Friday, October 24, 2008

Sprinkle Some Sugar on Me

Armed with a cardboard shaker of salt, Albert seasons the yolk, before eating his cream cheese-cucumber-and-tomato sandwich on rye bread, a pickle, and the egg so they all come out even with the milk in his thermos. When Frances brings her own elaborate lunch to school, she sets a tiny vase of violets on a doily before unpacking: cream of tomato soup, a lobster salad sandwich, celery, carrot sticks, black olives, plums, and cherries. To finish, she has a vanilla pudding with chocolate sprinkles.

Bread and Jam for Frances was probably my very first encounter with food writing, and it left a deep impression. First, the lunches struck me as tasty. I might have tweaked the menu a little (cold fried chicken, anyone?), but the sharp tang of rye bread with the mild and sweet flavors of cream cheese and tomato sounded perfect. (As “Harriet the Spy” knew, very few pleasures surpass the perfectly ripe tomato sandwich.) While the lobster salad sandwich was clearly an instance of one-up-manship on Frances’s part, the inclusion of black olives was genius. A little girl badger after my own heart.

But the deeper pull of these descriptions tugged at something other than the palate. I was fascinated with the implied labor of preparation (Frances's mom put her cherries in a tiny basket), the ceremony of eating (nibble egg, bite sandwich, taste pickle, sip milk), and the finishing touches (the disposable salt shaker, the chocolate sprinkles). (Molly Ringwald opening her sushi bento box in The Breakfast Club provided a similar thrill many years later).

While Albert had me at rye bread and salt, it’s the non pareils that won DD’s heart. She’s my little Frances (think pasta and butter, instead of bread and jam), so the olives, and lobster, and pickle failed to resonate with her.

Of course, sprinkles have a baseline appeal. Kids love 'em. But if we move beyond their superficial allure (sugary taste; crunchy texture) and ignore their nutritional offenses (HFCS, dyes), then we might see that Sprinkles (a.k.a. jimmies, sanding sugars, non pareils, fairy dust, pixie dust, angel dust . . . wait, that’s not right) harbor something more. They hold the same aesthetic and ritualized charm of Frances’s vase of violets. They transform a plain cupcake into a festive one. They invite the smallest hands to the decorating table. And their sparkle is superfluous, giving the decorator license to be rebellious, tasteful, or tacky, as she pleases. Reason not the need.

Plus, they’re pretty.

Here’s the cookie recipe that DD and I bejeweled with sprinkles, adapted from The Best of Fine Cooking, Cookie Edition:

Classic Cut-Out Cookies
2 Cups of unbleached flour
1 ½ teaspoons of baking powder
½ teaspoon of kosher salt
¾ Cup of unsalted butter, softened
¾ Cup of granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
2 Tbs of heavy cream
½ teaspoon of lemon zest
Whisk flour, baking powder, and salt in small bowl. With mixer, in a large bowl, mix butter and sugar until well-creamed. Add vanilla, cream, and lemon zest until well combined. With mixer on low, gradually add flour mixture until well combined. Portion the dough into three disks, wrap in plastic, and then refrigerate from 2 hours to overnight. Grease cookie sheets. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Flour a work surface and roll out one disk at a time to ¼ inch thick. Cut out cookies, add sprinkles, and bake for 9-10 minutes until edges turn golden.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Unhousing the Crab

As my Mom tells it, we were leaving San Francisco for good that day. The car was packed (a little red hatchback, missing its backseat), and we had driven across town to say good-bye to J, the man who would later become my stepfather. But when it came time to hit the road, the engine wouldn’t turn over.

So we moved into J’s one-room basement apartment.

Someone (an old girlfriend?
A previous tenant?) had thought stripes of red and black paint would improve the cement-block walls. I slept on the floor of a closet curtained with hanging beads. At night, banana slugs would creep through the kitchenette window, leaving glossy trails on the formica counter.

After a month at the neighborhood school, it became evident that the white teacher was ostentatiously favoring me as the only white kid in the class.
So my mom concocted a scheme. Friends of friends owned an essential oils and incense company called “Flash” in our old neighborhood, and its street address would become my new, false place of residence. With the deep and rigid morals of a first grader, I felt cramped with fear that my teacher would ask me where I lived. At the end of the school day, I’d walk to “Flash,” where I’d wait for my mom to pick me up, filling the time with wary sniffs of patchouli, sandalwood, and eucalyptus.

J, who is six years younger than my mom, had just returned from Vietnam, and Vietnamese restaurants began to appear in the city. I can’t remember, but we must have eaten at Thanh Long, which became a local phenomenon when it opened in the early 70s.
I know I always ordered the spicy Vietnamese roasted crab.

If you had asked me then, “What’s your favorite food?” I probably would have answered crab—cracked crab—the real San Francisco treat.
I did love it. But I also knew that my love of crab was strange (and, I thought, sophisticated) for a kid. I think my mom and I got a kick out of how other patrons responded when her little girl sat tall and ordered her own plate of the Dungeness crustaceans. I enjoyed the ritualistic labor that crab demands, with its very own tool-set: a nut-cracker, a tiny trident, a little spear. And what’s the reward for penetrating its orange armor? A squeeze of lemon, dripping butter, and a delicately sweet meat.

A few years later, in the bicentennial, we moved to Maryland.
Since my parents couldn’t afford to buy a house, we lived with J’s newly divorced sister, Annie, in Silver Spring. In those days, before she moved back to Oklahoma to raise Basenjis, Annie was a clothes buyer for Hecht’s department store. She read Harlequin Romances, drank Tab, and watched Star Trek religiously. It was Annie who introduced me to fried soft-shell crabs at Crisfield’s. Crunchy, juicy, and delicious. It felt primitive to eat the critter’s house, but it’s such a tasty exoskeleton.

After many inedible experiences, I won’t order crab cakes in a restaurant unless we’re on the Chesapeake Bay.
But we regularly have what the kids call “crabby patties” at home.

(Be sure to keep this recipe from the eye of Plankton):

Crab Cakes

1 lb Crab Meat (I use Phillips Special Crab Meat, pasteurized, available in the fresh fish section)

½ Cup of Panko bread crumbs

1 egg

1 Tablespoon of mayonnaise

A few dashes of Tabasco sauce

2 teaspoons of Old Bay seasoning

Juice from ½ lemon

1 scallion, chopped

1 tablespoon of diced green pepper

Salt and pepper

1 Cup of Panko bread crumbs

canola oil

Squeeze any excess moisture out of the crab meat. Mix all of the ingredients thoroughly, minus the final 1 Cup of Panko bread crumbs and the canola oil. Divide the crab meat mixture into 5 evenly sized balls. Pat these balls into patties, and then dredge in the remaining Panko bread crumbs. Chill the cakes for at least one hour. Heat about a ¼ inch of canola oil in a skillet. Fry the crab cakes, about four minutes a side, until they’re golden brown.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Hardest Hue to Hold

Her blood sugar was low, so the tantrum was to be expected. When I suggested long pants, she insisted on shorts. To stem the bickering, I left her room, but over my shoulder I said, “Pick out your own clothes.” Five minutes later, I turned the corner in the hall, and she was hiding behind the door, dressed in long pants. Thinking it best that I keep my mouth shut, I walked by without a word. And then she began to cry. “Why are you crying?” “Because you don’t appreciate me,” she said.

Her articulation brought me to a standstill. I didn’t know my five year old daughter even knew the word “appreciate.” The precision of her observation—such a careful match between her feelings and her language—made me, ironically, appreciate her. The littlest one, in a family of know-it-alls, had just demonstrated an incisiveness with her words that not only persuaded me to concede her point (I should have praised her for her acquiescence), but it also generated a well-lit spot of time. In the future, when she slays me in arguments and dazzles me with her verbal dexterity, I’ll remember this moment as a sign of wondrous sparks to come.

It’s fitting then, that DD plans to be “Word Girl” for Halloween. If you’re not up on your PBS kid shows, “Word Girl” is a ten year old superhero who fights crime while enhancing her community’s vocabulary. We’ve been planning the details for weeks—red unitard, yellow cape, gloves, boots—and practicing Word Girl’s slogan, “Word Up!”

What’s not to love about Halloween? You get to dress up, go out at night, and people give you free candy. Candy corn, peanut butter cups, licorice, and mini-chocolate bars. Houses are glowing with golden pumpkins. You eat harvesty, nutty food, with apples and squash and cinnamon. People are merry. It’s the best holiday of the year, far out-stripping Christmas (which tends to generate tension and dissatisfaction, the inevitable consequences of cupidity).

As an aspiring actress who imagined herself in remakes of Flying Down to Rio and Top Hat, I adored Halloween as a child. Halloween meant elaborately planned and glamorous costumes: a Rita Hayworth-like movie star, a flapper with spit curls and fringe, Shirley Temple. As an adult, DH and I would attend parties as literary figures (I was Belinda from “Rape of the Lock”; he was James Boswell) or movie characters (I was Janet Leigh in a blond wig, bullet bra, and pencil skirt; he was Norman Bates in a dress).

And it’s appropriate that we outfit ourselves in elaborate gear at a time when Nature does the same.

Emily Dickinson says it better . . .

The Maple wears a gayer scarf—
The field a scarlet gown—
Lest I should be old fashioned
I'll put a trinket on.

Here in the south, October is nestled between the heavy heat of summer and the creeping grey of November. The sun shines without a glare. The month is golden and calm, yet we’re buzzy and excited (for Halloween, for school, for change). We don our best clothes: plaid wool skirts, boots, and nubby tights, feeling prepared, capable, and productive.

I purposefully chose October as my wedding month 19 years ago. On the day, the weather was crisp enough for the velvet in my dress but temperate enough to have the ceremony outside. Leaves of gold and red and yellow adorned the trees, with a few on the ground, crunching beneath our feet.

October speaks a language that prompts me to appreciate.

Here’s the perfect recipe to accompany an autumnal mood (first eaten on our first anniversary in October many years ago):

Pumpkin and Cream Cheese Muffins

Cream cheese mixture:

1 8 oz. package of cream cheese, softened

¼ Cup of sugar

1 egg beaten


1 ¾ cup flour

1 ½ cup sugar

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon cinnamon

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon nutmeg

1 cup canned pumpkin

½ cup melted butter

1 egg beaten

1/3 cup water

Combine cream cheese mixture until well-blended and set aside. Combine dry ingredients. Add pumpkin, butter, egg, and water, mixing until just moistened. Reserve 1 ½ cups pumpkin batter. Grease muffin tins, or use papers. Fill cups about half full. Put in a dollop of cream cheese mixture. Cover with the rest of batter. Bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes. (Can also be made as a loaf: fill loaf pan about half way full, add cream cheese mixture, top with reserved batter. Cut through the batter a few times with a knife to swirl it. Bake for 70 minutes)

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Bacon for Brinner

We all know one. They’re faithful vegetarians . . . except when it comes to bacon. Bacontarians. Why do they slip? It’s not really their fault. For the pig has preternatural power.

As Homer exclaimed (in what may be the most over-quoted Simpsons' line in our household), “What is this magical animal?” Magical indeed. Pork fat can even get sleeping children and partners out of bed on a lazy Sunday. “Are you cooking bacon?!!?” my daughter will yell from the top of the stairs.

To me, the smell of bacon or sausage in the morning is both comforting and rousing; the sizzle and the scent create a sense of coziness. It makes me feel safe and cherished, even when I’m the one doing the frying!

When we’d visit my grandparents in Dallas, and I was about five or six, my grandfather would wake up at dawn. Soon after, a slightly smoky air would waft into my room, and I’d scurry to get my slippers on. Those early mornings were for me and him. He’d make link sausages and sweet rolls—the most decadent and delicious breakfast imaginable. I loved to see my grandpa at the stove. He was a tall, almost regal man, and he always wore a chef’s apron to keep his clothes neat. And he bestowed upon me that pure adoration that only grandparents can give. I would bask in his attention, happily munching on sweet rolls and sausage, and feeling absolutely content with the world.

Here’s the only cult I’m not ashamed to join (and the source of my opening picture) . . .

As Jamie Oliver points out, this recipe includes eggs, sausage, and bacon, so it’s a lot like having breakfast for dinner. In our house, we call it “brinner.”

Sausage Carbonara

(Linguine all carbonara di salsiccia from Jamie’s Italy)

4 organic Italian sausages

Olive oil

4 slices of thickly cut pancetta, chopped

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

1 lb. dried linguine

4 large egg yolks, free range and organic

½ cup of heavy cream

3 ½ oz. freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Zest of 1 lemon

1 sprig of fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped

Extra virgin olive oil

Slit the sausage skins to pop the meat out. With wet hands, roll little balls of sausage meat, about the size of marbles. Heat a large frying pan, add splash of olive oil. Fry the sausage meatballs into golden brown, add pancetta and continue cooking until golden. Start a pot of boiling, salted water, add the linguine and cook according to package directions. In a large bowl, whip egg yolks, cream, half the grated Parmesan, the lemon zest, and the parsley. Drain the cooked pasta, reserving a little pasta water, and immediately toss the pasta with the egg mixture in the pasta pot. Add the sausage and pancetta, and toss together. The sauce should be smooth and silky. (If it gets too sticky, add a little reserved cooking water). Sprinkle the rest of the Parmesan on top, season if necessary, drizzle a little olive oil, and serve.

Monday, October 6, 2008

So Much Does Depend on Chicken (if it's Fried)

Even as a kid, I wasn't a big fan of burgers. When I was in second grade, we lived in a flat in San Francisco above a closed-down “doll hospital.” The sign above the shop still advertised its former use, but butcher paper covered the windows. The space had been rented by the hamburger joint down the street, “Bill’s Place,” and late at night, you could hear restaurant workers chopping onions and grinding meat. Perhaps it was the amalgamation, in my seven year old mind, of broken dolls parts and sides of beef that led to my eventual choice to avoid cow. (Certainly it explains those nightmares involving cleavers and pouty ceramic faces.)

My meal of choice at that age was Kentucky Fried Chicken, well before it became “KFC.” San Francisco had very few fast food restaurants at the time (in fact, my only knowledge of McDonalds came from an avid devotion to Mad Magazine). If we ate out, we’d get Mexican, Chinese, Vietnamese, or Bill’s hamburgers. So Kentucky Fried Chicken was birthday food. Left to my own devices once a year, I chose fried chicken, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, and chocolate cake. The perfect meal.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but fried chicken probably conjured up the extended family I barely knew. My mother rarely made fried chicken. Instead, it was the meal I ate when visiting my father’s relatives in East Texas. My grandmother and great aunt cooked. Surrounded by aunts, and uncles, and cousins who knew my name, I ate fried chicken and drank sweetened iced tea in their tiny kitchen. My appetite made them happy; it was a sign that I belonged.

For DH, fried chicken also meant family. As a child, his nickname for his grandmother was “Maw Maw Chicken Bone,” in honor of the favorite drumsticks she made him. In the early years of our marriage, we spent every Sunday at his grandparents’ house in Durham. Once we finished eating lunch—almost always fried chicken, butter beans and corn, and biscuits—his Maw Maw would say, with a wink, “Let’s leave the dishes. If the preacher comes, we’ll run back to the table.” After supper, DH would do the laundry and watch NASCAR with his grandfather, drinking Pepsi and talking about the drivers. I, meanwhile, learned the Zen of Sunday rest (not an easy lesson for me, but the whirring sound of stock cars had a meditative effect). We named our son after DH’s grandfather. A tender-hearted man who lost his leg in WWII. Thinking about his smile brings tears to my eyes today.

So that I can eat fried chicken once a week, I make a healthy version, adapted from The Eating Well Magazine. You’d never know it wasn’t fried.

Oven Fried Chicken

2 Cups of Flour
1 Tablespoon baking powder
2 teaspoons thyme
2 teaspoons oregano
1 Tablespoon paprika
1 teaspoon of salt
freshly ground pepper
1 cup milk
1 Egg
A couple dashes of Tabasco sauce
Spray oil (canola)
8 Chicken wings (or your favorite parts)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Spray a baking sheet with oil. Mix dry ingredients in a shallow bowl. Mix milk, egg, and Tabasco in another bowl. Working piece by piece, put the chicken first in the egg mixture, and then dredge in the flour. Place the pieces of chicken on the baking sheet. Spray the chicken well with canola oil. Cook for 50 minutes, turning all the pieces over half-way through the cooking time.

Some chicken love quotations from the family:

DH: “Fried chicken is the only food that will get me to dress like a cow” (in reference to the Chik-Fil-a dress-like-a-cow day).

DS: “According to Dee Snyder, man cannot live without chicken nuggets."

DD: "Do chicken nuggets come from chickens?"

Friday, October 3, 2008

What I've done to Stevens!

I'm delighted to report that my silly poem about squid brought out UPenn's Prof. Filreis's snark:

Apparently Pound and William Carlos Williams don't get this kind of shabby treatment. Nobody ever parodies "The Red Wheelbarrow."

Back to food on Sunday . . . because so much depends . . . on the white chickens I'll be cooking.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Squid

Fried Calamari and Potato Salad

[If you're here for the poem, don't miss my follow-up post: "What I've done to Stevens!" to get a sense of its critical reception]

With true literary geekiness, I've penned a poem. It's an imitation devoted to squid.

And with even greater literary geekiness, I've included footnotes.

Recipes to follow.

Thirteen ways of looking at a squid
(with sincere apologies to Wallace Stevens)

Among snowy cephalopods
The only moving thing
Was the blade of my cleaver. (1)

I was of eight minds,
Like a squid
On which there are eight squid arms. (2)

The squid once whirled in the aqua sea.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

A man and a woman
Eat food.
Man and woman and hot calamari
To eat.

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of crispy rings
Or the beauty of tentacles,
The kraken sizzling
Or just after. (3)

Tentacles filled the long platter
Of Venetian glass.
The shadow of the black ink
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the butter
An indescribable taste. (4)

O men of Italy,
How did you imagine golden squid?
See the
frito misto di mare
Swim around the oil
Of the olives about you? (5)

I know calamari
And crunchy, indescribable squid rings;
But I know, too,
That tentacles are involved
In what I know.

When the black ink flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.

On sight of calamari
Swimming in the green oil,
Even the cooks of linguine
Would cry out sharply.

We rode over from the Lido
In a fast boat. (6)
Once, hunger pierced us,
In that we mistook
The shadow of the vaporetto
For sea squids.

The water is moving.
The kraken must be swimming.

It was evening all afternoon.
It was dinner
And we were going to dine.
The fried squid sat
On our dinner plates.

(1) I actually use a knife to slice the squid into rings, but I liked the euphony of “cleaver.”
I thought the arms were tentacles, but squid, in fact, have only two tentacles and eight arms.
The Kraken is a mythical creature often compared to a giant squid.
Here the poem shifts to a memory of our trip to Venice, where we ate at a beautiful restaurant, Corte Sconta, known for its seafood. One dish was made with black squid ink pasta.
We also had their special, frito misto di mare, mixed fried seafood, which included calamari.
We stayed on the Lido to save money, so we took the water buses to Venice. We needed the extra money to pay for our meal at Corte Sconta.

Fried Calamari

2 cups of Flour

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon pepper

2 teaspoons paprika

2 pounds of cleaned squid

Olive oil or Canola oil


Slice the bodies of the squid into half-inch rings, leaving the tentacles whole.

Mix the flour in a shallow bowl with salt, pepper and paprika.

Fill frying pan with about three inches of oil. Heat to 350 degrees.

Working in small batches, dredge the squid in the flour, shake off excess flour, and fry in the oil.

Each batch will take 2-3 minutes. Fry until golden and crisp. Transfer to a paper-towel lined plate. Serve with lots of lemons.


Potato Salad with a Zing

(adapted from Julia Child’s French Potato Salad in The Way to Cook)

1 ½ pounds of boiling potatoes

1 red chili pepper minced

2 scallions chopped

Salt and pepper

¼ cup of potato cooking water

1 ½ Tablespoons wine vinegar

2-3 Tablespoons chopped cilantro

2-3 Tablespoons of light olive oil

Peel potatoes and slice into ¼ inch thick pieces; keep in cold water until ready to cook. Place potatoes in a pot with clean cold water to cover. Add a couple teaspoons of salt. Bring to simmer, and simmer for 2-3 minutes until the potatoes are just tender. Drain but save ¼ cup of potato cooking water. Turn the warm potatoes in a bowl with scallions, salt and pepper, chili pepper, cooking water, vinegar, and cilantro. Let steep for 10 minutes, tossing gently several times. Correct seasoning, and then add some oil before serving.