Last-Minute Cherry Trifle

I have to end my meals with something sweet. Even if it’s just a piece of chocolate or a sip of liqueur, sugar represents a kind of closure, a signal that the meal is ended.

When I have dinner guests, though, I feel compelled to actually make dessert: It’s important to me to feel as if I’ve provided a complete culinary experience. A couple of nights ago, I had a friend over for dinner. I had beautiful cherries from the farmer’s market, but not much time; I thought about making a fruit tart and filling it with sweetened strained yogurt, but didn’t have time to let the yogurt transform into a thicker, mor luscious version of itself. Ice cream would have required a trip to the store.

I had duck eggs, though, and pistachio biscotti, so I figured I’d make a trifle (this, despite the fact that the aforementioned friend had in the past expressed distaste for such desserts. His objections are completely aesthetic, though: he finds their air of thrown-togetherness offensively lazy. I, on the other hand, love the simple, breezy whimsicality of fresh fruit, custard, cream, and cake or cookies layered together). I made a simple crème anglaise with a duck egg, a little sugar, and some half and half, added a drop of vanilla, and let it cool. Finally, I folded in about a cup of plain Brown Cow yogurt (cream top, of course). I layered it in glasses with cherries and crushed biscotti.

It was pretty good: creamy and crunchy and fruity, simultaneously light and rich. I’m still not quite sure how I feel about the yogurty crème anglaise: It was pleasingly tangy, and had a smooth, velvety texture… I’m just not sure I preferred it to regular old sweetened yogurt.

In the event, my friend did like it, so I counted it a success.

it wasn't that pretty, but it did the job.

not that pretty, but it did the job.

Typical Tuesday

When I eat breakfast with my German kin, there are always vegetables on the table, as well as bread and cheese. There may be fruit, or some pastry, but it’s generally a savory affair.

Starting your day with vegetables feels virtuous.

Today I found myself with an abundance of farmer’s market produce, as well as several kinds of cheese and some seeded rye bread from Tall Grass Bakery.

cherries, cheese, seeded rye, olives, cukes, sugar snaps, strawberry

cherries, cheese, seeded rye, olives, cukes, sugar snaps, strawberry

It was an excellent, nourishing breakfast, one that should have initiated a productive day of wholesome industry. Instead, I’m sitting at the coffee shop after having failed to produce anything of substance in the couple of hours I’ve spent here.

Across the street, a small stooped man with a grey beard is puffing on a cigarette in quick, rapid pulls, bringing it to his mouth with the jerky urgency of a bird pecking at the ground: puff puff puff. Puff puff puff.

An exceptionally tall man walks past, wearing a yellow messenger bag and grey jeans. I wonder if he’s used to being ogled. Do very tall men become inured to the attention they command?

Baby Michael Jackson’s high-pitched wail issues from the speakers at Norm’s, the dog-friendly bar on the opposite side of the street, and I recall what a friend once said about him: “It sounds like he’s being squeezed.” (This apt observation still makes me laugh.)

The young woman seated next to me on the coffee shop’s capacious front porch is staring into the middle distance. She has no book, no laptop. Her phone is cradled in her lap, its screen dark. It’s startling to realize what an anomaly this is, how seldom you see someone just sitting and existing, without the justification/distraction/excuse of something to read, something to do with their hands. I admire her, and envy her a little: When I’m not writing or drawing or creating something, I feel like a slacker, like I’m wasting my life. Even though my computer use usually devolves into a sad fruitless facebook wank, I often feel the need to bring my laptop with me. So I can write, you see.

Now the woman is tapping at her phone, holding it close to her face: The spell is broken.

Crackers

Crackers are the best. You can serve them with fancy spreads and crudites. You can take them on a picnic. You can pack them with cheese for a quick lunch. I love to set them on the table alongside salad and pickles and other light fare, with good salted butter to spread upon them.

My grandma made crackers that were grainy and flaky and wholesome and ever-so-slightly sweet. She cut them into little rectangles to be crunched by the handful. My previous roommate made long, fancy crackers, crunchy with seeds and sprinkled with a mixture of sugar and coarse salt. My own cracker sensibilities have been informed by both of these approaches, as well as by the leisurely lunches at Songhaven farm that usually included a box of Back to Nature Crispy Wheat Crackers (oh lord they are soooo good), accompanied by fresh goat cheese and butter.

A couple weeks back, I had a special dinner guest. I wanted to make her something simultaneously summery and nourishing and satisfying and comforting. So I made a huge salad of romaine and arugula and sugar snap peas and radishes from the farmer’s market, a fritatta with caramelized shallots and kale, and some homemade crackers.

IMG_0899

Crackers are very easy and forgiving. You can change up the grains, add different seasonings, and adjust the oil/water ratio to change the texture (more oil = denser and flakier, less oil = crisper and more ethereal).

pre-bake, za'atar sprinkle

pre-bake, za’atar sprinkle

In my opinion, rustic, asymmetrical crackers are actually way prettier and more impressive-looking.

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Basic Crackers

This recipe makes about 30 big crackers. You can make them smaller, if you want.

1 cup all purpose flour

3/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour

1 t kosher salt

1/4 cup ground flax seeds

1/4 cups seeds (sesame, flax, nigella, sunflower, or a combination)

2 T olive oil

3/4 cup warm water

Seeds or seasonings (such as za’atar, rosemary, cumin, or sumac) for topping (if desired)

Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Add oil and water and stir with a wooden spoon until the dough comes together. Turn it out on a floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic. Cover with plastic wrap and let rest for at least 3o minutes.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Cover a baking sheet with parchment. Cut off a piece of dough and roll very thin (1/8th or 1/16th inch). Sprinkle with water and top with seasonings or seeds, if using; lightly roll a rolling pin over the top to make toppings stick. Prick all over with a fork. Cut lengthwise into 2 inch strips and place on the baking sheet. Bake for 7-10 minutes, until crackers are lightly golden. Cool on a wire rack. Store in an airtight container up to one week.

People Kill People (Guns Just Make it Easier)

Yesterday was D-Day, the day on which we celebrate the heroism and bravery of those who participated in the Normandy Landings during WWII. This massive invasion from the sea was a turning point in the war, a major part of the Allied victory.

Meanwhile in Seattle, the day before saw yet another mass shooting on a college campus, just blocks from where I live. I was biking past Seattle Pacific University on the Ship Canal Trail when I heard the sirens. Scores of them. When I tried to drive my normal route to work, the street was blocked off. I assumed that there had been a bad wreck. Then I heard on the radio that there had been a shooting. Another one. (Two men were murdered at a Seattle park in broad daylight just last week.) As I took an alternate route to work, SWAT vehicles passed me, lights flashing. I wept as I drove, filled with grief and impotent rage.

Of course, violent death is a tragedy wherever it occurs. But there’s a reason the phrase “close to home” has so much salience: When something like this happens right in front of you, it’s impossible to ignore, and resonates on a deeper level. Humans are deeply tribal creatures, and something that happens where you live has a greater pull on your emotional attention.

That night, I posted a cris de coeur on Facebook to the tune of, “Can we please just ban guns?” For the record, I don’t think this is a realistic solution. As several friends pointed out, there are too many guns already in circulation. And yes, people will find a way to kill without guns – although guns are an exceptionally efficient way to kill. Frankly, I don’t have much hope in the efficacy of sound policy or political will. Because human beings are violent. Evil is a part of the world’s spiritual fabric, and it finds expression though human vessels. The old adage that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” really is true.

We celebrate the military heroes who helped insure an Allied victory, because the Allies were the “good guys.” And yet – their victory came at the expense of real human lives. The Germans and other Axis fighters were the “bad guys,” the Other. But they were also human beings with families, feelings, souls. The civilians who died were (are) “collateral damage.” Their blood is the price of victory.

There’s a continuum of human violence, from a schoolyard punch to genocide. I believe it all originates in the same place, in the shadows of the human psyche where fear festers and whispers the insidious mantra that “might equals right.” I respect military folks; I don’t think they’re any worse than I am just because killing is part of their job description. I have sinned, and it’s not for me to judge which sins are worse than others. Life is a series of impossible ethical conundrums, and war is often a messy combination of avarice, nihilism, and noble intentions: Hitler did, after all, have to be stopped.

As I feel the heaviness and grief of what happened at SPU, I see the irony of mourning these losses while celebrating D-Day (or any military victory, for that matter: victory, after all, always entails a corresponding loss). I abhor guns and feel that they are a manifestation of pure evil; it’s easy for me to become outraged over American gun policy because I see it as glaringly, egregiously wrongheaded. But, when I take a step back and look at the bigger picture, I recognize that what my gun-apologist friends say is fundamentally true: People kill people.

As Barbara Tuchman put it in A Distant Mirror, “For belligerent purposes, the 14th century, like the 20th, commanded a technology more sophisticated than the mental and moral capacity that guided its use.” That’s still true in the 21st century. There may come a time when we attain a posthuman form and transcend the features of our humanity that lead us to violence. For now, though, violence is an intractable part of human existence, with or without guns. As long as people want to overpower others and advance their way as “right” – whether on the level of nations, or of sick and misguided individuals – there will be blood.

On Killing

Today Ayla caught a rat at the park. She mouthed it primly, as if in delectation, never fully chomping, but squishing it enough to injure it severely.

I told her to “leave it,” which she did for a moment; but it looked damaged enough that its life-chances were in doubt. So I let her at it again, hoping she’d kill it and finish the job. A few minutes of piteous squeaking later, it was clear that she wasn’t going to. Since it was no longer running, she’d pretty much lost interest; a couple of crows were circling overhead and periodically dive-bombing her, vying for possession of the doomed creature.

I weighed my options: I could leave it to be pecked to death by crows, or die slowly of its injuries. Or I could give it the mercy of a quick death. So I picked it up by the tail, laid it on the sidewalk, and smashed its little head in with a rock. It was gory. It was brutal. It seemed like the right thing to do.

There have been a few other instances in which I’ve felt it necessary to kill: A mouse was caught in the trap by its leg. Ayla got hold of one of my chickens (I cut its throat, inexpertly, with a kitchen knife. Then I butchered it and made mole). A pack rat that had been living in my truck’s air filter was captured by Ayla after I pulled it out by the tail, but, true to form, she didn’t kill it, so I had to (I used the blade of a shovel to decapitate it).

Killing is not something I enjoy. I would never hunt for fun. I’m not much of a meat eater (though I don’t call myself a vegetarian, I don’t buy meat and don’t order it when I’m out. At most, I’ll try a meat thing if it seems particularly interesting).

And yet… I can imagine folks’ disgust at my actions. Many people would find it more repugnant to kill a rodent (commonly recognized as vermin) than to eat bacon – a food made from the flesh of an incredibly sensitive, intelligent, emotionally and socially sophisticated animal.

It’s easy to eat meat because we don’t have to take responsibility for the animal’s death. Eating a burger and killing a cow, seeing its fear and pain and watching it twitch as the blood seeps from its still-warm body, are two very different experiences.

So we compartmentalize. We leave the dirty work of killing to others. We tell ourselves that we are better than recreational hunters, that killing for pleasure is sick. How many of us would still eat meat if we had to do the killing ourselves? Does our removal from the act of slaughter absolve us from complicity in the act?

Taking a life is profound, and, I believe, becomes more so the more we can relate to the life we’re taking. Killing a mosquito is easy; killing a chicken is harder; killing a pig is harder still.

But the more you do it, the easier it becomes. I don’t have a taste for it. Killing my chicken, although I did eat her, made me more reluctant to eat meat. But I can kill a rat when I need to. I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing. But I do think that eating meat while being squeamish about killing is morally inconsistent, and symptomatic of our contemporary disconnect from the true implications of many of our choices.

 

Perfection

Kimi was petite and lovely with dark hair, sparkling eyes, and a magnificent singing voice. She was also tough as nails, and a hell of a cook. For a while, we had an all-woman kitchen: We kicked ass and had a great time doing it. I still have vivid memories of Kimi’s cooking, its fresh, vegetable-centric simplicity: roasted eggplant, tomato, and green pepper salad; figs with feta, mint, honey, and fleur de sel; roasted butternut squash with bulgur and herbs.

I’ve picked thing up – flavor combinations, cooking techniques, favored ingredients – from most chefs I’ve worked under. But this salad, one that Kimi served with grilled prawns, really stands out: It may just be the perfect salad. I crave it all year and rejoice when watermelons come into season. Sweet and juicy, creamy and salty and crunchy and tangy in just the right proportion, it’s a perfect accompaniment to summery things from the grill – or all on its own (which is how I like to eat it).

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Watermelon, Feta, and Avocado Salad

4 cups watermelon (cubed)

1 large avocado, cut into medium chunks

4 oz feta, roughly crumbled

1/4 cup thinly sliced red onion

3 Tblsp extra virgin olive oil

Kosher salt to taste

Combine watermelon, avocado, feta, and red onion in a large bowl. Drizzle on the olive oil and salt to taste, gently mixing with your hands. Serve with mixed greens, grilled steak or seafood, or on its own.

Note: Make it at the last possible minute, since the components are delicate.

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Coriander-Rose Ice Cream

One of my first memories of ice cream (actually, one of my first memories, period) was prostrating myself before the cold case of a Chapel Hill, NC ice cream parlor called Francesca’s. My cousin and I bowed our heads and extended our arms in mock reverence, chanting “I worship strawberry, I love strawberry, I marry strawberry!”

I still love good strawberry ice cream, though I wouldn’t call it my favorite: My love of ice cream is too wide-ranging to choose just one. What hasn’t changed, though, is ice cream’s power to inspire in me goofy displays of unfettered excitement and devotion. Ice cream is my go-to celebration food, comfort food, stress food, reward food. I crave ice cream, often so fiercely that I will go to embarrassing lengths to get it. There’s something about that harmonious meeting of fat and sugar, the unctuous cold sweetness dissolving on my tongue: It scrambles my brain’s pleasure centers, stripping away logic, causing me to lose my relationship with reality ever-so-slightly.

I love ice cream flavors with nuts and pieces and chunks of all descriptions. I also love pure, simple flavors. Dense, firm, American-style ice cream with no eggs, rich frozen custards, smooth, slippery gelato: I like it all. For my latest ice cream experiment, I used one of my all-time favorite spices, coriander, combined with dried rose petals. I started with David Lebovitz’s vanilla ice cream as my base recipe, omitting the vanilla and infusing the milk with a generous tablespoon of toasted coriander and a small handful of dried rose petals.

ingredients (yeah, there's five egg yolks in there)

ingredients (yeah, there’s five egg yolks in there)

infusion

infusion

The coriander flavor ended up being very pronounced (just how I wanted it) with bright notes of citrus and pine, and deep toasty underpinnings of earth and wood; the rose flavor was very subtle. I also added a teaspoon of Bulleit bourbon to prevent the ice cream from becoming too hard; next time, I’d use a neutral-flavored spirit, like vodka, or an orange liqueur like Cointreau, or – better still – a rose liqueur.

Although the ice cream’s good on its own, I’m planning to pair it with something – maybe an orange pound cake or some type of fruit crisp or tart.

a favorite toy

a favorite toy

ice cream.

ice cream.