Leaping In

We are back in Brooklyn, and our little boy is entering fourth grade. It’s the moment we’ve been dreading since his brother Lucian was killed by a car, when he was also in fourth grade and at the same school, almost four years ago. Now we find ourselves in the middle of a reenactment; like sleepwalkers going ahead without being able to stop or speak, just walking numbly into things. To me the first week of school felt threatening, a looming terror- but in fact so much of the reality is mundane and rote: the school letters and lists, the daily routines we need to apply, the new sneakers to buy.

All this past spring and summer it was the anticipation of Theo’s move to his brother’s level, from Lower to Upper, that had me, us- and definitely him- in knots; we were worried, he was angry. Or we were angry, he was sad; only he was unable to say it so he acted out in every possible way. I had lost my faith in the future. Now that I am here in the unavoidable moment I see the smiles of the excited kids and optimistic parents, and I feel like a ghost of myself. I have memories, clear as today, of his brother standing at those same lockers, talking with his friends, on fire with the excitement of learning, wanting to come into school early to rewrite a paper, because he was full of fresh ideas.

Here we sit at our kitchen table, after a preliminary half day of school, a warm-up, and I know we are all completely exhausted. I’m putting my best foot forward though, for Theo; now gearing up for dinner before the school year truly begins. I’ve cooked something up for us, something unplanned, at Greg’s suggestion: pasta. We have some excellent sausage from our favorite Upstate pig farmer in the freezer, which will defrost quickly. There are greens too, waiting to be used, also from the Kinderhook farmers’ market…these things are feeding me a connection to summer peace, to a village in the Hudson valley. We are doing our best to feed our little/big son, the angry/sad one- and do it early so he can get a good night’s sleep. Maybe he’ll wake up on the right side of the bed tomorrow morning if we get this night off to a good start. I can lead with purpose when I’m in the kitchen; the rest of the time I feel pretty lost. We set the table, three at one end together with our bowls so close they are almost touching, and eat until we are full.

Pasta with Pork Sausage and Broccoli Rapini

Serves 4

Extra virgin olive oil

Four plump pork sausages from Lovers Leap Farms, in 1 inch slices

2 large garlic cloves, coarsely chopped

1 large bunch broccoli rapini, in 4 inch lengths

1 pound short pasta such as shells, gemelli, fusilli

Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper

Lots of finely grated pecorino Romano

I use my largest large cast iron skillet to brown sausage from our favorite Upstate pig farmer in olive oil while the pasta water comes to a boil. I salt the pasta water generously and wait; nobody is near enough that I can trust they will appear in the kitchen once the pasta is cooked. I pull garlic from the basket on the counter. The purple, papery skin on the cloves is tight and so juicy because it’s that time of year.  I smash the cloves lightly to open them, then give the garlic a coarse chopping before I throw them in the skillet with the mostly cooked sausage. In go the greens- I’ve washed them, and the water still on their leaves speeds up their cooking- wilting them down quickly over a medium high flame.

Once the pasta has been cooked and scooped into the skillet with a strainer, I stir over low heat and pour in almost a cup of starchy pasta water from the bottom of the pasta pot to thicken and bring it all together. This, and a healthy pour of olive oil with a handful of grated cheese hold the ingredients to the pasta and turn one panful of disparate things into a warming bowl of pasta. Pass the cheese please.

 

Summer Cooking Is…

Summer cooking is… Standing barefoot in the kitchen next to the screen door, stirring pieces of day-old bread and garlic cloves in a cast iron skillet, until the garlic cloves soften enough that you can smash them with the back of the wooden spoon. They let out a sweet, roasted smell and infuse the olive oil that slicks the bottom of the pan.

Slow and steady, just don’t break a sweat. That’s the extent of any cooking I’m doing on this day in July, when the air is so full of humidity that it has got to spill any minute now- burst from air into water.  I don’t have any ideas, and there’s not much in the fridge. Theo’s home from camp for lunch.

Lentils, thankfully cooked two nights ago, can be the substance of our meal. I lift them, ever so inefficiently, one spoonful at a time, from their cool cooking liquid with a slotted spoon because I am much too lazy to search the kitchen for the strainer. In a small bowl, I toss the lentils with a splash of vinegar, some salt and a bit of pungent vinaigrette from the whole grain mustard jar… lentils absorb- they can take on extra acid, extra salt, a little more olive oil. And a tip: always make dressing in your mustard jar, even if it’s just a way to eke out the dregs.

On the counter I unwrap a wheel of goat cheese from its paper.  I brought it back from a recent trip up north;  I admired its blue ash coating at a stall in the marché Jean Talon, Montreal. It is tender to touch and soft on the palate. The crunchy, garlicky croutons, still slightly warm, are ready and waiting to be tossed with a mixture of peppery salad greens in a bowl. Lunch can just be this.

The Cherry Tree Knows

IMG_0234The cherry blossoms popped out this past week, throwing their abundance in my face. I wasn’t ready for this. The large tree behind our house in Brooklyn declares that Lucian’s birthday is approaching. I watch the tree each year, holding a small hope close to my heart: that it blooms its lush, pink petals just around April 27th, that they will hang over us like they did on his second birthday when one little friend came over. We ate cake with strawberries and cream, and my curly haired boy sat on my lap to blow out his candles. Or like they bloomed for his third birthday, when we invited other children to bring their tricycles and scooters, and they raced around on the driveway under the pink canopy.

I’ve been peeking at the buds all around our neighborhood, able to enjoy their occasional bursts of color and frivolity with a peaceful sense of appreciation.  At the same rate as the buds themselves (tiny, timidly at first) come out, I’m drawn back into the circle of growth, dormancy, regrowth.  Life, death, life.

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A Working Lunch

So here I am, in self-imposed exile, trying to write my story.  I’m alone in a warm house, it’s very, very quiet. The snow outside the windows looks like it’s beginning to melt. I don’t go out much, and I don’t have to- there’s plenty to eat in the fridge. I enjoy scrounging through the vegetable drawers to see what I can come up with. I don’t want to spend a lot of time cooking for myself, but I do think about my meals plenty. Even so, I should probably write more than I’m actually writing. Stalling? Right now I’m toasting a piece of somewhat stale baguette with a thick layer of fresh goat cheese (the kind that comes in a log), and some thyme leaves on top. First I used that trick of sprinkling the bread with water and toasting it lightly to bring it back, before I spread it with cheese and popped it in the toaster oven again. The goat cheese will melt a little. The thyme will give it that incredible, savory perfume that reminds me of summer and feeds into a long held fantasy about eating meals outside, somewhere in Provence. It usually happens when goat cheese and fresh thyme are united: I can feel the hot sun on the top of my head, and on my shoulders, where it blazes through the sand-colored fabric of my shirt. There’s a bee buzzing lazily around, and we linger at the long table, our feet in the grass. I gaze out at the lavender fields and…

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The toaster oven beeps. I drizzle a healthy amount of the most delectable olive oil (the one I reserve for special moments) on top of my toast, and impatiently take a bite before I put it on a plate with some cucumber slices. I sit, looking at my lunch and thinking about it for a few moments. Do I even like goat cheese warm and melty? I always think I will, but then when I eat it I think the texture is off-putting, a tiny bit slimy, in a state of pseudo-melt. And I usually don’t like chevre added to an omelette or other egg dishes, because I think it’s overpowering. But here, today, it’s perfectly fine, a creamy match for the extra crunch of the now-resuscitated baguette, and that whiff of thyme…

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Then I’ll eat. And read a page of a magazine. At some point (pretty soon) I’ll feel guilty about spending too much time sitting here eating and reading, and not enough time writing- so I’ll stand up and put my plate in the sink. Time to start thinking about dinner.

 

Crisp and Cool, Quiet

img_7511The eiderdown of snow that had blanketed the yard and decorated the trees, the houses, and even the clothesline (much more festively than we had, with our one twinkly, light-wrapped wreath on the front door) and had lasted through New Year’s Eve, is all gone now. I was surprised by the nakedness of everything when I arrived here yesterday from the city. But the winter sun is cheery, and the air is crisp and cool.

I have missed my lunch due to the train travel, and so at 3 o’clock I stand at the kitchen counter and eat decadent slabs of the Stilton, left over from my New Year’s Eve splurging, which was waiting loyally for me in the fridge. I alternate nibbles of celery, crunchy and saline, with the Stilton, which coats my mouth with savory, mulchy richness- and round out each bite with a slice of sweet Pink Lady apple from the orchard down the road.

I am alone in this foreign quiet, this shell of a house. Just at 4:15, as dusk descends, I open the door to illuminate the wreath- and with a reflex I bend my leg to keep the puppy from running out the door. But just as quickly I remember that the dog is not here.

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Going for a Dip

This election day has got me all- I don’t know what- amped up and wishful, I guess, and a little nervous too. I just can’t wait until this long season, with its animosity and tension, its media fixation and wasted energy, is over.  A week ago I was feeling really panicked about the nation’s future, but today I am feeling hopeful. When I saw the queue around the block and when I walked into my neighborhood polling place- a public school gymnasium- and saw that instead of the usual half-empty room, there was an additional one with a quadruple, snaking line leading into the voting room, I felt elated. People really wanted to exercise their right to vote today. And as much as I have mixed feelings about continuing to abide in this part of Brooklyn, where I have experienced so much violence and sadness, I am still full of love for the community. I was overcome with emotion when I watched my ballot sliding into the scanner, and I almost cried as I said Thank You to the kind church-lady volunteer who helped me through the process. I love the mix of people around us here. I saw families I have known since Lucian and Theo were babies, and people who’ve lived around the corner from us for years, with whom we’ve never spoken. Many strangers, some friends, one collective push forward.

We’re going to be with neighborhood friends this evening watching the results. When we were invited, we decided comfort food was in order. I got all fired up to make good old-fashioned “French” Onion Dip, and I bought many bags of Tyrell’s salt and cracked black pepper potato chips for dipping. Last week, when I was feeling more pessimistic, though, I was thinking maybe I’d make Devils on Horseback, and present them with an ironic flourish… but now I’m glad to say a crowd-pleaser is in order: something with depth- something sensible, kind, comforting and reliable.

img_6172Cooking the onions earlier today was fun- I made a large batch ( 3 pounds of onions) so I had two pans going to caramelize them efficiently. After they were browned and very soft, I cooled them down and went about my day.  Later on I pulsed them in the food processor with sour cream, and a few dashes of the excellent Red Boat Fish Sauce (or use another Asian fish sauce, or Worcestershire sauce) and a drop of sherry vinegar. Done.

Now I’ve got some delicate bubbly rosé chilling and I’m ready to start dipping in.

Caramelized Onion Dip

Serves 8-10

olive oil

1 1/2 pounds yellow onions, thinly sliced

coarse salt

1 cup sour cream, preferably organic (better texture and a real, cultured cream flavor)

pinch of sugar, any type

pinch of cayenne pepper, optional

Asian fish sauce, about 3/4 tsp or to taste

sherry or balsamic vinegar, about 1/2 tsp, or to taste

Coat the bottom of a large, heavy skillet with olive oil and place over high heat. When oil is shimmering, add onions and a large pinch of salt; cook, stirring occasionally, until browned and beginning to soften. Reduce heat to medium-low and continue to cook, stirring from time to time, until meltingly tender- 25-30 minutes. Add a pinch of sugar. Set aside until cooled to room temperature.

Transfer onions to food processor with sour cream and pulse until coarsely pureed. Season to taste with remaining ingredients. Best if allowed to stand for at least an hour so flavors can mingle.

Serve with the best potato chips you can find, and a bottle of sparkling wine.

 

POST SCRIPT

In hindsight, maybe Devils on Horseback were in order…

devils on horseback

Remove pits from large dates, such as Medjool. Tuck a small knob of blue cheese inside each date and wrap with thinly sliced bacon or pancetta. Roast in a hot oven until sizzling and the bacon is beginning to brown. Serve warm.

These are good served without bacon too. But I think the bacon is the devil part, and that’s the salient point. Don’t forget the napkins! Things may get messy.