After an Absence, Some Thoughts.

We were at home, painting the house, slopping primer all over the wooden trim and ourselves, when our phones just started going off.  Some people would say that our phones “exploded,” but after today’s events that phrase just doesn’t seem right.  Keith’s office overlooks the finish line, and his colleagues were under the impression that he had been in Copley Square when the bombs were detonated.  He wasn’t, but still his phone kept on ringing and buzzing, and alerting him that people cared.

I am a New Yorker, born and bred. Up until this point, I’ve allowed Boston a sliver of space in my heart because it raised the man I love. Still, “I’m not from here,” I’ve said. I’ve bemoaned giving up my New York license. I’ve called its people provincial. I’ve scorned its awkward and archaic laws. I’ve derided its class system. I’ve begrudged the bagels.

Today, I’m telling all of you that I’m from Boston. I’m from here, and I’m mad. I’m mad and confused and troubled and upset and pissed off. I’m frustrated with the breathless affect of the news media. I’m sick thinking of all the athletes who were running for a cause, or for a charity, or a for purpose that didn’t include hate or fear or pain or terror. I’m shaking with anger because I need someone to explain to me the point of this.

Something that has really struck me about these events is not how much people hate and want to hurt, but how much people love and want to help.  The Red Cross website was inundated for hours with people trying to glean information on when and how and where to donate blood.  Residents across the Boston Metro Area and beyond are opening their homes to strangers stranded in a maimed city.

This is what’s important to remember: in times of terror, there are moments of triumph, and those moments are made by people.

Motorcrash.

Last Monday I got hit by a car; I survived.

Bruised and thoroughly shaken up, I insisted on making dinner the next night, much to Keith’s annoyance.  I could’ve cooked something, he said.  You should be resting.

He’s right — I should’ve been resting, and the short amount of prep time our meal took left me sore, aching and in desperate need of my prescribed Percocet.  That said, the recipe I’d chosen couldn’t have been any simpler.  I like to think I would’ve been able to manage it even if I had been seriously injured, something I hope I never have to put to the test.

Pork Noodle Soup w. Cinnamon + Star Anise -- 10thirty

The beauty of this soup is that you literally throw the majority of the ingredients into a pot, slap on its lid, and walk away.  Soon thereafter, doped up on painkillers or not, you’ll smell the most amazing fragrances emerging from your kitchen.  If you happen to be doped up on painkillers, these alluring aromas will likely have the power to lift you up off of the sofa and gently waft you towards the pot, much like the sweet perfume of a blueberry pie cooling on a windowsill in an old Merrie Melodies cartoon.

When I was younger, my mother frequently made a chicken noodle soup that I now realize must have been inspired by Vietnamese phở; at the time, I just thought it was delicious, though the skinny, silvery noodles my mom used were too squirrely to catch on a spoon.  Later I learned these were cellophane noodles, also called vermicelli or bean thread noodles, but when I was growing up I called them “swimming noodles,” since they too often slid off of my cutlery and back into the broth as smoothly as a fish.

To avoid frustration while eating this soup, I recommend using both spoon and fork, something that is only tricky if your head is cloudy with narcotics and acetaminophen.

Pork Noodle Soup with Cinnamon + Anise, from Gourmet
Makes four to six portions

2 ½ pounds country-style pork ribs
6 cups water
2/3 cup soy sauce
2/3 cup Chinese Shaoxing wine or medium-dry Sherry
¼ cup packed dark brown sugar
1 head garlic, halved crosswise
3 3-inch cinnamon sticks
1 whole star anise (I used two)
5 ½ ounces cellophane noodles
Chopped cilantro and sliced scallions for garnish

  1. Gently simmer all ingredients except noodles in a 6-quart heavy pot, covered, skimming as needed, until pork is very tender, 1 ½ to 2 hours.
  2. Transfer pork to a bowl. Discard bones, spices, and garlic. Coarsely shred meat. Skim fat from broth, then return meat and bring to a simmer. Rinse noodles, then stir into broth and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until noodles are translucent and tender, about 6 minutes.
Motorcrash” by The Sugarcubes.

Pickin’ a Chicken.

We’ve got busy lives, Keith and I.  The working week can be particularly crazy.  Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays Keith is at the gym until 8.30 at the earliest; on those same nights, I try to be in bed by ten o’clock at the latest, as I’m slogging through my own work out Tuesday and Thursday mornings at 5.45.  Those evenings, I teach Puppy Kindergarten and don’t leave sometimes until after eight.  Other nights, I may meet with clients and their dogs and not return home until past nine.

Basically, it’s a little crazy around here.

To make things even trickier, I cook dinner several times a week, probably four meals on average.  A lot of the time, I cook in stages; perhaps I’ll prep my mise en place in the morning, or maybe I’ll make my meatballs several hours before broiling, or I might possibly start a recipe only to finish it later.  If I can, I find a recipe that can cook itself while I’m out — this chicken is a great example of that.

Soy-Ginger Chicken -- 10thirty.I like Asian food; it’s what I grew up eating.  This recipe brings all those sweet and savory flavors together in a highly-satisfying way, and the fact that everything can just be tossed into a pot and left alone is a solid plus.

Next time around, I’ll definitely add more ginger, and I was without a doubt more generous with my scallions and cilantro than the recipe called for, but I think it’s better that way.  And while I’m sure that this chicken is delicious with a pillow of steamed rice, I chose to pair it with some roasted cauliflower since Keith is off grains at the moment.  In my opinion, you can never go wrong with some roasted cauliflower.  Keith didn’t complain, anyway…

Soy-Ginger Chicken, from Everyday Food
Makes four portions

1/3 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
5 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2/3 cups fresh cilantro, coarsely chopped, plus whole leaves for garnish
1 piece fresh ginger, about 2 inches, peeled and cut into thin strips
1 packed cup scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced on the diagonal
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon ground pepper
4 chicken drumsticks and 4 thighs, about 2 ½ pounds total, skin removed
2 medium carrots, thinly sliced crosswise
1 tablespoon cornstarch
Cooked rice for serving (optional)

  1. Preheat oven to 350˚.  In a 5-quart Dutch oven or other heavy pot, stir together soy sauce, brown sugar, garlic, cilantro, ginger, ½ cup scallions, vinegar, coriander and pepper.  Add chicken and carrots; toss to coat, then stir in 1 cup water.  Cover pot and transfer to oven; cook until chicken is tender, about 1 ½ hours.  Using a large spoon, skim off any fat from surface of cooking liquid.
  2. In a 2-cup glass measuring cup or small bowl, whisk cornstarch with 1 tablespoon water.  Ladle 1 cup cooking liquid into measuring cup; whisk to combine.  Pour into a small saucepan, and bring to a boil; cook until thickened, about 1 minute.  Stir mixture into pot to combine.
  3. Serve chicken mixture with rice, if desired, garnished with cilantro leaves and remaining ½ cup scallions.
Pickin’ a Chicken” by Eve Boswell.

I’ve Got A Lovely Bunch Of Coconuts.

When I was about seven or eight, I watched The Parent Trap II with my brother and our cousins.  The storyline isn’t that important (best friends want their single parents to marry, and — coincidence? — one of those parents is a twin played by Hayley Mills) but what stuck with me for some reason was a scene early on in the movie where the two young girls bake cookies.  They had a huge mixing bowl on a kitchen countertop, and the two kept on throwing in what seemed to me to be the craziest ingredients into their dough: marshmallows! Cap’n Crunch! M&Ms! pretzels!  Then the girls formed their cookies and put them in the oven, and all I could think was, Gross.

I really think that that movie is what turned me off of baking.  Interestingly enough, it didn’t turn me off of cookies.

In the time that’s passed since The Parent Trap II, I’ve made my peace with baking, and with what my seven-year-old self would have thought to be gross cookie ingredients.  As a seven-year-old, for example, I never would’ve even considered eating anything with coconut in it; like my former teacher Steve Almond wrote in his excellent book Candyfreak, “Oddly, it isn’t the flavor of coconut that troubles me, but the texture… I feel as if I’m chewing on a sweetened cuticle.”

True dat, Steve.Toasted Coconut Chocolate Chip Cookies -- 10thirty.

I like coconut, I really do, but its cuticleness just drives me bananas.  I think that’s why I’m so surprised that I adore these cookies as much as I do.  The trick, with these not-overwhelmingly-sweet cookies, is toasting the cuticle out of the coconut and amping up the richness of its natural flavor.  As a result, you get these little soft bites of truly intense coconuttiness — which just so happens to pair quite nicely with a luxe dark chocolate, I might add.

Have these cookies changed my mind about coconut?  Perhaps not.  But they’ve definitely got me thinking about coconut a bit more, and with something like a smile on my face.

Toasted Coconut Chocolate Chunk Cookies, from Cooking Light
Makes about twenty-five cookies

1 cup flaked sweetened coconut
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
¾ cup packed brown sugar
¼ cup unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large egg
2 ounces dark chocolate (70% cacao), chopped
Cooking spray

  1. Preheat oven to 350°.
  2. Arrange coconut in a single layer in a small baking pan. Bake at 350° for 7 minutes or until lightly toasted, stirring once. Set aside to cool.
  3. Weigh or lightly spoon flour into a dry measuring cup; level with a knife. Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl; stir with a whisk until blended. Place sugar and butter in a large bowl; beat with a mixer at medium speed until well blended. Beat in vanilla and egg. Add flour mixture, beating at low speed just until combined. Stir in toasted coconut and chocolate.
  4. Drop by level tablespoons 2 inches apart onto baking sheets coated with cooking spray. Bake at 350° for 10 minutes or until bottoms of cookies just begin to brown. Remove from pan, and cool completely on wire racks.
I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts” was originally recorded by Merv Griffith, but I’ve had a huge fondness for Danny Kaye since childhood, and since he was a huge lover of food, I went with his version.

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker.

A little fact about me: I like the end of the world. Always have. It’s not exactly something I’m looking forward to, per se — no zombie attack cardio training here — but I appreciate the apocalypse in fiction. It’s an excellent backdrop for drama, which isn’t to say that end-of-the-world stories are always well-written. When they are though, they can be the stuff of truly awesome nightmares, a pretty high compliment from me.

Another little tidbit of Nayiri info: one of my favorite kind of stories to read is the coming-of-age tale. Regardless of whether it’s a classic like To Kill a Mockingbird, a “modern” classic à la Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, an instantly-influential novel like The Secret History, a super-trendy title like The Perks of Being a Wallflower… I love them all. The idea of capturing a very specific time in which a character experiences a major chance that influences the rest of his or her life is fascinating to me, and when those stories are successful, it’s heartbreaking and heart-bursting to read.

The Age of Miracles by Karen Walker Thompson -- 10thirtyThe thing is, Karen Thompson Walker‘s much-hyped debut novel The Age of Miracles is neither here nor there, in terms of success. There are some surprisingly lovely moments, a great amount of creativity, and a whole boatload of schmaltz.*

First, the synopsis: one morning, the world’s rotation inexplicably slows, and eleven-year-old Julia narrates what should be a tumultuous time. Both the days and nights grow longer, quickly reshaping civilization’s reliance on a twenty-four-hour day — “We would fall out of sync with the sun almost immediately. Light would be unhooked from day, darkness unchained from night.” In spite of this, the beginning of a new era, Julia admits a truth: “But no force on earth could slow the forward march of sixth grade.” So we learn of friendships’ end, training bras, crushes on boys. We remember that youth can be lonely, that parents can disappoint, that feeling included can be everything. We experience all this as birds fall from the sky, neighbors grow sick, scientists speculate the cause of “the slowing,” and food sources diminish. It’s not that Julia — sensitive, observant, intelligent Julia! — doesn’t care or isn’t aware of the changes in the world, it’s more that her focus is on navigating her way through a time of dance parties and growth spurts: “Some girls were turning beautiful… I still looked like a child.”

This is what I like, what I find interesting, how a protagonist deals with and interprets something as universal as growing up against a creative and unique backdrop. I don’t need to know about the so-called science behind scorchingly-hot days and frosty nights. Julia wonders why whales are beaching themselves by the thousands on her Southern Californian shores, why it’s suddenly so hard to kick a soccer ball into a satisfactory arc, why earthquakes have begun pummel Kansas, and I do too… until Julia’s gaze turns to skateboarding Seth Moreno, object of her affection.

(An aside: Seth Moreno just may be as perfect a name as Jordan Catalano, or Marcus Flutie.)

The Age of Miracles, from the SFGate -- 10thirtyI’m all for young love and first love and, heck, love in general, but unfortunately this is where things can often get exceedingly sentimental. I’m sorry to say that Ms. Walker overindulges in mawkishness. To be fair, it takes her a while to get there, but once she gets going… watch out. There is a specific scene that I can’t discuss, primarily because Ms. Walker chooses to revisit it and use it as the finale of her closing sequence — man, oh man, if only I could talk about it. Let me say this: it reads as though it is designed specifically to cause a tightening in the audience’s chest and a tearing of their eyes. It reads as manipulative. It reads as cheap. It reads as formulaic.

What legitimately burns is that Ms. Walker is a talented writer. There are many passages that are elegant, and stunning, and magnetic. There are descriptions that cause the reader to pause and say, Oh, how fine. The trouble is there are just as many passages that cause that same reader to pause and roll her eyes and say, Oh, jeez. And because the last note Ms. Walker leaves us with is maudlin, that commercialized shade of sickly blue can’t help but color the rest of the novel.

Second photo from the SFGate.
* Don’t believe me? Check out the schmaltzy book trailer.

I Am What I Am.

There are many words the people in my life could use to describe me, but I don’t know if the word “nice” would be amongst them. “Creative” would be, and “loyal,” I’d hope. Perhaps “funny,” likely “clumsy,” and ideally “clever.” I wouldn’t mind hearing “chic,” but that may be stretching it. “Nice,” though — that one I’d wonder who was pranking me with vocabulary.

Don’t misunderstand. I don’t think I’m a bad person; in fact, growing up I was pretty much a “good girl,” a fact I think my parents would even readily admit, even if at the time they thought otherwise. I’m just not who people envision when they envision “nice.” I think they probably envision someone like Reese Witherspoon. You know she’s nice.

Reese Witherspoon -- 10thirty.

I, on the other hand, really like the word “thoughtful.” That’s one I like quite a lot. I mean, I love the holidays for the presents, and not for the reason most would assume. What I love is considering what a person likes. I love just thinking about a friend, and thinking about what I could give or get to make her or him happy. I love thinking, “Wow, Erin would really like this.” I love packaging those presents up, making a tag that says what gift goes to who, stacking a pile of wrapped parcels into a bag for delivery. But mostly I like thinking about the people I love, and finding something that might make them smile.

So when I see a recipe whose flavors I know will appeal to Keith even more than they will to me, I’ll tear that recipe out, file it in my binder, and save it to try one day. There’s a school of thought out there that believes women dress to impress other women more than they do for men. Well, I cook for Keith, and in more ways than one.

I don’t look at this as a domestic thing, or an anti-feminist thing — it’s a love thing.  I care about this man, deeply, and since this man enjoys Indian food, the least I can do I throw together a really easy chickpea curry every now and again.

Chickpea CurryI lack the ability to explain how simple this recipe is, and how quickly it all comes together.  A lot of the times, I read little magazine articles about putting dinner on the table in minutes, and when I try those same recipes it takes me twice as long to make it through as I’ve been promised.  This is not the case with this chickpea dish.  It literally takes as long as it takes to cook rice to make this, and if you use boil-in-a-bag rice as recommended, it’s even faster.  Basically, this dish makes a funny, clumsy, loyal, creative, clever and possibly-but-likely-not chic gal like me thoughtful and nice in one fell swoop.  So everyone wins.

Chickpea Curry with Basmati Rice, from Cooking Light
Makes four portions

1 (3.5-ounce) bag boil-in-bag basmati or brown rice
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 large onion, diced
1 ½ teaspoons garam masala
2 15-ounce cans chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1 15-ounce can unsalted crushed tomatoes
1 6-ounce package fresh baby spinach
½ cup plain 2% Greek yogurt
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro

  1. Cook rice according to package directions; drain.
  2. While rice cooks, heat a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add oil to pan; swirl to coat. Add onion; sauté 5 minutes or until tender, stirring frequently. Stir in garam masala; cook 30 seconds, stirring constantly. Add chickpeas, tomatoes, and spinach; cook 2 minutes or until spinach wilts, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat; stir in yogurt and salt. Sprinkle with cilantro. Serve over rice.
I Am What I Am” by Spiritualized.
Reese Witherspoon photo from Hooked on Houses.

Know Your Chicken.

This is a tale of two chickens.

Both chickens are sweet and savory, both chickens spent some time in a 400° oven, and both chickens were devoured with relish.  One chicken Keith really loved, and one chicken I just couldn’t stop eating.  Truly.  Nonstop eating.  By me.

Chicken w. Roasted Grapes + ShallotsKeith’s chicken — roasted with grapes and shallots and rosemary and thyme — reminded me of something my mother made once or twice when I was growing up.  That too was a chicken with grapes, and in my memory that chicken was mostly sweet and bathed in a honey-colored broth.  Its grapes were not as deeply baked as Keith’s chicken, whose grapes were roasted until unctuous and almost jammy.

This chicken was meant to be made with thyme and thyme alone, but I had a little pinch bowl of minced rosemary leftover from another dinner, so I figured, Why not, and threw it in the mix too.  I think Keith’s chicken was the better for it, especially since the evergreen-ness of the rosemary paired so well with both the shallots and the grapes.

Once last thing about those grapes: the burnt ones were best — crispy, crunchy, juicy and buttery-smooth.

Roast Chicken w. Potatoes + Butternut Squash

My chicken, the chicken of the nonstop eating, was earthier than Keith’s and a bit sweeter, probably because of all of the butternut squash that got roasted alongside it.  The red potatoes took on some of the sweetness as well, which was actually pretty awesome when you think about it — crispy-on-the-outside candy-coated carb wedges.

Something else that was actually pretty awesome about my chicken was that its recipe called for dried rubbed sage and minced garlic, and the fact that the recipe was leagues better when I subbed in a combination of fresh sage and thyme for the dried and a garlic paste for the minced.  In the oven, all the flavors beneath the chicken’s skin came together in a rich and satisfying way.  I normally find fresh sage to be a bit bitter and wood-ish; in my mind, it only pairs well with strong profiles that can really stand up to it.  When roasted with the thyme and garlic paste, the sage became almost like a sauce under the skin.

But this isn’t a chicken competition; it’s all about preferences, mine and Keith’s.  I suggest buying two birds and giving both recipes a whirl.  That way, no one loses and everyone wins.

Chicken with Roasted Grapes + Shallots, from Bon Appétit
Makes four portions

1 ¼ pounds assorted seedless grapes, cut into small clusters
6 large shallots, peeled, halved through root end
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme plus 6 large sprigs (I used a mixture of rosemary and thyme.)
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 4-to 4 ½-pound chicken, excess fat removed from cavity

  1. Preheat oven to 400°. Gently toss grape clusters, shallots, chopped thyme, and 1 tablespoon olive oil in large bowl to coat. Rub chicken with remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil; sprinkle inside and out with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Place thyme sprigs in cavity. Place chicken in large roasting pan; arrange grape mixture around chicken. Roast until instant-read thermometer inserted into thickest part of chicken thigh registers 165° and grapes are shriveled, about 1 hour 10 minutes.
  2. Transfer chicken to platter; let rest 10 minutes. Using slotted spoon, arrange grapes and shallots around chicken. Transfer pan juices to small pitcher; spoon fat from surface of juices and discard. Serve chicken with pan juices alongside.

Roast Chicken with Potatoes + Butternut Squash, from Cooking Light
Makes four portions

2 tablespoons minced garlic, divided (I made a garlic paste instead.)
1 teaspoon salt, divided
¾ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
½ teaspoon dried rubbed sage (I used a mixture of fresh sage and thyme.)
1 3 ½-pound roasting chicken
Cooking spray
12 ounces red potatoes, cut into wedges
1 ½ cups cubed peeled butternut squash
2 tablespoons butter, melted

  1. Preheat oven to 400°. Combine 1 ½ tablespoons garlic, ½ teaspoon salt, ½ teaspoon pepper, and sage in a small bowl. Remove and discard giblets and neck from chicken. Starting at neck cavity, loosen skin from breast and drumsticks by inserting fingers, gently pushing between skin and meat. Lift wing tips up and over back; tuck under chicken. Rub garlic mixture under loosened skin. Place chicken, breast side up, on rack of a broiler pan coated with cooking spray. Place rack in broiler pan.
  2. Combine potatoes, squash, butter, 1 ½ teaspoons garlic, ½ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Arrange vegetable mixture around chicken. Bake at 400° for 1 hour or until a thermometer inserted into meaty part of thigh registers 165°. Let stand 10 minutes. Discard skin.
Know Your Chicken” by Cibo Matto.