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Prendre Plaisir

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Somewhere in my travels this weekend, I ended up at a bookstore and was browsing the sale section – and when I saw a huge, beautiful book with the title French DessertsI immediately walked to the cash register with it.  Hey – that’s two of my favorite things right there in one title.

And it really is beautifully done – the focus is on the simpler dishes that people make for themselves at home rather than the fantastical things you’d find in a patisserie.  There are cakes and tarts and such, but instead of elaborate things like a religieuse or a caneleanything where I’d have to wrestle with piping bags, they have simple fruit tarts or plain cakes or puddings.   It’s exactly the way I like to cook – just pick good ingredients and get out of their way.

And I have some extra time after work and a lot of rhubarb and strawberries, and that means I can make something for my book club tomorrow – and that something will be the strawberry-rhubarb crisp bar cookies from the Smitten Kitchen, something I discovered a year ago.  They’re almost perfect – just sweet enough to feel that you’re having a real treat, but low enough in added sugar that you can get away with telling yourself that they make an acceptable breakfast food.  (I ate my way through one batch last week all on my own.)

I also have some lemon-verbena herb-spiked sugar syrup in the fridge, from when I was trying to cut back my lemon verbena plant; it gives lemonade an extra kick.  And I’ve just finished a glass.

So, I am now about to enter my kitchen, where I will make the strawberry bars, and then make a shrimp and noodle salad to chill in the fridge while I stir up some strawberry-laced blancmange and a French take on a chocolate panna cotta.

Yes, this is as life should be.

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Feeding Others

On my 25th Birthday, one of my best friends – who lives outside New York – came for an overnight visit. We planned to take a walk through Chinatown and buy up whatever unusual and fascinating food things we could find, and then come back to my apartment and cook it all; I’d put the word out to my other friends that “if you turn up in the afternoon, you will get fed”.  My then-roommate somehow forgot the date and invited his table-top gaming club over for a game that same afternoon, but when they offered to leave I told them “no, you can stay and help us eat all this!”  Ultimately, we had 20 people crammed into my tiny living room, perched on folding chairs and huddled onto the sofa, and one person even had to sit on a step stool because we ran out of anything else.  But I will never forget the sight of all 20 of us, all engaged in the same lively, cross-the-room conversation, plates balanced on all our laps and eating homemade shrimp shumai and mung bean noodles and stir-fried chicken with peppers.

My 47th Birthday was yesterday, and I sought to recreate that birthday a little. I have a bunch of friends I know from all different contexts, and have wanted to introduce them to each other to see what would happen. It’s also the weekend before Mardi Gras, so I put the word out that anyone showing up at my place that afternoon would be fed, and then I got up at about 6 in the morning and started cooking. I went Cajun rather than Chinese this time – jambalaya, corn maque choux, two kinds of red beans and rice, a huge pot of gumbo. By the time the first guest showed up, I’d made the choice to abandon the shrimp etouffe, literally because there was no more room on the buffet table.

I even mail-ordered a King Cake from Gambino’s Bakery in New Orleans, and found a silly bejewelled pair of sunglasses to give to the person who got the baby in the cake.

My friends are the sort to also ask to bring things, but knowing how much food I was making I tried to steer them into simple things, like a spare bottle of soda or a bag of chips. But – rather than getting a single bottle of Sprite, they mail-ordered things – one friend found a web site offering local Louisiana things, and shipped me half a cases’ worth of stuff, including Abita root beer and Bananas Foster soda, and another couple brought a sampler case of different flavor Zapps’ Chips.  Sue couldn’t make it herself (our lives are both a little different than they were when we were 25), but earlier in the week she’d sent me a delightfully silly gift – a five-pound Hershey bar.

I actually wasn’t completely finished cooking by the time the first guests showed up, so I threw them in the living room with the chips and a bowl of peanuts I’d seasoned with a spice blend I’d picked up at a great little shop in New Orleans. I popped out of the kitchen to make basic introductions for people who hadn’t yet met (“So, Jonathan I know from kayaking, and Ian and Gabby I know through a play I did in 2005 – and there’s E, we were on a pub quiz team in the 90s and she just got a job with the library…”) and then just stood back.

And just as I hoped, there was lots of boisterous talk around the room. Jonathan and Gabby compared notes on kayak clubs. Niki asked E for book recommendations. After an hour Ian begged us to keep him away from the peanuts because he’d just eaten half a pounds’ worth.  Colin learned several of the guests hadn’t ever been to New Orleans and made travel recommendations. We passed around shared bottles of the fig soda, but were less brave about the bananas foster soda.  Niki got the King Cake baby. Everyone left well-fed, but there was still an enormous amount of uneaten food, which E blessedly helped me pack away into the fridge before she took off.

I took a closer look at the damage this morning after sleeping late. There’s still an awful lot of the gumbo, which E had thoughtfully doled into smaller ziploc baggies so they could be frozen. It’s a basic greens gumbo, which I can easily add leftover chicken or sausage too; the okra and tomatoes will also work there.  There’s easily enough jambalaya and red beans to see me through two weeks of brown-bag lunches, and the little bags of Zapps’ are perfect for snacks as well.  I did as many of the dishes that my drying rack can hold, and then made a breakfast of shrimp grits before tucking the rest of the shrimp into the freezer too.

I’ve also spent the morning browsing for recipes that use a lot of milk chocolate – I’ll definitely eat some of that huge Hershey bar, but probably not fast enough, and will definitely need to get through some of it by baking.  After only an hour of looking, though, I was already starting to get the idea that maybe another party would be just the thing – only make it all sweets, lots of cupcakes and tarts and cookies and puddings and…and more people in the house, more of the laughter and talking.

When you feed people, I discovered, you also feed yourself.

Deep Breath and Begin

I don’t really make resolutions. I’ve accepted that if I want to make a big change in myself, I need to wait until the desire and pressure has built up to a point where I am about to bust; picking an arbitary date and declaring “I’m going to start here” never has enough motivation behind it, and I fail. Much easier to wait and act whenever the moment rises.

Still, there are a couple things that are coming to me at this moment; a couple big ways where I have seen I could be taking much better care of myself and my life overall.

Cooking and food first. I’ve fallen out of the habit of cooking much for myself – I can throw things together at the last minute, but I’m starting to sneak back into my old theater days habit where “dinner” is a bag of Cheetos and a banana or something, because that’s what’s around the house and I am too exhausted for dinner. Or I’ll go totally the other direction and get a craving for roast chicken or some specific vegetable, and make it for myself – but then I fall prey to the single New Yorker’s curse, where I’ve purchased an entire package of two pounds of beets when I only needed a half pound, and the rest of the package sits in my fridge taking up room and growing slowly mushy.

At some point this weekend, though, the thought hit me that I need to think of my kitchen as a living thing.  It takes in food, and it digests it one way or another – either through my cooking and eating it, or through rot and waste. And then there are all the things that don’t rot, but aren’t getting used and are just taking up space.

So starting this weekend, I’m putting my kitchen, not me, on a diet. I’ll be shopping with a more careful eye on what I already have, how it can be used, and how to use up the leftovers of whatever I make. I’ll be making much more frequent use of my bento and tiffin to take food to work instead of running to the pizza place downstairs. I’ll be much more likely to tuck things in the freezer instead of letting them go bad – and to also rummage in the freezer instead of shopping. I’ll also be making a lot more soup stocks in an effort to use up the herbs that are overrunning my windowsill – and also snagging some of the less-pretty cuttings for things like air fresheners or bath treatments (I made a tea of lemon verbena yesterday, and instead of just tossing the stems, I threw them into a small pot of water and had that simmering on the stove a while; it was quite effective).

Related to that – I’m going to get back into the Calendar Cookery Challenge again. I let that fall after the election, out of sheer depression; but I’ve got to get that going again. Coincidentally, this kind of use-up-what-you-have home cooking kind of fits into the French bistro style, and I’m in a particularly French mood now (a year ago I was in Paris for New Year’s Eve) so I’m going to use Patricia Wells’ Bistro Cooking for January.  I’ve also splurged (thanks to an Amazon gift card from my brother) on a couple of single-serve Le Creuset dishes to break this in (woot!).

And all of this is going to ultimately be more frugal in the long run – which feeds into the second resolution, to get out of the damn house more often again. I’ve never been that well off – I’ve unfortunately had three separate periods of unemployment, none of them through my own doing, but all still seriously discouraging. After three times of having a job pulled out from under you because of company cutbacks, you find yourself bracing for impact all the time, doubting whether you should go to a coffee shop or buy a book for yourself because “what if I lose my job next week, I’ll need that ten dollars”. My current job is considerably more stable than others I’ve had – but could still pay a bit better, and I end up having to dip into savings much, much more than I’d like.  That’s made me much more likely to stay home and not do much of anything, out of some weird effort to conserve subway fare/lunch  money/laundry money/what have you.

But it’s damn depressing, and it’s started to starve me as a writer. Sheer fatigue is one big reason I haven’t written much in the past several months – but the other is the feeling that I have nothing to say. And the reason I have nothing to say is entirely because I haven’t taken myself out to look at things and meet people and read other things myself. That’s one big reason I’ve started doing the Movie Crash Course, just to give myself art to look at (I’ve got the Netflix account, let’s acutally make it work).  And when it warms up a bit more I’ll be heading back out into the parks and woods around the city, hiking more and exploring more there (thanks to some gear from EMS through another gift card from the parents!).

So. My roommate Sam has been out of town all week, and I used the time to give the fridge a good and critical cleaning. I made my usual New Year’s Day black-eyed peas and greens, but the greens came from the freezer. And the frozen tomato puree next to it got turned into a marinara sauce I can use for dinners this week if I’m falling-down tired, especially when I throw in some of the extra sausage from the package I got for a soup that’s simmering in the crock pot today. That soup and the peas-and-greens will do me well for bag lunches at work this week, and some other soups still in the fridge (squash, borscht, split pea) will all be great first courses for dinners too – and for that, I got a couple cheap packs of chicken breasts and pork chops and a bag of potatoes (there are about fifteen gratin recipes in the Wells cookbook alone).  And there’s a point today at which the soup will need to be set on “simmer” for a full five hours, which will be just enough time to slip out to a matinee at a nearby movie house.

Let’s see how far these good intentions carry me.

 

 

Operation Chocolat – Pungent Spice Chocolate

(For the whole rest of the winter, I’m going to be working through a cookbook devoted to 60 different kinds of hot chocolate. Because why not.)

So, lemme state first that this kind of recipe takes work.  This is no envelope of Swiss Miss or anything, here – this involves heating milk on the stove, steeping things in it, stirring chopped chocolate into the milk and waiting some more.  And that is assuming it hasn’t boiled over or spilled or foamed up all over the stove, and it also is assuming that you have time for this.  This isn’t hot chocolate for the quick hour you have after coming in from work and changing before running out to your book club.

But that’s kind of the point.  This is meant to be slowed down over and savored.  I have still rushed this recipe (see: book club), but I managed to get it done in time to linger a bit.  Calling a cab to the club instead of going by subway will save me time. (It’s freakin’ cold, I was already planning on a cab.)

I went fairly simple first – a basic recipe, with cinnamon and cloves spiking the milk before you stir in the chocolate. There’s a lot of chocolate in this, too – a quarter pound, whisked into the steamy milk on the stove. It’s made the drink super-thick – like there’s someone gently kissing me with each sip.

But I cut corners with the cinnamon and cloves, I think, as I don’t really taste them.  The recipe said to let them simmer in the milk for ten minutes before adding the chocolate, and I halved that to five in my haste.  I can smell them, faintly – just a whisper of them there.  Enough to suggest that if I’d been more patient, waited a bit more, I’d have tasted them more.

An intriguing lesson for next time.

Operation Chocolat

It’s been a rough and grumpy week. We’ve all been walking around in something of a daze since the election, but this week in particular just felt unusually grinchy – no one single thing wrong, more like a whole pile of little pecked-t0-death-by-ducks annoyances. Fortunately done now for the most part.

But part of it may also just be because it’s winter – finally proper winter too, with cold that makes you shiver and makes you not want to be outside all that much. We even finally got a dusting of snow a few days ago – nothing that stuck, sadly. But it made me realize that winter is only just beginning – technically, it hasn’t even begun yet, and there are going to be colder days to come. And cabin fever is going to keep me cranky as well.  I needed something happymaking stat.

For some reason, as I got ready for work this morning, I grabbed one of my cookbooks as subway reading.  I honest to God don’t know why. But it turned out to be a genius idea – the book I grabbed was one entirely devoted to hot chocolate.  There are some admittedly weird recipes in this book (there’s one which calls for using cubes of cheese in place of marshmallows), but…even there, there was something so…calming about it.  Each recipe had an introduction, and every one was either about the cafe it came from – where invariably you could “linger for hours” over your cup – or was about the childhood memories of the chef, which usually involved snow pants and sledding or something just as nostalgic.

And since I’ve been trying to think of ways to both unwind after work and permit myself to indulge a bit more often, I decided right before leaving work: I am going to try each and every one of the recipes in the book, once per day, starting tomorrow.  Not in order – there’s six or seven recipes in a row that are all spiked, and those are probably best saved for the weekend (the thought of going to work with a chocolate-and-tequila infused hangover sounds terrifying).  There’s about 60 recipes, which will take me to the end of February to get through if I start now…and honestly, doesn’t the thought of settling down with a cup of hot chocolate in the evening sound so comforting?

 

 

The Goose Is Getting Fat

I’m way ahead of myself with Christmas this year.  Partly because I did a lot of gift shopping when I was in Paris in July – I was there during the sales, and deliberately hit up a couple shops and bought things in bulk. And then everything got safely stowed in the hall closet – I’d wait until later to wrap them.  Usually I do a lot of wrapping on Christmas Eve – I always end up traveling to my parents’ house to spend the holiday with the family, and I usually have Amazon mail everything to them there so I don’t have to drag it on the train.

Then came….the election.

And after a week of mourning, I bizarrely found myself suddenly thinking of how I would wrap my presents. I ordered special Paris-themed Christmas wrapping paper, and started hunting down boxes.  Dug everything out of the closet again, dug out a big box of ribbon, and started writing out tags. By Thanksgiving I already had a stack of ten presents piled up in a corner of my room and was already eyeing the toys I set out as a little sideboard display – I couldn’t put them out yet, could I?

I did wait until this week for that.  But I still was getting things done much earlier than usual.  And the whole time, a song from Mame was going through my head – “we need a little Christmas right this very minute…”  Yes. Auntie Mame is what we need now – try to hang on to joy as fiercely as we can. Carpe Gaudium.

I’ve also started preparing for a small Christmas party I’m having, in two weeks.  I’ve bookmarked about twenty cookie recipes and even some candy and fudge recipes, and made up the first batch this weekend – a shortbread thing I make every year. They’re  supposed to be decorated with melted chocolate and walnuts to make them look like acorns, but this time I dug into some crunchy caramel candy sprinkle things I got from the shop G. Detou in Paris.  I had a little flash of “no, I want to save this” and I cringed a bit when I put it away after, noticing it was only a third full now – but then I reminded myself that I was already planning to go back to Paris in the spring, and I could get more, remember?

And then I tried one to reinforce that it was a good idea to use the damn things.  ….And oh my it was.

I’ve bookmarked about fifteen more cookie recipes, three candy recipes, and a couple of small appetizer kinds of things to make for a small party I’m having in a couple weeks, and I’ve also already started some of the make-ahead bites. I’m holding back on the tree for another week yet, but there are some candles and garland greens that are going to start showing up over the next week, and I’ve even got special tins to store all the cookies in as I make them.  I’ve also got the packet of vin chaud spices (also from Paris) ready for when I need it.

Because I predict I’m going to be needing a little Christmas a few more times this month – times when I’ll want to huddle by the window with a cup of something hot and minty or spicy and a cookie to nibble – and hopefully friends to join me.

 

A Moment

And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’ –Kurt Vonnegut

It’s Thanksgiving evening now. I was home here in New York City – every other year, my brother and cousins and some aunts and uncles all spend the holiday with their in-laws, so my parents and one aunt and I say “to hell with it” and have our Thanksgiving at a restaurant on the weekend. This leaves me free to spend Thanksgiving Day proper at home, wearing nothing but jammies and eating exactly what I want. A made a lentil-pumpkin curry stew, and I made us each dishes of baked sliced sweet potatoes, simmering in a glaze of butter, sugar, and the juice of some fresh cranberries. I also cheated and got a turkey tenderloin that had been packaged with its own marinade – and most likely had been swimming in it for a couple days – and roasted that alongside.

Yesterday at work was thick with office politics, the tension of three peoples’ strong wills being amplified by extra uncertainty; I work for an NGO that resettles refugees, and we have all been swinging between heartache and anger since the election. We also have been floored by a Texas judge’s move to overrule the expansion of overtime – an expansion we started preparing for months ago, and now may have to stop all our work in its tracks. Sometime at 2 pm yesterday my boss sent out word to “leave whenever the Lord places it on your heart”, but the last-minute scurrying to wrap up all essential tasks for the week took me another two hours, so it was nearly my usual time to go home anyway.

Elsewhere my friends are sharing their Thanksgivings up and down on Facebook. Three families I know have new babies celebrating their first Thanksgivings – one wee one is brand new, only about three days old. One friend shared portions of the three-page speech his seven-year-old is writing. Another friend is celebrating her first 5-K run, completed this morning. Others are on a ski holiday. My friend Colin is working over the holiday, running the lights for a stage show on board a cruise ship – but still found a chance to post a photo of his “Thanksgiving meal” of baklava and a capuccino on a balcony in Santorini.

I played a little too fast and loose with money the past couple weeks. I’m not poor – I have enough to make rent, feed myself, and take care of expenses if I am careful – but if I’m not careful, I definitely find myself broke. I’ve been in this state before, though, plenty of times -I fall into the trap of taking cabs home from work, or buying my lunch instead of brown-bagging it, and then the money I budget for myself to cover two weeks lasts only one. I was hoping to see Moana this weekend at some point, but money is tight right now to the point that I may need to wait another week.  It’s my own fault, but not being able to simply see a movie when I want is frustrating beyond belief.

A turned the stew into a thick soup that we’ll be eating for leftovers. There was also leftover turkey, which I’ll be turning into a bunch of other dishes myself. There are also tons of sweet potatoes, potatoes, and carrots in my fridge, and I have three days to turn them into dishes too – things I can bring to work or have waiting for dinner when I get home, simplifying the evening. A enlisted me for help cleaning the fridge out a little today, and I saw some bits and pieces of other food I can use, things that can be turned into pasta bakes and casseroles and tucked into omlettes to further eat. At this moment, though, I’m full.

We still don’t quite know what’s going to happen next year. Regardless what you think of the outcome of the presidential election, it’s inescapable that it’s prompted a lot of anger on both sides. It’s anger that people are not going to be able to just let go – people have been pushed far past their breaking points. The first mis-step of the new administration and some people may snap. The impact of that snap may be small and local – or it may be national. But there will be an impact. The only question is how big it’s going to be.

Maybe it will just be small.  Maybe I’ll be wrong after all.

A is streaming something in her room – either a movie, or an episode of West Wing, which she’s been working through. I have just finished a small chocolate caramel lava cake, something from a mix that I discovered in the back of my pantry (and am not entirely sure how I got). The peppermint tea I just had to settle my stomach a bit is warm in my belly. We got the boiler fixed last night – it was acting up – and the house is comfortably warm against the BQE outside.  I’ll get to sleep in tomorrow and then two more days after, and I’m well fed. There’s a candle making a soft light in the kitchen and a special documentary about Shakespeare on the radio. For the rest of the night, I don’t really have anything to worry about, or even do, except just be.

Yesterday was chaotic, tomorrow is uncertain. Tonight, there is good.