Friday, December 29, 2017

Christmas Eve nachos

Here is my favorite Christmas memory: I was 20 years old and home in Haines, Alaska, on break from college in So Cal. Our family tradition is attending the Presbyterian Christmas Eve candlelight service. It attracts quite a holiday crowd and is a great chance to see everyone who is visiting. As a college student, it was an opportunity to sit with my childhood friends, all of whom were spread out around the US. With my family, it was a chance to connect over a well-loved tradition. As we funneled into the sanctuary, we picked up a service program and small white candle punched through a heavy paper round. The paper round serves as a drip protector for the candle wax. The service can vary from year to year in the opening carols and text of the message but it always ends the same: the congregation lights their candles, starting from the front of the church, passing the flame to the neighbors in the pew and then the church overhead lights are extinguished and we all sing "Silent Night." This moment feels the most like Christmas to me- the sound of our voices swelling to the music and the glow of candlelight.

This particular year I was sitting with my friends and two sisters. As one does, we had been a little jokey and teasing to each other through the service but nothing too disruptive. Reliving childhood antics, we used our hands to warm the bottom end of our candles to shape the wax into hooks or small twists- an activity that entertained us through many a childhood Christmas Eve service. I never fail to be amazed that everyone who walks in the door is given a candle- even kids. In a residential setting I would never give a five year old an open flame and then ask them to sit still for eight minutes, but it is such a sacred activity that I think we collectively overlook the logic of it.
This year felt special. I was engaged and this would be my last Christmas home with my family as a single person. In this same church, in just six short months, I would walk down the aisle. My friends and sisters, in dusty pastel dresses and dyed to match pumps, would stand up with me.

As we neared the end of the service, the interior lights were turned off and at first, the room was dark, but the candlelight glow increased as more candles were lit. We were sitting in a row of chairs at the back of the room, in the overflow section. Momentarily, there was a hush through the group and then the congregation stood and began to sing "Silent Night, Holy Night" led by a lone piano accompaniment. I believe somewhere around the third verse, in the space where we all paused for breath between the lines "Silent Night, Holy Night" and "Son of God loves pure light", my younger sisters voice rang out clearly across the silence, an emphatic "SHIT!" Turns out the paper round "drip protector" had not quite done it's job and, at just the right moment, her drippy candle rolled hot melted wax onto her hand, startling her with it's blistery pain. My friends and I lost it in giggles. It was all we could do to keep from howling out in laughter. In an attempt to maintain some composure, I remember closing my eyes so I could not see the expressions on my friends faces, tears rolling down my cheeks to hold the hilarity in. The faithful gathered in the church soldiered on with the song and when the service concluded and the lights went up, our row and the rows in front and behind us, exploded in laughter. I turned to see my sisters face, beet red in embarrassment. She had been concerned that she would get in trouble or be chided for her expletive slip but it was so damn perfect in it's execution that we couldn't help but find it absolutely hilarious.

That was 17 years ago and still, every time I sing "Silent Night" at the end of any candlelight service, I have to check myself to not start cracking up. I guess I like a little profanity with my sacred moments. Or maybe what I like is a little reality. I am all for Christmas magic. I believe in it. The way Christmas lights symbolize such optimism in our dark nights, the hope of the redemption that Jesus' birth brings to the world. But sometimes I think I put too much pressure on myself to manufacturer some movie set of a Christmas experience: the perfect food, lighting, table setting, gifts under the tree, and velvet and bows picture. I was thinking about Mary, Jesus' mother, and wondering what she would think of the lyrics in "Silent Night." Would she say "Yes, it really was a holy experience- I felt the presence of God the whole time." Or would she confess that she was worried that the cattle would accidentally nibble on baby Jesus in the hay manger if she nodded off? I wonder if the reality of the experience was not one of reverence but rather scary, painful and cold. All that to say, if our holiday traditions are feeling a little ragged around the edges or if the impossible logistics of Christmas wore you down, I think it is okay if our Christmas does not look like how we think it is "supposed to look". I don't think Jesus' birth looked the way we think it should either.

A year after that night of candlelight service hilarity, my new husband and I had to decide how we would celebrate Christmas Eve. Holiday's in the early years of marriage are leaving the familiar comfort of your family's traditions and expose the awkwardness of not yet having honed your own new traditions. There is some negotiating for which traditions you keep and which you alter or discard. On Christmas morning of our first year of marriage I was alarmed to discover that my husband had hidden my Christmas stocking. With a huge grin on his face he explained "It's like a big game of 'hot and cold'- you have to find the stocking!" I responded that a Christmas stocking is not an Easter basket and I was not in the mood for games. (Just so you know who prevailed, I now have 17 years of experience both hiding and finding Christmas stockings.) But this first Christmas Eve, we didn't quite know what to do with ourselves. Christmas Eve with my parents always included a beautiful oyster chowder, but with Southern California temperatures in the 80s, that did not sound good. As an homage to our new warm-temperature Christmas life, we settled on making nachos with homemade pico de gallo: it was something that we love to eat, felt a little indulgent and we could enjoy making together. Christmas Eve nachos are now our annual tradition. I love it's simple beginning but also the ease of it. While I love the formality of a big holiday meal, it feels like a bit much to have them back to back on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Also, it's fun to have a slightly dressed up version of a guilty pleasure. The crunchy salty gooeyness of the chips and cheese and seasoned beef, the tang of tomatoes and onion and, because it is a holiday, we eat as much sour cream as we want. Now that we have moved away from California, this tradition feels even sweeter.

These nachos are, of course, welcome at anytime.

Christmas Eve nachos
The recipe below yields enough for 2 large sheet pans of oven nachos but if making for more than 3-4 adults, I would definitely double the nacho topping and pick up a 2nd bag of chips and more cheddar cheese.

taco seasoning- makes enough to season six pounds of burger
1/4 cup chili powder
3 tablespoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon each paprika, crushed red pepper, and salt
1 1/2 teaspoons each garlic powder, onion powder, dried oregano, black pepper

nacho topping
1.3 pounds ground beef (splurge on good quality, like sirloin, if you can. It's Christmas time!)
2- 3 tablespoons taco seasoning (see above)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
15.25 oz can of black beans, drained and rinsed

pico de gallo
3 pounds roma tomatoes (about 15 tomatoes)
juice from 1 lemon
1/2 - 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt (see note at step 3)
9 scallions (1 bunch), chopped on the bias
1 cup chopped cilantro
1 small serrano or jalapeno (optional)

2 ripe avocados
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
good squeeze of half a lemon or lime

to assemble
15 oz large bag of salted tortilla chips
4 cups shredded medium sharp cheddar cheese (2 cups per sheet pan)
1 pint sour cream
pickled jalapenos
guacamole (see recipe above)

1) Make taco seasoning: in a small bowl, stir all taco seasoning ingredients together, until evenly mixed. Save 3 tablespoons for this batch of nachos and store the rest for later use. Alternately, you can use one of the pre-mixed seasoning packets at the grocery store.

2) Make nacho topping: in a large skillet over medium high heat, cook the ground beef. Use a spatula to chop and cook until beef is completely browned. To drain, transfer the ground beef to a plate lined with paper towels and wipe the skillet out. Return beef to the skillet and add 1 cup of water and 3 tablespoons of the seasoning. Stir to combine and heat mixture until it boils, then reduce heat to a simmer. While beef is simmering, make pico de gallo. (Keep an eye on the pan and add additional water to keep from drying out). The longer the burger simmers, the more tender the meat will become. Think of this almost like making a taco meat bolognese.

3) Make pico de gallo: Cut roma tomatoes in half and scoop out and discard seeds. Chop tomatoes into 1/2 inch dice and add to a large bowl (you want a very large bowl to mix it all together.) To the bowl add the juice of one lemon and the kosher salt. Give it all a big stir. (Note: I HIGHLY recommend starting our conservative on the salt and tasting the salsa mixture with your tortilla chip, as you may want to adjust the salt level to the salsa based on the saltiness of the chip- i.e. the saltier your tortilla chip, the less salt you'll want in your salsa.) Then chop the scallions and cilantro and add to the tomatoes and stir together. If making the salsa in advance, cover and refrigerate but allow 20 minutes for it to come to room temperature before serving.

5) The beef should still be simmering and to it add the drained and rinsed black beans.

4) Make guacamole: Cut the avocados in half and remove the seed. Take a butter knife and, while the avocado is still in it's skin, score the flesh into cubes. Then, take a spoon and scoop the flesh into a medium bowl. Add the salt and a good squeeze of lemon or lime and stir but take care to not smash completely into a puree- I like guacamole that has a bit of the avocado cube textures in it.

5) To assemble: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a sheet pan with aluminum foil and scatter a good layer of tortilla chips. To the tortilla chips, sprinkle about 3/4 cup of the shredded cheddar cheese and then top with half of the ground beef and black bean topping. Top with 1 1/4 cup shredded cheese and bake for 7-10 minutes or until cheese is melted and gooey. Remove pan from oven and serve with salsa, guacamole, sour cream and pickled jalapeños.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

split pea soup

First off, my most sincere thanks for all the kind words and messages on my last post. It really meant a lot to me. I read every single comment and felt your love and care. Thank you.

We have now entered the time of year where I want to eat and do all the holiday things. There is no shortage of activities and to-dos and I am on board for all of it. Really, sign me up. But I also don't want to be shackled to my kitchen while everyone else is off having fun. My latest trick has been making a big batch of soup and freezing half of it. I know, this is not new nor really a trick. I bet most people already do this but it's kind of like I just remembered it and man, am I glad I did. In the past month I made the following soups: chicken noodle, tomato carrot, spiced lentil, and split pea. With each batch I freeze a portion for future consumption and I when I arrive at that future need, I am so thrilled with my own foresight: "Well done me from 10 days ago! Look at how well you planned ahead!" I pull one of the frozen soups, put in the fridge to unthaw for a couple days and we have a wonderful weeknight meal.

Split pea soup has been a favorite since I was a kid and my Dad used to put a batch in the crockpot, to cook all day with a ham hock. It was a comfort to walk in the door, from out of a cold snowy day, and have a bowl of it.

If there is split pea soup on a menu, I almost always have to order it. For years if I went to California Pizza Kitchen with friends, I ordered the split pea and barley soup. People would talk about the CPK barbecue chicken pizza and I had no idea what was being referenced because I was too busy eating soup. (My husband and I also used to really love their waldorf chicken salad but they changed the recipe a bit and it's no longer my favorite.)

While some soup recipes requiring doubling so that there is enough for leftovers, this recipe makes a whopping large batch of soup. I'd be impressed if someone had a soup pot large enough for doubling it. But what I really love about this recipe is the addition of dried oregano. In a million years I would not have thought to include it but Ina Garten, as she does so well, knows that the subtle herb note provides the perfect lift to the split peas.

The only slight change I have made to the recipe is to add all the split peas at once and to cook until they are soft. Ina's original instructions have to cook 1 1/2 pounds of the split peas and then halfway through the cooking time, add the remaining half pound. The idea is that this adds a little bit of texture to the soup but I've found that I prefer the split peas cooked all the way through and smooth.

split pea soup

2 cups chopped yellow onions (about 2 large onions)
1 tablespoon minced garlic (about 3 cloves)
1/4 cup good olive oil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
4 cups medium-diced carrots (about 6-8 carrots)
2 cups medium-diced red boiling potatoes, unpeeled but well scrubbed (about 6 small)
2 pounds dried split peas
8 cups chicken stock (for vegetarian split pea soup, please feel free to use all water)
8 cups water

1) In a large stockpot over medium heat, add the olive oil and, once heated, add the onions, oregano, salt and pepper. Do not let the onions brown, but cook until they are translucent, about 10 to 15 minutes. Then add the garlic and saute for about a minute.

2) Add the carrots, potatoes, split peas and stock and water. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat so that the soup simmers. Split peas take a good long time to soften up. I find I need to cook for about an hour. While the soup cooks, a bit of foam with form at the surface. Take a spoon to skim off and discard. Give the whole mixture a good stir, every once in a while and take care that the bottom of the soup is not getting burned.

3) Before serving, taste for salt and pepper. It is at this point that I divide the soup and serve half and freeze the remaining portion.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The year of three Thanksgivings

The year of three Thanksgivings is a 12-month period in 2014 and 2015 during which I cooked three Thanksgiving meals, but not one was on Thanksgiving Day. It was also the hardest year of my life.

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. Growing up, my Grandma Irene hosted and it was a family dinner for seven: my parents, two sisters and I, Grandpa Tom, and Grandma Irene. My immediate family did not bring anything, Grandma took care of it all. She set her dining room table early in the week. Brought to Alaska in the late 70’s from the ranch house in the Midwest, the table would be set with slender brass candlesticks and linens in dark cranberry. When we arrived at her home in late morning, there was a snack or “relish” tray for us kids. One of our favorites was a Ritz cracker topped with a dollop of sour cream and a smoked oyster. The oven racks were loaded with a turkey and various casserole dishes. Grandma, never one for last minute chaos, made all the side dishes in advance and simply reheated them on Thanksgiving Day. After our snack, my sisters and I would adjourn to the den to fight over which TV channel to watch. With no cable TV at home, we considered an afternoon of it a luxury. At some point, mom would stick her head in to let us know dinner was ready and we would pry ourselves from whatever Disney channel drama we were sucked into and move to the dining room table; the candles glowing and our glasses filled with sparkling apple cider. After grace, we’d load up our plates at the buffet on the kitchen counter. Like most family Thanksgiving menus', there was little variation from year to year: bronzed roast turkey, Stovetop stuffing, green bean casserole (the kind with canned green beans and canned cream of mushroom soup- I still love it. One year Grandma substituted in garden grown green beans and us kids were horrified), homemade gravy and always, her incredible mashed potatoes. There was  cranberry sauce made from the high bush cranberries Grandpa Tom picked when he went out chopping wood. In my childhood memory, it was a meal of elegance, calm, and plenty. I admired Grandma for her ability to so seamlessly carry it off. I felt so loved.

Grandma Irene loved to host holiday dinners for us. Years later, when she broke her hip and recovered at an assisted living facility in Seattle, my family flew to join her for Christmas. My older sister lived locally and offered to host at her house for dinner but Grandma insisted we all dine at the assisted living home. The facility put together a nice meal and we all dressed up, including Grandma Irene. I think she needed to feel like she could create a beautiful meal experience for us again, regardless of the circumstances.

First Thanksgiving 
Place: My parents’ house, Haines, Alaska
Time: October 5, 2014
Number of guests: 11
  • Herbed butter roasted turkey
  • Grandma Irene's mashed potatoes
  • Homemade gravy
  • Roasted butternut squash with maple syrup
  • Stovetop stuffing
  • Classic green bean casserole
  • Jellied cranberry sauce
  • Rolls
  • Pumpkin mascarpone pie
In the fall of 2014, I was living in Southern California. I grew up in Alaska and so my husband and I planned a fall visit to see my family. My parents, younger sister and Grandma Irene all lived there, although in recent months, Grandma had moved into an assisted living facility in town.

I had not been home in autumn season since leaving for college, 16 years prior. Fall in Southeast Alaska is beautiful- the trees in the Chilkat Valley glow in their yellow, orange and red colors, a contrast to the river and snowy mountain peaks.

The months prior to this visit had been painful. My husband and I spent the previous two years visiting doctors and running tests which resulted in my diagnosis of infertility. In late 2013 we experienced three failed rounds of intrauterine insemination (IUI) and in May of 2014 we moved on to the more invasive procedure of in vitro fertilization (IVF). Just in time for our 14th wedding anniversary, the IVF cycle failed. It was devastating.

The week that followed the IVF cycle failure remains the longest of my life. I saw gray hair develop overnight. I moved in a fog and there are blocks of time I simply cannot recall. Our doctor was surprised by the outcome as my body had been responding well to the treatment injections along the way. In the infertility world, I was young, just 34. Three days after the cycle failed, we met in his office, surrounded by heavy dark wood bookcases, large diplomas, and an oversized saltwater fish tank. He encouraged us to consider another round of IVF. He said we could try a different medication protocol that could potentially produce different results. We said we needed to think about it.

Before deciding what to do next, I needed to hear myself. The previous months had been noisy with worry and anxiety and I felt cut off from my intuition. The infertility treatments involved significantly increasing the hormone levels in my body and I did not like the way I felt. I described it to someone as feeling like I woke up with Attention Deficit Disorder. It was hard to focus.

My husband and I gave ourselves time. When I was diagnosed with infertility in late 2012, I felt like my body let me down. These limbs, these organs were a disappointment because they were unable to do the one thing that was most essential, the genetic purpose of my existence, the reason I am a woman. Weighed down by stress, I began to over eat. By summer of 2013, I gained about 25 pounds. After the IVF cycle failed, I realized how poorly I was treating my body: pumping it with drugs, scarfing down whatever would momentarily make me feel better. I did not think my unhealthy eating contributed to my infertility but I knew it was making me feel bad. I bought a T-shirt that said, "I love you no matter what.” I would practice saying it to myself in front of the bathroom mirror- trying to tell my body that no matter what happens, I love you and I will take care of you. I could never get so far as saying “I forgive you”, but I knew it was a start. My husband and I did a month of intense healthy eating (basically a diet where you eat only non-processed foods, protein and vegetables. There is no dairy, sugar, or wheat.) Between June 2014, when the IVF cycle failed, and my trip home in October 2014, I lost 19 pounds and was feeling better about myself. My husband and I decided we would do another round of IVF after our Alaska vacation and viewed our trip home as a good break before diving back into the madness.

It was my idea to host a Thanksgiving dinner in October, during our visit home. Since moving away for college, I had not had Thanksgiving with my parents and hoped to recreate some of the comfort from my childhood memories. We had our Thanksgiving meal on a Sunday afternoon. In a notebook, I outlined the menu and timing of the prep-work. That morning, before Church, Dad helped me get the turkey in the oven. The turkey roasted in the same (well-scrubbed) oversized lidded roasting pan he uses in the summer to boil the crab he catches. To set the table, mom and I thumbed through her table linens and supply of candle holders. When I blind baked the crust for the pumpkin pie, I realized I put too much water in the dough. An easy mistake, too much water initially helped the crust dough form together but, in the heat of the oven, the crust collapsed, the edges rumpled down the sides of the pie plan. With the back of a well-worn wooden spoon, I pushed the crust back into place and quickly poured the filling in, a mixture of pumpkin, mascarpone and spices, hoping the pressure of the thick custard would help hold the crust in-place while it finished baking. We sat down to dinner around 4pm and joining my family were other local extended family members and friends. Grandma Irene was too frail to travel by car from the assisted living facility. My biggest regret from that day is not saving a plate of food to share with her later. I wish I had made the time.

My memories of this Thanksgiving meal are the warm glow of the table candlelight against the indigo of early evening and how everyone lingered at the table to visit. At one point, Dad pulled mom and I aside in the kitchen and told us what a beautiful job we'd done with the dinner. My husband and I felt such optimism heading back to California- like we could bottle it up, like we could hold it with us forever. It made us want to believe the next round of treatment could be successful, that we could still have our family.

The next morning, before we left my parent’s house, my mother slipped a carved silver bracelet cuff on my arm. Grandma Irene made it in 1977, when she was studying Tlingit silver carving after moving to Haines from the Midwest. Grandma Irene made the bracelet but gave it to my Grandma Betty, my Dad's mom, who had it for 37 years. For some reason, in the summer of 2014, Grandma Betty sent the bracelet back to my mom. She wanted her to have it because her mom had made it. A handmade piece of jewelry shared between both Grandmothers, I knew what a family treasure it was. The animal carved on it was a bear. My mother gave it to me and said that I was her "coco bear", my childhood nickname. Because I called her "mama bear", she thought I should have it. Unspoken was the deep desire that someday someone would call me "mama bear" too. I wore it like a talisman.

Second Thanksgiving
Place: Grandma Irene's house, Haines, Alaska
Time: November 28, 2014, the day after Thanksgiving
Number of guests: 8
  • Roast turkey
  • Grandma Irene’s mashed potatoes
  • Stovetop stuffing
  • Green bean casserole
  • Rolls
  • Jellied cranberry sauce
  • I don't think there was any pie
The second round of IVF was harder: the new stimulation drug protocol recommended by my doctor doubled the amount of injections my husband administered to me. During the first IVF treatment round, I had a nice soft pillow of belly fat to pinch to stick the needle into, but because I had lost weight, it was not as easy. My husband was patient and skilled but the daily process wore on us both.

I have hated needles all my life. I hoped a side benefit of IVF would be I could overcome that fear, like it was some kind of immersion therapy. It actually made it worse. We administered the medicines each evening at 9pm and, as the clock ticked closer, I found my anxiety level spiking. Our routine was to sit at the dining room table, lay out the needles, syringes, and vials of medicine. I would watch as my husband carefully measured the doses and then close my eyes and count to ten. I willed myself to focus on counting the numbers, believing I could handle anything for ten seconds. I began to hate the sight of my dining room chairs.

At the infertility clinic, each time I had to have blood drawn (which was a lot), I bribed myself with the promise of a new book. I would already have the title picked out in my mind and when the phlebotomist would secure the cotton ball in the crook of my arm with a Band-Aid, I'd whip my phone out to the Amazon app and make the selection.

How an IVF cycle works is a patient takes medication for a number of days to stimulate the ovaries to produce a high volume of eggs. In a regular ovulation cycle, a woman's body will produce 1-2 eggs. The goal of IVF is to produce many more eggs. Once they have grown to a mature size, the patient is sedated and the doctor "retrieves" the eggs by a large needle (basically, my absolute fucking nightmare.) Once the eggs are removed, they are fertilized with sperm and grow for 3 days. It is normal for not all the eggs to fertilize and by day 3, the patient and doctor will discuss how many embryos are available to transfer to the patient’s uterus.

Through all of these weeks, I prayed. Most often my prayers were just “please, please help us.” There have been times in my life when I have prayed and felt God give me peace or confirmation for whatever it was I was asking for. During this second IVF cycle, we were driving home from church, eastbound on the 210 freeway and somewhere around Pasadena I confessed to my husband that, in my prayers, I had not felt an answer from God that this treatment would work. I said it felt like we were doing it so that we could know we tried everything but I did not feel a surge of faith to believe this was going to happen for us. How I did feel that God responded was the sense that, someday, my husband and I would be okay. It was a reassurance that this experience would not permanently break us. The promise that someday I would actually feel okay seemed impossible but I clung to it.

On Sunday 11/16/14, I was days away from egg retrieval. My husband and I went to church in the morning and, in an attempt to distract ourselves from the upcoming week, then visited Huntington Gardens. It is a beautiful and peaceful place to walk. My phone showed a missed call from mom but I decided to call her back once we were home. As we drove away from the gardens, my sister texted, "You need to call mom." My stomach sank. My husband pulled the car over and, at a curb, under a canopy of ginko biloba trees turned gold by fall, my mother told me Grandma Irene died. My mother and younger sister had been with her as she passed away peacefully. I knew she had been declining but hoped I could get through the IVF cycle and have the opportunity to tell her I was pregnant. Losing her was heartbreaking. A few short days later, we learned that, once again, treatment was not successful. My husband and I met with the doctor and asked if he thought there was anything else we could do. He said that while he would be happy to keep taking our money, he did not have any reason to believe future treatments would result in a different outcome.

On Thursday 11/27, Thanksgiving Day, we left to attend Grandma Irene's funeral in Alaska.

In the few days between the IVF cycle failing and traveling to Alaska, I realized that I was not up to the tasks ahead of me. One of the terrible things about death is that it is emotionally devastating but also there are quite a lot of activities to be done along with it. I knew that, in my state, I did not have it in me to be the support my family needed. But I also knew that I would desperately disappoint myself if I wasn’t able to do that. I began to play a little game, asking myself, in twenty years, how will I wish I handled this? The answer always came back that I will wish I had been engaged and supportive. I told myself I could fall apart another time, that there would always be time to do that. I forced myself to engage and step-up. And so, I made Thanksgiving dinner.

We arrived the day after Thanksgiving and my family had waited until we were home. Understandably my mom and her older sister were wrapped up in preparations for the memorial service and my older sister and I took the lead on putting a casual Thanksgiving meal together. In my notebook, I still had the outline from the Thanksgiving I cooked in October and I used that as a basic plan but edited it down. I am sure I did not make a pumpkin pie. We decided to cook and host in my Grandma’s house. It was bittersweet to be in her kitchen without her. Every cupboard, drawer and dish had memories attached to them. When I made the potatoes, I looked at the worn wooden handle of the masher and thought of all the Thanksgivings she had used the same tool. I remain grateful for that last experience of cooking in her kitchen.

The next day, I helped set up the church for the memorial. My sisters and I sang a hymn for the service. In the time that followed, I project managed the process of packing up my Grandmother’s house, dividing up the belongings among her children, and shipping them to the different parts of the country where they lived. Through it all, my husband never once left my side. His presence was persistently with me. We were so broken but we moved together through those days. I shared with him my desire to push past my pain and be there for my family but he tried to draw limits where he could. At the memorial service a well-meaning family member tried to insist on Josh video-taping the service for family that couldn’t be there, but he declined, knowing that where he needed to be was sitting beside me, his arm around my shoulders.

Going through Grandma’s belongings took a number of days and one of the things found were two beautiful pairs of baby-sized handmade Native Alaskan moccasins. My mother and Aunt insisted my older sister, three months pregnant, take a pair. They turned to me and asked if I wanted a pair. I quickly said no. I knew it would be too painful to bring them home and leave them unworn. No one looked at me but they kept asking “Are you sure you don’t want them?” insistent and seemingly puzzled as to why I did not take them. Over and over I said no. It was like we were talking in code about my life, the subtext being, had I really given up hope on children? Or maybe, given everything going on, they had momentarily forgotten my circumstances. I walked out of the room and stood in an alcove, taking in big gulps of air and forcing myself not to scream.

For people who have not experienced infertility, I do not know if I can properly convey the depth of pain and disappointment. While the treatments and doctors’ visits and medication protocols were awful, they were at least an active thing to do. While we were doing them there was still hope, still a belief that maybe we would get pregnant and have a child and this terrible time would be a blip in our lives. While we were going through the treatments, I felt like I was housed in a bubble of grace, like I was able to cope. But once it was over, once it was clear this was not going to happen for us, it became very dark. Having this darkness descend at the same time I was reflecting on my Grandmothers beautiful life, celebrating all she had given to her children and grandchildren, added a new element of loss to her death. A deep fear gripped me that there would be no children or grandchildren when I die, no one that I leave behind. One of the things infertility illuminated for me was how the desire to have children is tangled up in the personal desire to keep on living. It is the survival of my gene’s but also a belief that somehow the essence of me will keep going- someone who has my smile or love of reading or something. My grief was a mess of loss for Grandma and loss for myself. I felt bad that I couldn’t just think of her, but it seemed like both sides of my life had been chopped off- my past with her and the future with any children. I floated only in the undefined present.

This pain was only in thinking of my own loss. When I thought about my husband, I could barely breathe. I felt keenly that I had let him down in the most basic way- that I had broken the most basic responsibility. I have never been unfaithful but my infertility felt like the deepest betrayal.

We went back to California.

Third Thanksgiving
Place: Family Reunion at the cabin, Fish Hook Lake, Minnesota
Time: July 5, 2015
Number of guests: 40
  • Roast turkey breast
  • Grandma Irene’s mashed potatoes 
  • Sauteed green beans with shallots 
  • Roasted butternut squash
  • Kale Salad with parmesan, golden raisins and lemon vinaigrette 
On Thursday 7/02/15 I flew from Orange County John Wayne Airport and switched planes in Denver to a regional airline to Fargo, North Dakota. I picked up the rental car and sat in the Fargo International Airport for eight hours waiting for my mom and sister to fly in from Alaska. They had missed their earlier flight and I sat next to the baggage claim turnstile and read an entire book on my phone. Once they arrived, we drove two hours to my Aunt & Uncle’s cabin in Park Rapids Minnesota. The weekend was a family reunion of Grandma Irene’s children and their families. In total, it was expected to be 30 adults and 10 children. Because Grandma died in winter, travel to Alaska for the memorial service had not been possible for everyone. The siblings wanted to get together to remember, share and be with one another. The logistics of a crowd this size can be a challenge and each family took a turn making dinner. My mom, younger sister and I signed up for Sunday 7/05 and mom had the idea to do “Thanksgiving in July”. When she told me about it over the phone, a few weeks earlier, I thought it sounded like a good idea. After all, I had made two Thanksgiving dinners already that year and because it was a meal Grandma did so well, I thought it fitting. However, there were a number of things I did not take into consideration: I would be cooking Thanksgiving for a much larger crowd of people (about 40), which is a lot of people to be worried about serving raw turkey to; I would be grocery shopping for Thanksgiving items in a small town in July and certainly could not count on the availability of off-season goods; I would be trying to pull this all off in a kitchen that I had never been in; and finally, I was exhausted and spent beyond anything I had ever experienced.

Since the failure of our second IVF cycle seven months prior, I continued to work and go through daily motions, but inwardly I was struggling significantly. In January, there was a reorganization at work and I remained in my same position but new leadership took the team in a different direction. As my work changed, I struggled to find focus and clarity. The skills I had once relied on did not serve me well and, for the first time, I found myself failing at work. Although the previous years had been heartbreaking personally, professionally they were a time of some of my biggest accomplishments. Work had been a place of comfort and escape. Those successes were a source of strength for me and when that went away, it was devastating. I started to have anxiety attacks. My confidence in my abilities eroded.

In addition to the loss of Grandma Irene, in December 2014, my father’s mother, Grandma Betty, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. In March 2015, she passed away. I was sad for her death and also for my parents to lose both their mothers so close to one another. We thought we might have more time with Grandma Betty. She had a wonderful wry sense of humor and was tough as nails. During World War II, she worked at the Boeing factory and, later, after her first husband left her for another woman, raised three small children on her own. She was the first person I ever saw flip off another driver (I was six years old) and us girls loved her ballsy no-nonsense attitude. I tried to channel her strength.

My husband and I continued to go through our days. We’d hug and say “I’m sorry it’s so hard”. Sometimes we’d quote Winston Churchill to one another, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” We realized that not only were we experiencing internal loss, but our place in society also changed. As a married couple in our 30s without children, we became outliers. Arounds us, most friends had young families and our ability to connect with them felt stunted. When the thing you want most, to raise a child, is not available to you but is the primary occupation of your friends, relationships suffer. At church, I cringed at the seemingly constant emphasis on families and parenting (don’t even get me started about Mother’s Day). My grief could be ugly. The Sunday morning music leader used to regularly share stories of his son, as a metaphor for how much God loves us. He would say things like, “When I look at my son sleeping in his car seat, I think of how much I love him and how much being a father has taught me about God’s love.” I wanted to slap him and tell him to quit being so smug. With fresh eyes, I thought of my single friends who wanted to be in relationships, but were not. My own loss gave me empathy for how much they too must have felt left out and how, in years past, in my own blissful ignorance, I may have been the one who caused it.

My husband and I did our best to support one another but I went into survival mode, seeing one day at a time and being easily overwhelmed. I was unbearably sad but did not share with friends or family about what was going on. My own isolation did not help me.

I remember a particular Saturday evening: my husband was out of town on a business trip and I did not make any plans. I was going to distract myself with a movie but that night, not even that worked. I laid on the thin wool rug on the floor of the den and my dog Duke laid down next to me. I draped an arm over him, felt the warmth from his long body and sobbed. I continued to believe that someday I would be okay but could not imagine how I would get there. I was stalled.

It was in this state that I arrived at the July family reunion. It was good to see people I had not seen for a long time, but my focus quickly shifted to the dinner my mother, sister and I committed to cooking. My task oriented brain locked on to the one thing I could try to control. I made it into a much bigger responsibility than it was.

My first step was to check out the local grocery store which, understandably, did not have turkeys in July. They did have frozen rock-solid turkey breasts. I read online that it is okay to unthaw frozen turkey in a tub of water as long as the water is changed every 30 minutes. With worry as an alarm clock, I spent the late evening and early morning of Sunday 7/04 changing the water on a sink full of the turkey breasts because they did not have time to thaw out in the fridge.

Like the previous Thanksgiving dinners, I put together my notebook timeline and did as much prep work as we could in advance: the morning of we snapped the ends off of five pounds of green beans, I finely chopped multiple bunches of kale and, so the greens would have time to soften up, pre-dressed them in olive oil and lemon juice. The fact that I served kale salad as part of a Thanksgiving menu should be an indicator of how far gone I was. In the afternoon, I quick blanched the green beans and set to work peeling 14 pounds of potatoes. Somewhere in this process, I started to cave inwards. I was overwhelmed and mostly because I had such little personal resources to draw on. I paused to give myself a little pep talk. I did not want to draw attention and have a meltdown or disappoint my family. I knew I needed to dig deep to find the motivation and strength to continue. In that moment, I saw a clear image of my Grandma Irene, sitting at the dining room table, smiling at me. As I went about making the dinner, I used her image keep me going, the belief that in doing this I was honoring her memory.

I want to be clear: at any point in time I am I could have asked my extended family for help. I know they would have been so gracious about it. But my pain masked my ability to see options. I made it through the dinner but, I know it was not the best. There was plenty for all to eat but the mashed potatoes were lumpy and dry, I did not make any gravy and there was no stuffing. When I sautéed the green beans, I used butter instead of olive oil, so after they were cooked and sitting on the buffet, the butter turned back to solid, cold nubs studded through the beans. One of my Uncle’s carved the five turkey breasts, which, mercifully, were cooked through.

Somehow, this thing that had helped me, cooking Thanksgiving dinner, also exposed how much help I needed. My inability to handle it woke me up to the realization that I was not getting better on my own. During that four-day visit, my stress level was so high, I had difficulty eating. Back in California, I discovered I lost 6 pounds on my already slim frame. I admitted to myself that I was not yet okay. I asked a friend for a referral and found a local therapist. Working with her she helped me see that I was experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. The reliving of events, the crying in the shower, the anxiety attacks were because my brain was treating any little thing that went wrong on the same scale as this big thing (my infertility) that went wrong. I started to see the therapist regularly and began the painstaking work of talking about my experience, learning about anxiety and sharing my grief. At work, I eventually found a new position that I was a better fit for and again experienced some success, which helped me regain confidence in my abilities. None of this was clear or easy, but slowly, I started to feel better.

It has now been three years since the hardest year of my life, my year of three Thanksgivings. I wish I had a splashy ending for you. I wish I could tell you I finally got pregnant and we have children. I wish could tie it all up with a neat bow. God, I wish I could. Part of the reason I have hesitated in sharing my experience is because I feel the burden of wanting to have a happy ending to share. I do not like the unresolved, but this side of heaven, there are some things I will not understand.

However, three years later, I am where I hoped I would someday be: I am okay. My husband and I are okay. To be okay, after where I was, feels amazing. I think anyone who has significant loss can understand that grief becomes something to live with. I can hold my grief and also be profoundly grateful for my life today: my husband loves me and I am still married, I have friends and family that care for me, and there are so many beautiful things in this world. At 37 years old, my life does not look how I thought it would, but I am okay.

Singer-songwriter Laura Marling has a song “Blackberry Stone” and the last lines of it say:

                “But I couldn’t turn my back on the world for what I like, wouldn’t let me. 
                 But I couldn’t turn my back on the world for what I like, I needed.
                And I shouldn’t turn my back on the sweet-smelling blackberry stone.” 

What is funny is I thought the last line of the song said, “And I shouldn’t turn my back on the sweet-smelling blackberry scone.” I looked it up the other day and learned it actually says, “sweet-smelling blackberry stone.” Over all those months, when I listened to the song in my car, I liked my version of the final line because it reminded me that I loved simple things, like scones, too much to turn my back on life. It is basic but my love for food, creating and sharing it with others, anchored me and helped me to keep living until it would no longer hurt so much. I think that is why I wanted to cook all those Thanksgiving dinners- I was reminding myself that even though everything had gone wrong and I could not fix it, I was still in a world where I could make Grandma’s mashed potatoes. And that, with the belief that someday I would be okay, was enough to help me through.

Thanksgiving remains my favorite holiday. This year, when I sit down at the table, I bring with me all the previous meals, good and hard, and I am grateful to still say grace.

Grandma Irene’s mashed potatoes 

At each of the three Thanksgivings I cooked, the menu was a little bit different, but one thing was constant: the mashed potatoes. This is how my grandmother made them and they remain my Thanksgiving standard. With cream cheese and sour cream, these mashed potatoes are rich and not unlike the filling to a twice baked potato. If you're concerned about the proportion of cream cheese to potato, feel free to dial it back but may need to increase the amount of milk.

These potatoes have real heft to them- the perfect vehicle to hold a pool of gravy. The recipe below reheats beautifully and scales up nicely. For a Thanksgiving crowd, I usually double or triple it. When it comes to leftovers, I do not want to run out of mashed potatoes.

8-10 medium russet potatoes, peeled and cut into one inch cubes
8 oz cream cheese, cut into half inch cubes
1/2 cup sour cream
1 cup whole milk
salt and pepper

1) To a large lidded pot, add cubed potatoes and fill with enough cold water to cover potatoes by one inch. Place lid on pot and cook over medium high heat until water boils. Once boiling, remove lid and reduce heat, but keep the water at a good simmer. Cook until potatoes are very tender, about 20-25 minutes. To test the potatoes for doneness, I remove a couple of cubes and try to smash them with a fork. It should yield pretty easily.

2) Drain potatoes and return to pot, but keep off the heat. Add in the cubed cream cheese and sour cream. The residual heat from the pot and just boiled potatoes should start to melt the cream cheese. Add in 1/2 cup of the whole milk and a good pinch of salt and pepper. Using a potato masher, mash together the potatoes, cream cheese, sour cream and milk. As you work, you will likely want to add the remaining 1/2 cup whole milk to keep the potatoes from becoming too dry. Mash until the potato pieces have all broken down and mixed with the cream cheese, sour cream and milk to form a heavy mash. It will not be light and fluffy but should be mostly smooth.

3) Serve immediately or transfer to an oven-safe casserole dish, cover, and keep warm in a low oven.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

doll cinnamon roll cookies (or pie crust cookies)

I was having a hard morning. Sometimes it just happens, doesn’t it? I traced my discontent to the plums trees in the backyard. It turns out, our rental house had 5 cherry plum trees, running along the fence line, which was amazing and also a little bit annoying. The annoying part is because plum pits are toxic for dogs. Each morning in August, no matter how diligent we were in picking them from the tree, there were plums on the ground in the backyard and Duke and Harriet wanted nothing more than to hoover them up, their hound noses scouring the ground. Every day began with me scanning and scooping up plums, so that the dogs could then go outside. It was a little thing, but when it’s 5:30am and the coffee has not yet brewed and I'm in my pajamas hoping the neighbors don't see, it felt bigger. If I missed some fallen plums, which I inevitably did, I had to wrestle them out of the dogs’ mouths and neither one of us walked away happy from that exchange. The dogs were so obsessed, they took to digging under the fence, stuffing their snouts under the boards to snag fallen plums from the neighbor’s yard.

On one particular morning, I was just over the whole circus of it (picking up plums, hollering at the dogs to stop eating plums or digging holes, etc) and frustrated because of a failed dessert the night before. I had this idea of making a plum crostada with fruit from this unforeseen harvest. Doesn’t that sound lovely? A crostada is a like a free-form pie and I thought it would be just perfect to envelope the crust around a filling of tart plum halves. In the afternoon, I made up a batch of Ina Garten’s crostada dough and put it in the fridge. After supper, I washed some plums and set to work to remove the pit. Twenty minutes later I quit the effort in disgust. These plums were darling but absolute son-of-a-bitches to pit. Even when the plum was perfectly ripe, the pit clung resolutely and carving it out was tedious and removed about 40% of the fruit along with the pit. Marilla Cuthbert may be disappointed in me but I just couldn’t continue.

By the next morning my attitude towards the plum trees shifted from lovely bonus surprise to unwanted burden. I had plenty of things to get done, but I decided to just stop and deal with myself. Sometimes the easiest thing to ask ourselves is “what do you need right now?” We can’t always get what we want (sing along here) but acknowledging always helps me. And in this particular case, it led me to taking my crostada dough from the fridge and making a favorite childhood treat.

When my mom would make pie, once the dough was laid into the pie plate, the extra trims from the edges were gathered and set aside to make pie crust cookies. The scraps were rolled out to make their own thin pie crust layer, which our little fingers would spread with butter and then rub in with cinnamon sugar. We were obsessed with them (I particularly loved licking my cinnamon sugar butter coated fingers) and thought they looked like cinnamon rolls for dolls.

As an adult, I have struggled to recreate them. The first few batches seemed to be lacking flavor. I address this by using crostada dough (which has a bit of sugar in the dough itself) and including nutmeg and cardamom along with the cinnamon.

Pie crust cookies

The great thing about Ina Garten's crostada dough recipe is it makes enough for two crusts. Save the extra one for these cookies. But, even if you're not planning to make a crostada, these cookies are so good that it is worth making the dough just for this.

Also, while these would be welcome year-round, I can't help but think they are particularly good this time of year alongside a bit of roasted seasonal fruit, like an apple or pear.

1 batch of crostada dough, chilled. Recipe here.
3 tablespoons butter, softened
½ cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
all-purpose flour (for rolling out dough)

1) Remove crostada dough from the fridge. If the dough is stiff, give it a few minutes (just a few) to soften up enough to roll out. In the meantime...

2) In a small bowl, mix together the sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and cardamom.

3) Lay down a sheet of parchment paper on the counter top, dust lightly with flour, and roll-out the dough into a large thin round, like you are rolling out a pie crust. Take care to adjust the dough as you roll it so that at the end it isn’t stuck to the paper.

4) Once the dough is rolled, spread evenly, all the way to the edges, with the softened butter. The easiest way to do this is with well-scrubbed hands.

5) Over the buttered dough round, sprinkle over about 6-7 tablespoons of the sugar-spice mixture. Be sure to get it right up to the edge of the dough. (Save the remaining sugar-spice mixture for topping toast or oatmeal.)

6) Starting with the edge closest to you, roll-up the dough into one long log. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for about 30 minutes.

7) In the meantime, preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Spread parchment paper on rimmed cookie sheets.

8) Remove roll of dough from fridge and slice into ¼ inch rounds, placing on the prepared cookie sheets. I can usually fit about 12-16 cookies per sheet, as these cookies do not spread too much as they bake.

9) Bake cookies for about 12-14 minutes: If you prefer more tender pie crust, I would go with the lower-end of baking time, but if you like things a little more crispy, leave them in a bit longer. In addition to getting crisper, the longer they bake, the sugar on the bottom caramelizes up a bit, adding to the texture.

10) Remove from oven and let rest briefly on the cookie sheet before transferring to cookie racks to cool. Like many baked goods, these are best warm from the oven or same day. But, as always, they are delicious the next morning with coffee.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

apple crisp

I have done a disservice to us all by waiting so long to share this recipe. To me, this is the apple crisp recipe to end all apple crisp recipes. It is Ina Garten magic at it's best: perfectly balanced between sweet and tart, with enough butter that you're tempted to be apologetic but decide not to care because it is just so damn good. There is a lot of crisp in this recipe but it is in perfect proportion to the volume of apples. The gorgeous rubble covers the apples completely, ensuring each serving gets a substantial portion. When it comes to eating apple crisp who wants to get short-changed on the crisp? I don't and I love that Ina gets that.

I am sorry to be such a brag, but I have moved to apple heaven. Oh, don't worry, in January when it is dark and cold, my Southern California friends can rib me with pictures of their sunny 70 degree days, but in the meantime, fall here is just showing off. The apples pictured above are from my friend Wendy. She had me over for the afternoon, fed me a lovely lunch (which included curried chicken salad- I could have cried it was so good) and then we walked around her property, which includes her apple trees. She generously offered me as many as my hands could pick and then we returned to her house to sample some with caramel sauce. Sounds pretty much perfect, don't you think? The apples were so beautiful and I had fun arranging them to show off their various shades.

With this apple abundance, I made a large batch of apple butter and also we have been snacking on them daily. My favorite apple use though, has to be in apple crisp. We had family visiting last weekend. Early in the day, I made the crisp topping and apple filling and refrigerated separately. The apple filling can be done in advance because it includes both lemon and orange zest and juices, which in addition to adding incredible flavor, help keep the apples from turning brown when exposed to air. In the evening, just before sitting down to watch a movie, I assembled the crisp to bake. There is no seasonal special candle that accurately captures the wafting smell of spicy sweet goodness from a baking apple crisp. I like mine topped with whole milk yogurt, but the majority of folks seem to prefer vanilla ice cream. This recipe makes quite a good-sized pan of crisp: it fed 4 adults and 3 teenage boys and we still had leftovers.

apple crisp

5 pounds assorted apples - I like to use a good volume of Granny Smith apples plus an assortment of other varieties. Ina recommends McIntosh or Macoun.
grated zest of 1 orange
grated zest of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup oatmeal
1/2 pound cold unsalted butter, large chopped

1) Preheat over to 350 degrees. Butter a 9 x 14 x 2 inch baking dish. I use a classic rectangle glass casserole dish.

2) Prep the apples: peel, core and cut into large wedges. I cut peeled apples in half, then quarters, core them and then cut each quarter into 3 slices.

2) In a large bowl, toss the apple wedges with the zests, juices, sugar and spices. Give a big stir to coat all. Pour the dressed apples into the baking dish and be sure to include any accumulated juices.

3) For the topping, Ina's instructions include using the stand mixer, but I find more success with a pastry cutter and my hands: in a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, two sugars, salt and oatmeal. Using a pastry cutter, cut in the butter until the butter is the size of peas. Likely, you'll have some crisp crumbles start to form, but also some floury bits remaining. At this point, I switch to using my well-scrubbed hands to rub the butter into the remaining mixture until it all starts to come together. Layer the crisp rubble evenly over the apples.

4) Bake for one hour until the top is browned and the apples are bubbly. I also take a small knife to poke into the crisp to verify the apples have softened. Let stand for about 10 minutes and then serve warm with your desired topping.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Rotini with arugula pesto, pangrattato and crispy egg (aka fried egg sandwich pasta)

I am a greedy eater. My main motivation for cooking is that I love food and I want to eat more of what I like. Sometimes I get hooked on a idea or inspired by a certain combination of flavors and get a little obsessed with how to make the thought into something I can eat. This recipe is a narrative of my greediness.

Recently, my husband has been traveling out of town and so I put my menu planning together just for me. Everyone handles "single eating" differently: I often use it for one of my favorite dinners- tater tots, a glass of chardonnay and Netflix. I also view it as an opportunity to try out a new recipe.  One of my favorite easy suppers is a fried egg sandwich with arugula. I love the peppery arugula with the salty silkiness of the egg.  I love the sandwich so much, I was thinking about blogging about it, but felt sheepish because it is so basic. This sent my brain down the rabbit trail of "How can I take the flavors of this sandwich and translate it into more of meal? Something I could actually share with others?" These questions cross-pollinated with the view of my basil plant, sagging with unpicked leaves and a tub of unused arugula in my fridge. I recently read in Julia Turshen's book about her pesto process (yes, I am referencing her book again. I will likely never not be praising that book), and landed on the idea of a pasta coated with arugula and basil pesto and topped with a crispy fried egg. I loved it but had the nagging suspicion I was leaving an element out. Deb Perelman on Smitten Kitchen posted last winter about pangrattato which sounds fancy but here is what she had to say about it:
"Pangrattato translates from Italian as grated bread, referring to breadcrumbs themselves, but in dishes, it’s often known to as the poor man’s Parmesan because when you take that stale bread and lightly toast in in olive oil, herbs and seasonings — anything from just salt and pepper to garlic and anchovies, lemon zest and capers or olives — it adds remarkable texture and complex flavor to pasta without the expense of Parmesan."
Somewhere my memory dredged up this and I realized pangrattato would be the perfect "toast" element to my fried egg sandwich pasta. I love the moment when an idea coalesces. It doesn't happen all the time, but when it does I get a buzzy sort of feeling, like when I've had too much coffee.

Completely obsessed with the idea, I set out to execute it. It seriously turned out so good- the punchy herbal zing of the pesto with the savory crunch of the bread crumbs, all wrapped up in a cozy dish of pasta. While the first time through a new recipe takes a bit longer, I think if I make the pesto in advance and stash it in the freezer (as Julia recommends), this could easily be a weeknight dinner. While I've written the recipe below for 1-2 servings, I think it could be scaled up to feed more by increasing the pasta and eggs. The pesto recipe as written makes enough that it should cover a full pound of pasta.

(For ultimate fried egg sandwich inspiration, there is a perfect one in the film, Spanglish.)

Rotini pasta with arugula pesto, pangrattato and crispy fried egg (aka fried egg sandwich pasta)
serves 2 or 1 with leftovers

The pesto recipe is a (slight) variation from Julia Turshen's book, Small Victories. The original recipe called for walnuts, but as I have an aversion to them, I substituted the pumpkin seeds and it worked beautifully. Also, instead of all arugula, I include a cup of basil because my little basil plant on my windowsill was begging for some purpose.

The pangrattato and crispy egg recipe are from Smitten Kitchen and, with the exception of excluding rosemary in the pangrattato, I have used it as originally created, but provided my own instructions.

This is one of those recipes that goes quickly, so I highly recommend having ingredients prepped before getting started.

2 small (or 1 large) garlic cloves
1/2 cup toasted pumpkin seeds (to toast, spread on rimmed sheet pan in 375 degree oven and bake for approximately 5 - 7 minutes. Take care not to burn. Let cool completely before adding to pesto)
3 cups arugula, packed
1 cup basil leaves, packed
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 small (or 1 large) garlic clove, minced
1/2 - 3/4 cup fresh or stale corse bread crumbs (I took some leftover bread and whirled it for a bit in my food processor. Deb's recipe says you can also use panko breadcrumbs)
few fine gratings of lemon zest

to complete:
1/2 pound fusilli pasta (I think cavatappi would work very nicely too)
2 eggs (or 1 egg per person)
olive oil
salt & pepper

1) Make the pangrattato: In a medium skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat. Once the olive oil is shimmery, add the garlic for just a quick second, give it a stir, and then add breadcrumbs, salt, pepper and lemon zest. Immediately reduce the heat to low. Cook the mixture slowly until the bread crumbs are evenly toasted and golden brown. This is one of those steps where you need to stay at the stove and keep an eye on it to avoid burning. The reward for this fiddliness is a crunchy savory topping for the pasta. Once all toasted, remove from pan and set aside. (Try to avoid snacking on it- good luck)

2) Put large pot of salted water on to boil for the pasta. In the meantime...

3) Make the pesto: To a food processor, add the ingredients in stages, until they are finely chopped. This is Julia's methodology and its a smart solution to avoid having errant chunks in the final product. First up, while the food processor is running, add the garlic. Once the garlic is finely chopped, add the pumpkin seeds. Once the pumpkin seeds are finely chopped, add the arugula and basil. Then add the olive oil and parmesan and keep the food processor running until everything is well combined. You may need to stop a few times to scrape down the sides of the bowl. One finished, taste the pesto and add salt as necessary. At this point, I leave the pesto to sit in the food processor until it's time to add to the pasta- this way I can give it one last spin before pouring over.

4) Make crispy eggs: In a non-stick pan, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil per egg over high heat. Crack in an egg and season liberally with salt and pepper. Cook until white is set and egg yolk is still a bit runny (or cook yolk to your preference). If you can, carefully spoon the hot olive oil in the pan over the top of the egg. The edges of egg will get very crispy and crackly. Transfer cooked eggs to a plate lined with a paper towel. (I tend to cook my fried eggs one at a time, but please don't feel hampered by my own limitations.)

5) Assemble: Cook pasta according to package directions and before draining, set aside 1 cup of pasta water. Add pasta back to empty pot and add 1/3 cup of pesto and a few tablespoons of reserved pasta water. Toss pasta with sauce to coat, adding more pesto or water as needed. Divide pasta among shallow bowls and top with breadcrumbs and crispy egg. Serve immediately.

Note: this pesto is excellent as it's own element. A few nights later, I tossed the leftovers with some roasted veggies. Crazy good.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

A few thoughts about the dinner hour (and a recipe for ginger pork meatballs and coconut rice)

I used to ride the train to commute to downtown LA. At the end of the day, to return to Union Station, I would first catch the metro from Pershing Square. In my experience, anytime after 3:30pm, the metro would be packed with fellow commuters and when the doors would open, a river of us would spill out, flooding the metro platform and the staircases to the train connections. As we dutifully marched, pounding the stairs, the steady rhythm of footfalls seemed to reverberate "Get-Home-Get-Home-Get-Home". I liked, for that brief moment, feeling connected to the strangers around me, all of us sharing a common goal.

When I go to the grocery store during the post-work pre-dinner rush, I get a similar feeling. It's a frenzy as everyone has stopped in to snag whatever is needed to transition from work/school/after school activity to dinner table. No matter our backgrounds and circumstances, we all are engaged with a similar focus: we need to feed ourselves, to feed our families.

I think the weekday dinner presents a particular kind of meal challenge. For the most part, we are fine eating the same breakfast for weeks on end. If you're like me, you actually love the consistency of a breakfast routine. For lunch, a little more variety is appreciated, but no one expects a show: leftovers, lunchables, PB&J, its all acceptable. Then there's dinner- at the end of a day in which we're exhausted and rushed, it taunts us with expectations- to be delicious, to be homemade, to be interesting, to be healthy, to be filling, to be not too inexpensive, to be on-time, etc.

Since moving, I have embraced the dinner hour in a new way. At first it was exciting- I have time to cook! But after two weeks, I realized I was bored with my old standbys and that my weeknight meals had previously relied on eating out and Trader Joes solutions more than I thought. I started to wonder- what do other people eat for dinner? How are other people pulling this off? What can I make that won't put me in the kitchen for three hours? I love cooking with a crockpot, but too many meals in a row and they all start to take on the same texture.

I have learned that when I feel stuck it is an opportunity to embrace my curiosity and love of learning. If I don't know something, I should just learn it. So, over the last several weeks I've made a conscious effort to learn more about making dinner. I thought I would share a few of the resources I have found helpful and one new recipe that I absolutely love.

I would also like to learn from you: what are your favorite weeknight dinner meals? What is your menu planning strategy? What short-cuts do you find helpful? I'd welcome a conversation around the Dinner Hour.

I'd like our conversation to strike the balance of tone between "it's all so easy" and "ugh, cooking is a drag." I suspect, most days, we vacillate somewhere in-between. While I clearly love the internet and food blogging, I worry about a down-side to all the pictures of beautiful food out there. Does it cause us to put unrealistic expectations on ourselves? Recently, I read this article that said Americans are cooking less and less. It really bummed me out:

"...suggests that our fondness for Food TV has inspired us to watch more Food TV, and to want to eat more, but hasn’t increased our desire to cook. In part, Food TV has raised our standards to discouragingly high levels: How many of us really feel confident in our cooking skills after watching Iron Chef?"

I am encouraging myself to engage in daily cooking and setting aside the need, or pressure, to do it perfectly.

Here are some dinner time resources I have found helpful and inspiring lately:

"Dinner: Changing the Game" by Melissa Clark

  • Hands down, the book I am cooking out of most often these days. I borrowed a copy from the local library and have extended my check-out three times. I share one of the recipes below. The big aha for me is how many of the recipes use the broiler to cook dinner. Fast cooking time and hands-off? I'm in. (The book is due back this week at the library and I've been snapping pics with my phone of recipes I still want to try!)
  • Favorite recipes: Vietnamese ginger chicken, ginger pork meatballs (see recipe below), cumin chicken meatballs, fusilli and roasted cauliflower with capers.

"Small Victories" by Julia Turshen

  • The best compliment I can give this book is that it stays on my kitchen counter because I consult it so frequently. Not only are the recipes great but I have picked up tips and techniques  which make me feel smarter and more confident in the kitchen. 
  • Favorite recipes: Julia's Caesar, roasted radishes with kalamata dressing, roasted red cabbage, pickled red onions, "seven things to do with a can of chickpeas", raspberry jam buns with creme fraiche frosting.

"Mad Hungry" by Lucinda Scala Quinn

  • Quote I love: "Sometimes a home cook's challenge isn't just to make homemade food to also make do with what you have on hand." 
  • Favorite recipes: chicken enchiladas salsa verde, spicy indian chickpeas, cucumber yogurt salad 

"Dinner: a Love Story" by Jenny Rosenstrach

  • Published in 2012, I feel like this book sort of kicked off the latest wave of practical cookbooks. It is an ode to the dinner hour, with lots of practical wisdom and recipes included. 
  • Favorite recipes: Confession- I have not yet cooked anything out of this book but I do find it very inspiring to read. I think this totally still counts. 
"Slow Cook Modern" by Liana Krisoff 

  • This book was just released and so I have not yet had a chance to browse it. The recipes are for crockpots and I own another book by Liana Krisoff and really love it. This is at the top of my Christmas Wishlist.

I loved novelist Rumaan Alam's recent piece in epicurious about cooking for his family. I'm particularly inspired by how he saves up veggie scraps to freeze for later use in stocks. So clever!

On Instagram, I get inspiration from:
  • In her instagram stories, Mad Hungry author Lucinda Scala Quinn's shares clips of making family dinners and it's all straightforward and unpretentious. I learn just by watching her work.
  • Sarah Carey is the editorial director at Martha Stewart Living and most mornings preps her family's dinner before she leaves for work. On her ig feed she posts a picture and notes about how she puts it together. Again, it's unpretentious and she also shares good ideas for using up leftovers.
  • Deb Perelman with Smitten Kitchen is always inspiring and lately she's started using an instant pot. I'm looking forward to learning from her. (Also, her new cookbook looks like it may also be a good resource for weeknight cooking.)
Finally, I enjoyed this piece in Bon Appetit from The Cut editor Stella Bugbee about how she fits in meal prep time to her day. It was like a little light bulb went off in my brain: oh, just like how I prep for parties in advance, I can actually do prep work within each day to get a jump start on dinner.

ginger pork meatballs with cilantro and fish sauce and coconut rice
from "Dinner: Changing the Game" by Melissa Clark

This dinner was crazy good. It has all the fun stuff going on with a balance of salty, sweet, sour, crunchy, cream and spicy. I served it with a simple side of sliced radishes but you're welcome to put more effort into it. (I think the roasted green beans would do nicely.) My husband and I easily ate through a sheet pan of the meatballs. Next time I make them, I am for sure doubling the recipe and if you're serving more than two people, I'd recommend the same. My favorite part is how easy it is to broil the meatballs.

1 pound ground pork
1/3 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves
1/4 cup finely chopped scallions, white and greens parts
1 serrano chile, seeded and chopped (if you're not a fan of heat, I think you could leave out)
1 tablespoon finely chopped peeled fresh ginger
3 garlic cloves, grated on a microplane or minced
finely grated zest of 1 lime
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon Asian fish sauce (If you don't have this on-hand, I think it's okay to leave it out)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

dipping sauce
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon sriracha or other hot sauce
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
1 teaspoon light brown sugar

1) In a large bowl, combine the pork, cilantro, scallions, chile, ginger, garlic, lime zest and juice, soy sauce, fish sauce, and salt. I find it's helpful to use my hands to gently mix it all together and have a small box of food-safe plastic gloves under my kitchen sink for this purpose. Form the mixture into 1-inch balls and arrange in a single layer (not touching) on rimmed baking sheets. At this point, the author notes you can also cover the meatballs well and refrigerate up to overnight.

2) Set the oven rack 4 inches from the broiler and heat the broiler. I used the high setting. Broil the meatballs and use tongs to turn them so they are golden all over and cooked through. The original authors notes said this took 8 to 10 minutes, but it took me more like 12.

3) While the meatballs are broiling, whisk together the dipping sauce ingredients in a separate bowl and set aside.

Coconut Rice 

This is embarrassingly easy to make (just subbing in coconut milk for water) but the payoff is big. Creamy rice is the perfect accompaniment to the salty spicy meatballs but also very good as a side to other dishes. The original recipe doesn't call for adding the toasted coconut but I love the extra crunch and sweetness.

1 13.5 ounce can coconut milk
1 cup white rice, either short or long-grain, rinsed very well
pinch of kosher salt
1/2 cup flake or shredded sweetened coconut

1) Empty the can of coconut milk into a 2-cup liquid measuring cup. If it does not read as measuring 1 7/8 cup, add enough water to equal to there.

2) In a medium sized pot with a good fitting lid, add the coconut milk, rice and salt. With the lid off, bring the mixture to a boil but then cover the pot and reduce heat to a low simmer. Cook for around 17 minutes.

3) Once the 17 minutes are up, remove the pot from the heat and place a super clean dish towel between the rim of the pot and the lid. Let the pot stand like this for 10 minutes to steam.

3) While the rice is cooking, toast coconut: place coconut in a large dry skillet over medium heat. Do not step away from the stove- it goes from zero toastiness to burnt very quickly. Stir the coconut so that it toasts evenly and remove from heat when the flakes are golden brown. Set aside to cool (and valiantly attempt not to snack on it).

4) Alongside the broiled meatballs, serve scoops of the coconut rice with a topping of toasted coconut.

If you should find yourself with extra toasted coconut, along with some shavings of dark chocolate, it makes a lovely sweet snack to top good vanilla ice cream.

Friday, October 13, 2017

a few of my favorite things - 10/13/17

As you can tell from the picture above, during unpacking this past week, I found the box with the candle holders in it. It was another 4 days until I found the box with the candles themselves, but now I am set for the waning light and the longer evenings. (I believe we are daily losing about 4 minutes of light and I can feel it.)

Here are a few of my favorite things from around the web: 

For those who regularly lead "brainstorming" type activities at work, Harvard Business Review says "For better brainstorming, tell an embarrassing story." 

Pretty sure I need this sandwich in my life.

This week I finished the book "Homegoing" by Yaa Gyasi and it is one of the best fiction books I've read in a while. It is heartbreaking and beautiful.

Speaking of book recommendations, here are Brene Brown's 6 favorite books that inspire bravery.

"6 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Roasting Vegetables" - I roast veggies probably 4 times a week. Once I learned rule 4, it really helped me. 

This Emerson Fry dress is a huge splurge but I purchased it last year and it was perfect for holiday events and I know it'll be so for many more holidays to come. If you're not familiar with Emerson Fry, it's an American made brand and they release limited edition runs of their items. Their designs manage to feel both modern and timeless.

These last few weeks have brought a lot of painful stories in the news. There have been a number of heartbreaking articles on the realities of sexual harassment that women continue to experience. It infuriates me and also makes me ill that we are still facing this. When I feel overwhelmed by it, I remind myself that we are not powerless and not without hope that we can continue to change our society for the better. A few years ago, Joanna Goddard posted this very helpful piece on teaching children about consent. One of my favorite Aha's:
  • "The feminist writer Jessica Valenti, author of Sex Object, recently told me this eye-opening tip: “It’s important to normalize a healthy reaction to the rejection of affection. So, if I ask my daughter for a kiss on the cheek and she says not right now, I smile and say, ‘Okay!’ I want her to know that the appropriate reaction to saying ‘no’ to physical affection is saying fine and moving on. Not a guilt trip, not anger, not sulking.” It was a lightbulb moment. Before, when Anton didn’t want to cuddle, I’d playfully pout and beg for kisses — now I respect his decision and move on."
We are headed to the westside (Seattle) this weekend to stock up on items in preparation for winter and to see family. My sister reports my 2 year old niece has been picking up her cell phone to "call Duke and Harriet". I am only too happy to respond!

I hope your weekend has some time with those you love. Do you have any special fall weekend plans? I'd love to hear about them.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

chocolate pumpkin seed cookies

Pumpkin, understandably, gets a lot of love this time of year. I am right up there with everyone else. At my request, my husband returned from a recent Seattle Trader Joes run with 7 cans of it for me.

I'd also like to ask us all to give some consideration to pumpkin seeds. This cookie caught my eye for just that reason. The recipe is from Bon Appetit. I like to think of it as a seasonal version of a salted chocolate chip cookie. I love the combination of a spiced brownie-like dough studded with dark chocolate with toasted green pumpkin seeds. (Please note: this recipe is talking about shelled pumpkin seeds and not the whole seed that is scraped out of the pumpkin for jack-o-lantern prep.) The finished product has a wonderful rubbly texture with crunchy and chewy bits. I love it dunked in my morning coffee.

After I made the dough, I portioned it off, froze the individual balls on a cookie sheet, and then transferred to a freezer safe ziplock bag. This way, I can have fresh baked cookies whenever the mood strikes- for example, last night, while watching Season 4 of The Great British Baking Show. (Anyone else out there watching? What do you think of this season?)

chocolate pumpkin seed cookies 

The original recipe says it makes 18 servings, but I was able to get 25- I made my dough portions a little smaller than the recommended 1/4 cup.

1½ cups raw pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
2½ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons kosher salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon smoked paprika (original recipe calls for hot smoked paprika, but I just used regular smoked)
1½ cups (packed) light brown sugar
1⅓ cups granulated sugar
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
2 large eggs
1¼ cups bittersweet chocolate chunks or chips
Flaky sea salt

1) Preheat oven to 350. On a rimmed baking sheet, spread pumpkin seeds in one layer and toast, stirring occasionally, until seeds are golden brown, about 8-10 minutes. Keep an eye on them as burned seeds/nuts are not worth including in a recipe. Remove from oven and let cool.

2) In a large bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa powder, kosher salt, baking soda, cinnamon and paprika. Set aside.

3) In the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together on medium-high speed the brown sugar, granulated sugar and butter. Beat for about 4 minutes or until the butter is pale and fluffy. (This is a step I had been rushing all my life but it is actually pretty important to the process. I now set a little timer for myself to ensure I don't skimp on the time.)

4) Add eggs, one at a time, and beat to fully incorporate before adding the next one. Then, with the mixer turned down to low, add the dry ingredients in 3 additions. Turn mixer off and, by hand, fold in chocolate and pumpkin seeds.

5) Create dough balls about 1/4 cup of dough each. On parchment-lined rimmed baking sheets, place 6 dough balls per sheet, spacing about 3 inches apart. Sprinkle with a bit of sea salt and bake, until edges are firm but centers will still be soft, about 18-20 minutes. If I am baking the dough straight from the freezer, it will need the full 20 minutes. Transfer the cookies to wire racks to cool.