spectacular brilliance, Jones asked James Beard if he remembered those butterscotch cookies, and he not only remembered them fondly, but he called the president of the company and asked for the recipe. I need a James Beard in my life.

But barring that, a few butterscotch cookies is a fine substitute. They may be sort of homely, the brown paper bag of the cookie genre, but they more than make up for it in texture and flavor. They’re thin and crisp - almost wafer-like, thinner than they look in the photo above - with a fine, lacy edge and a freckling of crunchy pecans. The unbaked dough is relatively simple, sweetened with dark brown sugar and punched up with a decent amount of vanilla and salt, but it bakes up to something complex and sophisticated. The finished cookies are sweet but not too sweet, salty but not too much so, fragrant with whatever it is that makes butterscotch smell like butterscotch. I think it’s time for my next dose of antihistamine.

These cookies would be delicious, I imagine, with tea or coffee, or maybe as the bookends of an ice cream sandwich, with vanilla or coffee ice cream. For now, I’m eating them with my therapeutic cocktail of hot water with honey and lemon, and even that isn’t too bad.

Schrafft’s Butterscotch Cookies
Adapted from The Tenth Muse, by Judith Jones

The original recipe does not specify whether or not, or how much, to pack the brown sugar. I lightly packed mine, just enough to smooth the top, and it worked out nicely. Also, does anyone know what the nonfat dry milk does here? It must do something important, but I’m stumped.

Lastly, note that the flavor of these cookies takes some time to develop. I baked them last night, and they were good, but they were even more interesting by this morning. And they’re fantastic tonight.

1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
½ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
14 Tbsp. (1 ¾ sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 ¼ cups dark brown sugar
1 large egg
2 Tbsp. nonfat dry milk
1 Tbsp. vanilla extract
1 cup finely chopped pecans

Preheat the oven to 375°. Grease two cookie sheets, or line them with silicone mats.

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt.

In a medium bowl, cream the butter and sugar. (I used my stand mixer for this.) Add the egg, dry milk, and vanilla extract, and beat to incorporate. Add the dry ingredients, and beat to blend. Fold in the pecans by hand. Drop the batter by heaping tablespoonfuls onto the prepared baking sheets, leaving 2 inches between each mound. (I was able to fit about 10 or 11 cookies on each sheet.) With damp fingers, press each mound into a circle about 2 ½ to 3 inches in diameter. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, or until lightly browned. Carefully scrape up the cookies with a spatula, and transfer them to a rack to cool. Repeat with remaining dough on cooled baking sheets.

Store cooled cookies in an airtight container at room temperature.

Yield: about 30 cookies


Candy is dandy

If I were Ogden Nash, I would have something very clever to say today. I’m sure of it. Maybe something like, candy is dandy, but this biscotti is not(-y). Yes?

Or candy is dandy, but Im going to flush this biscotti down the potty? I think that might be it.

Or, ooh ooh, I’ve got one: Molly isn’t jolly, because this salad was pallid. ZING!

What a week it was. After the quiet glory of cabbage with hot sauce, it all went downhill.

I can’t remember what we ate on Monday night, which is not a good sign. And then on Wednesday, I made the most spectacularly tasteless soup to ever sit atop my stove. It was so bad that we wound up going out for pho instead, leaving the soup to sit in its pot and reflect on its wrongdoings until we threw it away the next morning. On Saturday, we ate the leftovers of the pho we bought on Wednesday and then tried to go buy cupcakes for dessert, only to find that Cupcake Royale was completely sold out. And yesterday, I spent the afternoon happily padding around the kitchen, making granola, trying a new biscotti recipe, and washing gai lan to sauté in olive oil and garlic and serve with sausage and polenta, only to find that the biscotti was bland, the gai lan was even more bland, and I was tempted to burst into tears in the middle of dinner, except that our friend Ben was with us. I’ve been trying to limit my crying fits to audiences of family, and sometimes strangers on the bus.

And then, this morning, I tried to make oat cakes from Home Baking. Judging by the photograph in the book, these oat cakes were supposed to resemble digestive biscuits, or something akin to Carr’s Wheatolos. (Does anyone else remember those?) I will never know for sure, however. The recipe said that the dough would come together to form a mass in the food processor, but instead, mine turned into oat-and-brown-sugar hummus. Pita chip, anyone?

I think this would be the part when I say, candy is dandy, but hummus is among us. (Sorry?)

Even the bag of recycling that sits in the corner wanted to scream.

All of which is to say that I have nothing for you today. I know, I know, and I’m sorry. But I can offer you a suggestion, and it is this: that you make this dish as soon as you possibly can. We made it for dinner the week before last, and it was so perfect that I’m still thinking about it. It was so perfect, in fact, that I won’t even try to make up a rhyme about it, and today, that is the highest praise I can give.