Mammaw’s Fruitcake

Lillian Varnell made me fall in love with fruitcake. Actually, I fell in love with her fruitcake at about the same time I fell in love with her grandson. I often wonder if those two things are related.

The people of Malvern, Arkansas, knew her as a woman of deep faith, a keen wit, and great strength. Many in town called her “Aunt Lil,” but the luckiest of us called her Mammaw.

Mammaw, on March 8, 1988, holding her great-granddaughter---our adorable niece---Loren.

Mammaw, on March 8, 1988, holding her great-granddaughter—our adorable niece—Loren.

She consistently used one’s full nomenclature in her address. Mammaw was totally a first name-last name kind of woman. Jay took particular delight in her charming cadence and would often imitate her.  His examples:  “Jamie Samons.  MMMMMMMM. That is delicious.  Now, let me tell you something about Jay Samons.” “Wilbur Varnell loved his television and eating at the Shack.”  “Jay Samons, it is good to see you.” She spoke with great enthusiasm and great love. One of her great paradoxes was that Mammaw loved almost everybody, yet I knew that to be loved by her was something very special.

Mammaw was the mistress of a true Southern kitchen: her black eyed peas, cornbread, collard greens, and fried chicken knew no equal. Her pear preserves—tender slices of pear swimming in glistening syrup— still haunt my dreams. (Those preserves on a freshly-baked, buttered biscuit? Grab the smelling salts: I’m swooning.)  And, at Christmas time, her care packages of Southern treats provided warm comfort to the two of us as we hunkered down through the New England winters. She sent candied pecans, peanut brittle, party mix, and, most anticipated of all: her fruitcake.

Clumsy cook = Cherry + Tony Lama.

Clumsy cook = Cherry + Tony Lama.

Mammaw’s fruitcake definitely was more “fruit” and less “cake.” Assertive chunks of dried dates, pineapples, and cherries snuggled tightly with opulent pecan halves in a traditional pound cake batter. Ample amounts of apricot brandy encouraged the fruits and nuts to play nicely together.

Shortly after we married, Mammaw shared with me her fruitcake recipe. She sent me two 4×6 index cards, on which she transcribed it from the 1946 edition of The Progressive Farmer Cookbook in her perfect penmanship. At first, I treated it rather cavalierly. In the hubristic haze of my twenties, I unabashedly mashed parts of Mammaw’s recipe with recipes from Martha Stewart and Rose Levy Beranbaum, seeking to develop my own signature fruitcake. The culinary cross-pollination proved utterly disastrous on more than one occasion. Even weeks of soaking those bitter cake-bricks in booze barely rendered them edible.

Mammaw's recipe.

Mammaw’s recipe.

Luckily, I matured a bit and recognized that one shouldn’t mess too much with a wonderful thing. Since then, I have followed her now-smudged and batter-splattered hand-written directions almost to the letter (my only divergence is to pre-toast my store-bought Yankee pecans in an effort to approach the robustness of her Southern gems).

Mammaw's recipe makes either 2 large tube pans or 6 little cakes. We like to share but we're not that generous, so I generally make 1 large cake and 3 wee ones.

Mammaw’s recipe makes either 2 large tube pans or 6 little cakes. We like to share but we’re not that generous, so I generally make 1 large cake and 3 wee ones.

One of the most productive people I have ever known, she always said she wanted to walk to her grave. And on March 9, 1998 she did, lucid and active until her last days, doting on great-grandbabies and certainly debating the merits of the latest Winston Churchill biography or studying Old Testament scripture.

Out of the oven, ready for 2+ weeks of soaking in apricot brandy.

Out of the oven, ready for 2+ weeks of soaking in apricot brandy.

When she passed along her recipe to me, Mammaw not only shared her legacy, she also set a standard for cooking and for love that I will certainly never reach. My fruitcake, a feeble reflection of hers, is my pale attempt to pay her homage.

This song, my favorite Christmas/not-really-Christmas tune, off 1984’s Learning to Crawl, soundtracked my holiday baking this year. I love its combination of grit and strength and tenderness (Mammaw qualities, to be sure). “Outside under the purple sky/Diamonds in the snow sparkle.”

Wishing you all a magical moment of sparkle this year. Merry Christmas!

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Playlist: 11-14

I had the distinct pleasure to sub a couple of hard core spin classes this week. My athletes rode hard, sweated buckets, and finished the workouts with fist bumps and smiles.

The music was fun, too! The playlist is a bit poppier than my usual, but the music provided all the right oomph in all the right places. I am unashamedly in love with the entire Bleachers oeuvre. That Jack Antonoff is on to something.

playlist 11-14

Also, mark my words: this Fall Out Boy tune will be the workout song of the season.

How about some free music? Nab the super-slick remix of Sam Smith’s “Stay with Me” here.

Happy riding!

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Full disclosure: I grew up in a big Irish/Welsh/Catholic/Protestant family, emphasis on Irish and Catholic. These four descriptors—and ensuing emphasis—mean that, growing up, I (almost) never received a nutritionally-sound, much less delicious, meal. I include the parentheses because sometimes a neighbor would invite me to eat at her house. It didn’t help matters that I was a maddeningly picky eater and for the entire year I was nine, refused to eat anything that wasn’t white. I consumed a lot of potatoes that year, which, come to think of it, I was probably genetically programmed to do.

I like to congratulate myself that things have changed considerably since then.

Still, when my latest craving hit me, brick-like, a couple of weeks ago, I was nine years old again. I wanted a knish. I wanted mashed potatoes wrapped in pastry: the ultimate all-white food. And, let me tell you: once the word “knish” gets implanted in your brain, there’s no shaking it. Knish. Knish. KNIIIIIISH!

Here’s the weird thing, though: I’d never eaten a knish. I had no idea what a knish actually tasted like. But, the heart (belly) wants what the heart (belly) wants. And mine wanted a knish.

Softball-sized knishes, ready for the oven.

Softball-sized knishes, ready for the oven.

The knish is surprisingly uncomplicated to make…and by uncomplicated, I do not mean quick. Give yourself an entire afternoon (although not all hands-on time) for full knish production. Be prepared to swoon over the aromas of caramelizing onions for much of that time. Ready yourself for nibbling bits (and bits and bits) of mashed potato and moaning audibly.

I followed the recipe on Smitten Kitchen pretty closely (borrowed from Joe Pastry), but I used duck fat instead of vegetable oil for the pastry dough and I added in some of my homemade lamb pastrami with the potatoes and caramelized onions. I’m not sure if this means what I made wasn’t truly a knish, but I will venture that it was knish-ish.

Lamb pastrami!!

Lamb pastrami!!

And if knish-ish is wrong, I don’t want to be right. Friends, we were in knish nirvana (knirvana?). Salty, peppery lamb. Hearty potatoes. Tender, savory pastry. We added some zing with coarse mustard and horseradish, and had pickled green beans and peppers on the side. It was a damn fine way to fight off the bitter chill that blew through New England this weekend.

Knish, with potato, onion, and lamb pastrami.

Knish, with potato, onion, and lamb pastrami.

I still have no idea what a proper knish tastes like, but I can’t wait to find out. This might require some field research on the Lower East Side. In the meantime, I’ll keep nibbling on the leftovers of this experiment and plan for another go. Next time, though, I will likely not make them so huge. Honestly: these things weighed a ton. I blame my Texas rearing for the bigger-is-better tendency.

A knish, with its tenacious stick-to-your-ribs quality, calls for cold weather; this is polar vortex food. Therefore, I officially declare the next several months as the Winter of the Knish.

Another thing that suits a cold, crisp night is this fantastic Mike Doughty tune, “I Hear the Bells,” off the divisive (but to my ears lovely) 2005 album Haughty Melodic. The song speaks with an aching hope for joy and love.

I hear the bells, they are like emeralds, and
Glints in the night, commas and ampersands

Any song that can use “ampersands” in the lyrics is all right by me.

Finally, mega-massive thanks to my dear (and exceedingly groovy) friend Nina Insler, who gave me lots of knish tips during the intermission of the Mike Doughty show last week at the super-hip Columbus Theater in Providence. Nina not only has impeccable taste in music and literature, she’s fantastically generous and she knows her knishes!

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Chasing Pear-fection

I’m subtitling this post: I’m Not Pear-fect. So sue me.

In a recent, not-regular-enough review of the contents of my freezer, I discovered six white-wine-poached pears, with some poaching liquid included. I think I remember making these as a back-up dessert for a dinner party a few months ago, but as I recall Plan A didn’t fail, so I was stuck with a mess of leftover pears. Worse things could happen, right?

The discovery coincided with growing yen to try making pâte de fruits, those intensely fruity, French jellied candies that are like the high-falutin’ cousin of a jelly fruit slice. Since pâte de fruits consist only of fruit purée (or juice), sugar, and pectin, I figured it’d be a confectionary slam dunk. I even fantasized about friends swooning on first bites, lavishing praise on me for the purity of the candy’s fruit flavor and my extreme resourcefulness in turning sad frozen poached pears into such a delightfully sweet nibble.

I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this.

Puréed pears, poaching liquid, sugar, and pectin went into a pot (I used roughly a 1:1 ratio of fruit to granulated sugar, in this case, about 1000 grams of each; 100 grams of liquid pectin; and because I like things on the tart side, about 30 grams of citric acid) and I attempted to bring the mixture up to 220° F for 3-5 minutes. At about 210° F, the stuff looked like pear-ish lava and at 220° (which took FOREVER), it became magma (say that with your best Dr. Evil accent, please). MAG-MA. Let me tell you: you haven’t lived until you’ve had pear magma splat you in the face a dozen or so times.

Wine-y, pear-y magma.

Wine-y, pear-y magma.

Pour that ooze into a tin, let it set up, cut into perfect squares, roll in sugar, and voilà, right?

Hardly. Apparently my idea of boiling FOREVER at 220° was somewhere under 3-5 minutes, which is required to convert molten magma ooze to solid candy. Less that that leaves you with just cool ooze. Lesson learned.

Not to be defeated by a lousy batch of leftover pears, I boiled it again. I even talked a bit of trash to it once it reached 200°. I may or may not have called it my bitch.

Pate de fruits! Cute paper cups from Stock, of course.

Pate de fruits! Cute paper cups from Stock, of course.

OK: so it finally worked. And the pâte de fruits were delicious and tasted intensely of pear. The spousal unit (“SU” or “Unit”) deemed it, “Like, the best gumdrop ever.” Ostensibly, a success. But, man: I made a ton of that stuff. Even after foisting tins of candy off on anyone whom I thought might be remotely interested (or, at least, too polite to refuse), I still had an obscene amount of the uncut, unsugared candy left over. It vaguely reminded me of membrillo, the quince paste often served with cheese in Spain, so I thought it might work in a grilled cheese. I consulted the lovely and authoritative-in-all-things-cheesy Katie McManus, and after careful deliberation, she suggested a sharp cheddar.

I admit, the grilled cheese concept excited me much more than the candy. I used a sharp raw milk cheddar from Brookford Farm that I procured on a day trip to New Hampshire to see the fantastic Molly Connors and her adorable cat (my god-cat) Abigail; well-buttered Seven Stars multi-grain bread; smoky bacon; and a slice or two of the membrill-faux (sorry, couldn’t resist). My first bite was heaven. I loved the interplay of sweet, salty, smoky, and fatty. I prepared myself for accolades from the Unit.

Friends, he HATED it. Hated it in that way where he actually opened up the sandwich, scraped off the membill-faux, and plopped the mass in a sad heap on the side of his plate. Hated it in that way where he turns to me with incredulity and whines, “Why did you put candy in my sandwich?” Hated in that way where he—a declared opponent of soup that is (a) smooth or (b) remotely exotic—ate his bowl of Thai red curry butternut squash soup first…and then went back for more. After dinner he popped himself an obscenely large bowl of popcorn, dousing it with olive oil and salt to assuage his lingering hunger.

He hated it.

The offending sandwich.

The offending sandwich.

The saving grace of the meal was this amazing wine, a gift from Heidi and Ben Sukle. Heidi and Ben know how I gravitate toward flinty, acidic, and mineral-driven white wines. This one? HOLY COW! I love a Fiano; the grape is from Campania and very often it exhibits honey, nutty, and spicy overtones with bracing minerality. And, since these wines are often aged on the lees, they carry some weight, but aren’t ponderous the way so many oak aged wines can be.

Gorgeous, gorgeous wine. Thank you Heidi & Ben!!

Gorgeous, gorgeous wine. Thank you Heidi & Ben!!

This wine, though, was a revelation. I have never experienced a Fiano as complex, smoky, and, indeed, savory as this bottle. Heidi and Ben are pouring this wine now at birch. Get yourself there and experience it before I drink all of it.

This isn’t the first time in my life I have said, “Thank God for the wine,” and it certainly won’t be the last, but this bottle made the angels sing and helped to wash away the shame of the offending sandwich.

I often tell my cyclists that we need to work hard and fail spectacularly; that failure is the most important part of the process of improving. All in all, I found at least two new ways to fail in this endeavor, which has got to count for something, right?

Other important parts of the process are recognizing grace when it smacks you in the face (or in the wine glass, as the case may be) and being grateful for the influence of talented and generous friends. So: thank you Heidi, Ben, Katie, and Molly for inspiration and example!

Signing off with an ode to improvement, by the quirkily awesome Jack Antonoff.

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Eating Out of the Box: Last Hurrah

The final CSA box weighed a ton. Seriously: I needed a Gatorade after I lugged that thing into the house. The combined heft of a ginormous squash, a healthy noggin of cauliflower, apples, peppers, delightful baby turnips, potatoes, and lettuce challenged my muscles as well as my cooking skills this week.

Corn, lettuce, Harukei turnips, peppers, apples, onions, potatoes, and cauliflower.

Corn, lettuce, Harukei turnips, peppers, apples, onions, potatoes, butternut squash, and cauliflower.

The corn, onion, and potatoes became a rich chowder, with stock made from the corn cobs and onion skins. We topped this with a confit of duck necks (more on that project later).

Corn chowder with crispy duck neck confit.

Corn chowder with crispy duck neck confit.

I fell victim to the persuasive powers of the Paleo-obsessed internet and made cauliflower “fried rice,” adding some of the roasted hot peppers from the basket. I had this for dinner topped with two sunny side up eggs (look at those yolks!) and a healthy squirt of Sriracha. Hot peppers + hot sauce for the win.

Cauliflower "fried rice" with roasted hot chiles and Pat's Pastured eggs.

Cauliflower “fried rice” with roasted hot chiles and Pat’s Pastured eggs.

I used the butternut squash and the apples (plus a handful of pecans) as a stuffing for these wee bacon-wrapped quail, which I served on a bed of fresh corn polenta. The remaining apples I ate sliced with almond butter and sea salt. (Does anyone else like to put salt on fruit? I can’t be the only freak, right?)

Pan roasted quail, stuffed with butternut squash, pecans, and apples, over fresh corn polenta and a sherry vinegar pan sauce.

Pan roasted quail, stuffed with butternut squash, pecans, and apples, over fresh corn polenta and a sherry vinegar pan sauce.

Because the squash was massive, I had enough left over to make a pot of Thai-influenced soup, bumped up with red curry paste, ginger, lemongrass, fish sauce, and coconut milk. I brought this jar to work for lunch and had all sorts of curious noses sniffing their way to my office. The fish sauce gets ‘em every time.

Thai-scented butternut squash soup.

Thai-scented butternut squash soup.


The lettuce became several salads and the baby turnips I sliced thinly on the mandoline and pickled on a whim with a star anise. We’ll see how those turn out.

Did you notice that I drank NO WINE with any of these things? It’s sad, but true. I cooked all these thing while on a Whole 30, which meant NO ALCOHOL (and NO lots of other things, either). It also means that all of these items are Whole 30 approved (except for the fresh corn polenta, which has some Parmesan cheese in it), so you can eat any of them during your own Whole 30 if you are ever daft enough to do one. (My point here? Not a fan of the Whole 30.)

I’m quite sad that this challenge has come to an end. I have a new one in mind, though. which includes Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey. Three of my favorite things!

Stay tuned!


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New Playlist: Scotland on My Mind

I intended for the music in this morning’s spin class to pay homage to the incredibly kick-ass happenings in Scotland (“yes” or “no,” it was just thrilling to watch the process; this is how grown-ups do government). I’ve got cuts from some epic Scottish bands, including 1983’s “In a Big Country,” 1995’s “I’m Only Happy When it Rains,” and 2009’s “It’s Thunder and It’s Lightning.” I wrestled with including some Belle and Sebastian or Teenage Fanclub, but I needed this playlist to enhance a workout, so the softer, more somber tunes didn’t make the cut.

However, much like the “Yes” campaign, my plans didn’t work out: the stereo receiver in the cycling room shorted out, so we rooster cyclists were left to only wistfully think about what might have been.

If I weren’t on this bloody Whole 30, I would raise a glass of Ardbeg Uigeadail to the Scots for truly expressing their democracy. I wish them well as they negotiate a new relationship with Westminster. Slainte!

Screen Shot 2014-09-19 at 8.39.20 AM

The Spotify approximation of my list is below (lacking the cool remixes, sadly). One track not on Spotify is Travis’s most excellent acoustic cover of Britney Spears’s “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” but you can watch that here:

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Eating Out of the Box: The Penultimate Edition

Kale, onions, tomatoes, plums, butternut squash, broccoli, golden beets, green beans.

Kale, onions, tomatoes, plums, butternut squash, broccoli, golden beets, green beans.

The Farmer’s Almanac predicts an early fall and a cold winter for us in New England. Already, chilly mornings mean that I pull out the long sleeves for running. Apples have arrived at the farmer’s markets. Darkness falls earlier and earlier.

In the fall my CSA subscription comes to an end as well; this week’s box is the second-to-the-last, so I unpacked some of late summer’s finest along with a squashy harbinger of autumn. (Don’t you love the word penultimate? I had never heard it before I took Greek in college…which is funny because it’s a Latin word. Those crazy ancients.)

Fall makes me want to eat soup. I resisted the urge to make four different soups with this box and instead settled for a duo. The broth for this chicken and kale soup is amp-ed up with Worcestershire sauce and Dijon mustard; the beet soup gets some extra zing from a healthy dose of ginger and garlic.

Chicken soup with kale.

Chicken soup with kale.

Golden beet soup.

Golden beet soup.

Last year, I ate a tomato salad at Farmstead (sob!) that was dressed with a kimchi vinaigrette. The memory of that dressing has haunted me, lo, these many months, so I tried to recreate it for a salad using the box’s green beans. I achieved moderate success: my version is good, but not lick-the-plate-clean good. More work needed here, obviously.

Green bean salad with kimchi vinaigrette.

Green bean salad with kimchi vinaigrette.

A chilly Sunday morning run led me to crave duck, which we ate with The Best Broccoli of Your Life and butternut squash (roasted and tossed with toasted pumpkin seeds and sage brown butter).

Crispy-skinned duck with roasted broccoli and squash, pickled cherries.

Hideous photo. Crispy-skinned duck with roasted broccoli and squash, pickled cherries.

And finally, the plums became (likely) my last canning project of the season: they simmered FOREVER with orange, cardamom, and cinnamon into a spicy plum butter. The house smelled like Christmas for an entire afternoon. Since I’m in the middle of a Whole 30, I had a schmear on an apple slice instead of toast (I MISS TOAST).

Spicy (sugarless!) plum butter.

Spicy (sugarless!) plum butter.

One more box to go. I’ll be sad to see these bi-weekly challenges come to an end, but happy to embrace a fall of charcuterie. Soppressata, here I come!

PS: Have you heard the new record from The New Pornographers, Brill Bruisers? I highly recommend it. While I will always love 2005’s Twin Cinema best, this new record is a pop head rush. Bracing melodies, forceful bits of synth, and those voices. Those voices! The record manages to sound very futuristic while simultaneously paying homage to its eponymous hit-making structure. You can listen to most of it live in concert here.

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Putting By

It is best to prepare for the days of necessity. –Aesop

Do you know the fable of the ant and the grasshopper? Aesop told it as a cautionary tale against frivolity and laziness. In Aesop’s rendering, the grasshopper spends all summer singing and frolicking while the ant busts its tuchis (which I believe is technically its gaster) to store food for the winter. When temperatures drop and snow starts to fall, the grasshopper realizes that he has screwed himself and will certainly starve to death, so he begs the ant for mercy and a cheeseburger (or, you know, a leaf). Aesop leaves his tale unresolved—did the ant help the grasshopper out, or did he tell the grasshopper to talk to the tarsal claw? The storyteller does, however, drop a stern epigram on us about the perils of improvidence. In the animated Disney version, produced in the mid-1930s and reflecting the values of FDR’s New Deal, the ant and his buddies take morally-superior pity on the grasshopper, who soon sees the error of his profligate ways. The grasshopper literally changes his tune (or at least his lyrics) and morally superior dancing ensues.

2010 Bordeaux ready for the cellar.

2010 Bordeaux ready for the cellar.

While my natural tendencies lean toward grasshopper, I’ve spent the last thirty years with an ant, so some of his ant-ness has rubbed off on me. I, too, now occasionally enjoy the thrill of delayed gratification: why enjoy something today when I can enjoy it weeks or months from now?

Tomatoes will become sauce, soup, and ketchup that I will likely beg friends and acquaintances to take.

Tomatoes will become sauce, soup, and ketchup that I will likely beg friends and acquaintances to take.

Especially in September, as we sit on the cusp of summer and fall, I come back to this concept of putting by, the term our grandmothers used to describe preserving food for eating long after the harvest or butchering. It requires a wholesale adoption of the ant-like attitude but also promises ant-worthy rewards. Shelves of jams and preserves ensure that I can, if I desire, taste summer’s peaches or blueberries in the middle of February. Dried and cured meat and fish mean that I can build a great meal even if a blizzard renders me housebound. Wines purchased as futures before they were even bottled rest on their sides in our basement to accompany those cold-weather meals.

So, the ant: yeah, he had it going on, but I worry there’s a danger in too much ant-ness.

Summer in jar: strawberry, cherry, peach, apricot, blueberry, rhubarb, tomatoes.

Summer in jar: strawberry, cherry, peach, apricot, blueberry, rhubarb, tomatoes.

From the freezer: pate, pig head roulade, bacon, pastrami, gravlax, roasted Hatch chiles.

From the freezer: pate, pig head roulade, bacon, pastrami, gravlax, roasted Hatch chiles.

How many dozens of jars of sauce, pickles, jams, preserves, and soups have I foisted off on friends or left in boxes at the gym, begging for people to take them home because I had neglected to eat them or didn’t want to waste them on just me? How many dried-up sausages or jerkified hams have I tossed into the trash because I had saved them too long, or worse yet, forgot they existed? How many bottles of 2000 Bordeaux did we let over-age, claiming, “Oh, this meal isn’t special enough to pull out one of the good bottles,” only to find that when we did pull the cork for an ostensibly “fancy” dinner, the wine within had grown thin and acidic?

We let this bottle age too long. It ended up going down the sink.

We let this bottle age too long. It ended up going down the sink.

It’s this perversion of preservation that worries me. Seriously: is it worse to let something go to waste or to consume it with gusto prematurely? Does the anticipation become an end in itself? Is there a twisted satisfaction in the self-denial that comes with waiting?

Beyond comestibles, I struggle with this question with stuff in general.

I have an I-Don’t-Deserve-It drawer. Actually, it’s grown from just a drawer to a drawer plus a giant box that once housed a Prada handbag plus a couple of shelves in my closet, but I still think of the collective space as a drawer. It is the place where I put things I’ve bought or gifts I’ve received of which I feel unworthy. Ideally, I ultimately will perform any variety of good deeds in my life that will enable me to remove these items from the drawer, but, in all honesty, it’s the freaking Hotel California. Nothing ever leaves the drawer.

The drawer, partial contents.

The drawer, partial contents.

What’s in there? For starters, hundreds of dollars of lotions and potions, including some ridiculously costly eye cream that I bought at Henri Bendel because those Bendel ladies are relentless. (You cannot win against the Bendel ladies. If you agree to walk through that store, you may as well just open up your wallet and hold up a white flag.) Two pairs of Hysteric Glamour plaid skinnies that I ordered from Japan because at the time I was certain that I could regain some New Wave cred in my late forties (now they just cruelly remind me that I used to have a significantly smaller ass). A bottle of Nasomatto Absinth perfume (this fragrance is, and I quote from the Nasomatto website, “the result of a quest to stimulate irresponsible behaviour”). Seriously fancy La Perla lingerie and stockings. A vintage Hermès scarf. Silk long underwear from Switzerland. A vintage minaudière from Henri Bendel. An Eres swimsuit (doubly hilarious because I haven’t even worn a swimsuit since 1992). Moschino sunglasses from the early 90s in pristine condition. A set of Hermès playing cards bought at Holt-Renfrew in Montréal (the only Hermès item in the store I could afford!). Hand-hammered asymmetrical drop earrings made by a local artist. A Norma Kamali jersey tank limned in safety pins. Charles Jourdan peau de soie black pumps from the 60s. An Elvis Costello 45: a live performance from the 1978 Hollywood Bowl concert. A 1963 patent leather Gucci handbag with a bamboo handle. Other miscellanea.

Essentially, I could spend the rest of my life as Mother Theresa and never empty that damn drawer. And what’s even crazier is that I’m not someone who denies herself nice things. I mean, have you seen my shoe collection?

Where’s the sweet spot between economy and extravagance? Can practicality and profusion co-exist? With any luck, I will answer these questions on a wretched winter morning as I spoon strawberry jam on an English muffin. Maybe I’ll even be wearing plaid skinnies with my snow boots.

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Eating Out of the Box: A Non-Meh Tartine

There comes a time each season, generally quite close to the end, where I lose focus and motivation—where “meh” becomes my modus operandi. It stems, I am sure, from my own disappointment that I haven’t worked hard enough or smart enough to take advantage of all that the season had to offer. That I haven’t sucked the marrow out of the last three months. That my gusto has morphed into gust-no. Let me tell you, friends, I am there now. I am so fully inhabiting the “meh” zone that I am thinking about running for “meh” mayor. The field is pretty open and I imagine I stand a good chance.

Anyway, when the box arrived, I peered inside and said, “Meh. I’ll just make a f***ing salad.”

Chard, peaches, carrots, zucchini, peppers, tomatoes, sage, lettuce

Chard, peaches, carrots, zucchini, peppers, tomatoes, sage, lettuce

But, looking again at this fantastic haul and experiencing some well-entrenched Catholic guilt about saying the F-word in front of the impressionable produce, I decided to get to work.

I thinly sliced the zucchini on the mandoline, skewered it with prosciutto, then lightly grilled and served with a zippy (and not shown) salsa verde.


I roasted the peppers and combined them with the tomatoes (along with onions, garlic, smoked paprika, and a few other things) to make a pipérade basquaise, into which I plopped a couple of eggs.


I used the chard as the bitter equalizer and middle layer in a stack of sweet corn biscuits and salty fried chicken.


The sage enlivened a compound brown butter that tastes pretty damn good on both steaks and sweet potatoes.


The peaches I grilled, and served alongside a freshly churned strawberry-passion fruit sorbet.


But the carrots were the star of the basket: center stage in a very unassuming tartine. Seven Stars wheat bread, toasted; carrot top pesto; roasted carrots; Twig Farm Tomme, olive oil, S&P. Granted, anything that contains cheese from Twig is going to sing (seriously: do whatever you need to do to BUY THEIR CHEESE. If you do not spontaneously emit groans of pleasure while eating it, I will personally refund your money), but this thing was insanely good. Stealth good, if you know what I mean. You’ll look at it and say to yourself, “How can this possibly taste good? It’s bread with a carrot on it.” But heed my words: Do not listen to yourself. Just take a bite. And then another. And then give the full-mouthed, slow head nod of approval. Point to your mouth for emphasis.


And the lettuce? I made a f***ing salad.

My acolyte and helper!

My acolyte and helper!

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Next Year’s Words Await Another Voice

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language 
And next year’s words await another voice.”      ― T.S. EliotFour Quartets*

The spousal unit had a birthday this week. A big one, if you know what I mean. One with a zero. While most people like to go out and celebrate on their birthday, especially a big one, the S.U. decisively chooses dinner at home every year. He very rarely even makes specific requests, which exhibits either a tremendous amount of trust in me or a troubling lack of concern about his dinner. I choose to believe the former. If you know differently, please don’t tell me. I need my fantasies.

Birthday apps: gems from Matunuck and a martini made with The Botanist, a gin from Scotland.

Birthday apps: gems from Matunuck and a martini made with The Botanist, a gin from Scotland.

Last year, having fallen prey to the siren call of a shiny black tautog at the farmer’s market, I pursued a pescatorian path. Underestimating my own ability to clean a fish, I had to ask for help. Probably not my brightest moment: getting elbow deep in fish guts kind of takes the bloom off the old birthday rose. This year I heeded the voice of lamb calling me, specifically the corned lamb I ate at Le Pigeon in Portland. As I thought back on this dish, I remembered how each component was an interesting play on a traditional corned beef dinner: lamb instead of beef; mustard delicately saucing the potatoes instead of on the side; a cabbage cream instead of boiled cabbage; freshly grated horseradish instead of prepared. I knew I had my work cut out for me to attempt creating an uglier but still delicious version of this dish.

Spicy lamb bath.

Spicy lamb bath.

Long story short: I procured a beautiful lamb shoulder from Persimmon Provisions. I separated it at the shoulder joint and boned out half for a lamb pastrami experiment (spoiler alert: delicious). I brined the other half for three days, following the recipe for corned beef in Michael Ruhlman & Brian Polcyn’s Charcuterie, and then poached the meat for three hours until it reached the perfect state of wobbliness. I portioned it out, seared the hell out of the fat cap, and served it over boiled new potatoes tossed with butter, grainy mustard, and mascarpone, surrounded by an onion soubise (the birthday boy is not a huge cabbage fan). The original dish featured Oregon huckleberries; I substituted pickled cherries that I made in the height of cherry season and fashioned a gastrique using the cherry pickling liquid.

Lamb pastrami, ready for the smoker.

Lamb pastrami, ready for the smoker.

Horrible photo, delicious food: corned lamb, pickled cherries, onion soubise, potatoes with grainy mustard, cherry gastrique.

Horrible photo, delicious food: corned lamb, pickled cherries, onion soubise, potatoes with grainy mustard, cherry gastrique, and grated horseradish.

I will not lie: this supremely unattractive dish was astoundingly delicious, but it only achieved full glory when matched with a weird 2009 Kenneth Volk Mouvèdre from the Central Coast of California. When I bought this wine four years ago, I stowed it away with the following tasting note: “Brambleberry, salt, smoke!!! Rustic and wild. Needs lamb or game.” I almost dislocated my own shoulder patting myself on the back for this pairing. I can’t imagine a better duo. This wine, 100% Mouvèdre, really drove home for me what this grape brings to many of my favorite French red wines (CdP, GSM, Bordeaux). Ergo: delicious + educational. Win!

mouvedreWe cleansed our palates with a salad of melon and cucumber, quick pickled in rice wine vinegar, served with crispy bacon, a good glug of peppery Greek olive oil, and thin slices of serrano. It was the only way I could think of to bring some oomph to the shockingly flavor-less melon that came in last week’s CSA box. I enjoyed the salad, but it was a little like wearing a padded bra: there’s only so much you can do when the raw materials underwhelm.

Crunchy cukes, wimpy melon, crispy bacon, zingy chile.

Crunchy cukes, wimpy melon, crispy bacon, zingy chile.

I made some decadent shortbread cookies studded with toffee for dessert which we kind of ignored in favor of drinking more of that Mouvèdre.

*Owing to the failure of the American educational system (or, more likely, my own inattention in Odessa Coulter’s 11th grade English class), I know diddly squat about T.S Eliot, other than that his name is an excellent anagram of toilets. I only know this from watching the brilliant John Sessions render nonsense in the style of Eliot on the pilot of Whose Line is it Anyway?

But this morning, as I was getting ready for work, Jay started reading me some of Eliot’s poetry, ostensibly to prove what a crap poet he was. I disagree. I think Eliot was just composing in the wrong era. Take his verse and stick a thumping bass behind it and you’ve got some pretty impressive rap songs. Or, conversely, plop his words over a topsy-turvy score, and you’ve got a comic opera worthy of Gilbert & Sullivan. See? A victim of his time, I tell you! Eliot also wrote a lot of poems about cats and, having read some of them, Jay insists that he certainly never owned a cat. He assuredly never owned one who vomited all over his mid-century Heywood Wakefield sofa, as one of mine did this morning.

In conclusion, we had a great birthday dinner and we learned something about poetry. Go to the 1:35 mark (or so) to enhance your own knowledge of T.S. Eliot, as well as Daniel Defoe, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Jackie Collins.

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